Anti-Semitism is not the fundamental problem with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. True, it portrays Jews as angry and lustful for the blood of the Jesus, while the Romans are angst-ridden and loath to harm the man they secretly know is Christ. But this is only emblematic of the much more troubling combination of Mr. Gibson’s retrograde ideological pose with his remarkable aesthetic sensibilities.
In our secular age we need no longer accept the holy books literally. The idea that scripture could be seen ironically, metaphorically or allegorically has inspired some of the most sublime examples of human beauty and devotion. Even before the triumph of secularism, Michelangelo’s final Pieta placed the artist at Jesus’ side upon his descent from the cross; an anachronism, but one that adds to the spiritual magnitude of the sculpture. In modern times, the ability to see beyond the dictates of the literal words of the Gospel allowed Marc Chagall to paint White Crucifixion , depicting Jewish suffering during the Shoah. It is a testament to the ecumenical power of this symbol that it could bring forth such meaning in such a circumstance.
Yet Mr. Gibson has reversed this trend, attempting to capture in hyper-realism the horrific violence of Jesus’ last day. The remark attributed to Pope John Paul II — “it is as it was” — describes exactly Mr. Gibson’s aim. What does such a literalist rendering of the Gospel accomplish? Depictions of extreme violence rendered with impressive verisimilitude are already part of the cinematic lexicon. Anyone unfortunate enough to be acquainted with raw footage of the genocide in Rwanda or the collapse of the World Trade Center knows that real violence is even more appalling to watch. But in the name of verisimilitude, Mr. Gibson replaces the theology of grace with the spectacle of pain. Mr. Gibson’s achieves only sadomasochism, manipulating minds already trained as voyeurs of violence. In a perversion of Montaigne’s humanistic admonition, Mr. Gibson puts cruelty first, but only as the object of sublimation.
Mr. Gibson is driven by the hubristic belief that he can disillusion Christians of the beautifying depictions of Jesus’ suffering. Only a movie “faithful” to the original source could make people appreciate the magnitude of Jesus’ sacrifice. This explains why the dialogue is entirely in Aramaic and Latin, the latter of which Mr. Gibson mistakenly believes was spoken at the time in Palestine, and also the obvious care taken to show every lash of the whip, drive of the stake and thorn in the crown. The horrible aesthetic elegance, however, only distracts the viewer from the film’s troubling assertion of absolute moral certainty. To make a hyper-realistic movie about the life of Jesus is to assert a monopoly over the way Jesus’ life is to be understood.
Yet Mr. Gibson proved too much a coward to commit to his achievement, removing the English sub-titles from the infamous scene drawn from the Book of Matthew (27:25) in which the Jews proclaim “His blood be upon us and upon our children.” While this line has been the subject of the most intense protest by those concerned with the film’s anti-Jewish message, debates about historical accuracy, whether the Jews ever really said that or should be blamed for deicide, miss the point. Clearly, Mr. Gibson shot this footage and included it in several of the early versions of the film because he believed it to be part of the true story of Jesus. His altering the sub-titles (which can be easily reinserted in a DVD or any foreign language release) shows how he is willing to impinge on the meaning of the crucifixion in the face of social and financial resistance. Mr. Gibson should not be allowed to prevaricate about the religious implications of an explicitly religious film by cynically removing the most overt manifestation of its theological argument.
It is fitting that The Passion has been released to coincide with not only Lent, but also (and probably unwittingly) with the Muslim holy period of Ashura. During Ashura, Shi’a Muslims mourn the martyrdom of the Imam Husayn — to whom they attribute many messianic qualities — at the hands of Yazid. Imam Husayn died in a hopeless battle, starved of water, and betrayed by his friends. He was captured, beheaded, and his head carried on a pike into Yazid’s camp. The Shi’a commemorate this martyrdom with passion plays about Imam Husayn’s last days and public displays of asceticism, men flailing their bloody backs with leather whips and swords. Yet this physical punishment is mostly metaphorical — religious authorities forbid participants to do any bodily damage. Mr. Gibson would accept no such limit to violence. To him there is no use to any such symbolic interpretations, only the true meaning and the heretical ones.
Ariel I. Ahram is a doctoral candidate in the departments of government and Arab studies at Georgetown University.