As the furor and excitement over Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ has grown to a fevered pitch in the past few weeks, I’ve grown increasingly worried that the film will spark a religious revival in which masses of nominal Christians rediscover their faith. Given the opening numbers and the enthusiastic response in some quarters, I’m now even more concerned. (I haven’t seen the film yet… and I’m somewhat reluctant to see it in the theater. Then again, it might be an interesting experience.) In any case, I hope to see some hard-hitting Objectivist commentary on the subject soon.
Let’s take a few clear examples. The Gospels do not tell us that the jailers of the High Priests beat Jesus to a pulp before he was even delivered to the Romans, or that he was thrown in chains over a prison wall, almost garrotting him. That’s Gibson’s sadistic embellishment – so that Jesus already has one eye shut from bruises before he is even tried. The Gospels do not say that the flogging of Jesus was so extreme and out of control that a centurion had to stop it because it had gone beyond any of the usual bounds of Roman punishment. That again is Gibson’s invention. In the crucifixion scene, the Gospels do not say that in hoisting the cross, it fell down by accident so that Jesus was pinned headfirst between the cross and the earth, his crown of thorns thrust even deeper into his skull. Again, that’s Gibson’s interpolation. It’s as if Gibson’s saying that being crucified isn’t bad enough – you’ve got be crushed face down by timber first if you are going to save all mankind.
I repeat that there is something deeply disturbed about this film. Its extreme and un-Biblical fascination with human torture reflects, to my mind, not devotion to the message of the Cross but a kind of psycho-sexual obsession with extreme violence that Gibson has indulged in many of his other movies and is now trying to insinuate into Christianity itself. The film could have shown suffering and cruelty much differently. It could have led us into the profound psychological pain that Jesus and his mother and disciples must have endured by giving us some human context to empathize with them; it could have prompted the viewer to use his or her own imagination to fill in the gaps of terror, as all great art does; it could have done much more by showing us much less. But the extremity is Gibson’s obvious point. I can understand why traditionalist Catholics might be grateful that there is some Hollywood representation of their faith. But they shouldn’t let their gratitude blind them to the psychotic vision of this disturbed director – and the deeper, creepier, heterodox theology that he is trying to espouse.
From what I have seen, the most enthusiastic responses to the film seem to be coming from evangelical Christians. I wonder if Catholics are generally more circumspect.
A Mel Gibson movie about pain as man’s highest purpose is practically redundant; pain is at the core of the bloody Braveheart, the gruesome The Patriot, the tortured Mad Max and nearly every picture Gibson has made. His movies — Ransom, Conspiracy, Lethal Weapon show that torment is his stock in trade.
I can’t speak for all the movies cited, but the claim that pain is central to Braveheart and The Patriot strikes me as very odd. Like all good fiction, the plot of both movies involves internal and external conflicts. Both protray deep and profound loss. Both movies are bloody in parts, as they concern war. But pain “at the core”? I don’t see that at all. (Full disclosure: Although I enjoyed Braveheart, it struck me as rather too preachy. The Patriot is without a doubt one of my favorite movies.)