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18 June 2011

Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ

Jonathan Bowden

Few films have been pilloried quite as much as Mel Gibson’s Passion, yet when I last checked it was one of the ten most financially successful films of all time. Indeed, the sheer success of this piece with Christians around the world led to a deescalation of the semi-orchestrated attack on the film. Nothing succeeds like success, and I remember with amusement watching a bus with an advertisement for Mel Gibson’s Passion on the side of it snaking through the town where I lived at the height of the furore. But what of the film itself?

The Passion of the Christ is a highly artistic and metaphysical film from an ultra-Catholic perspective. As a director, Mel Gibson shows an impressive aesthetic sense and great artistic originality. This is reflected in every detail. Even the color palette of much of the film has an ocher tint or wash that resembles the painting of early Renaissance masters such as Giotto and Cimabue.

Several scenes are especially striking: the ravens attacking the thieves who are exposed with Christ on the Cross and Simon being made to carry the Cross on behalf of the Saviour. But most assuredly the depiction of the Devil or Satan as a shaven-headed and androgynous Supermodel has to go down as one of the most startling innovations in cinema history.

Interestingly enough, the reaction to her appearance inside Italy was quite different to outside, and for a comparison try to visualize Lady GaGa as Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust and you begin to get some sense of the frisson.

In High Christian art an artist is given free rein to depict the diabolical because it is outside the locus or expectation of human imperfection. The more perverse the depiction, the more aesthetically revelatory—so holds this particular theory.

One of the more interesting critiques of the film, particularly in Europe, was that it was blood-thirsty, sado-masochistic, and little more than a Biblical slasher movie. Yet none of the violence is gratuitous, and all of it fits in with the depiction of the Passion per se. During the first fifty minutes to one hour of running time, there is literally no violence, save some scuffling in the Garden.

This fits in with a very benevolent depiction of the Romans throughout the film. One is reminded that Mel Gibson’s faith is called Roman Catholicism after all. The Bulgarian actor playing Pilate  (who bears a striking resemblance to Mussolini) depicts him, in Nietzsche’s words, as the real hero of the New Testament. This could quite easily fit in with Gibson’s prognosis—after all, the whole point about the film is that Christ’s extraordinary moral arc or point of departure has to do with the fact that he is not a Man (sic).

On the issue of anti-Semitism, so-called, I have nothing to say. The film is not in the least anti-Semitic. It is a traditionalist High Catholic art film with all the suppositions which that implies. It is definitely not philo-Semitic, however. What the alleged scandal involving its release goes to show is that the implied penumbra of censorship and over-sensitivity needs to be confronted and stood up to.

Gibson did nothing offensive whatsoever—even, from a classicising point of view, the use of Latin throughout most of the feature just adds to the effect. Nothing more . . .

I recommend that people re-visit this film on DVD now that the firestorm has well and truly died down. I think that Mel Gibson’s film can be seen as a Christian altarpiece extension, à la Grünewald, to Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (Parts 1 & 2). That’s Olympia—not Triumph of the Will. There is a subtle difference . . .

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