Our Man Watches "The Passion of the Cypher"

03.3.2004 | Richard O'Keeffe | Film

We would agree with its supporters that in Mel Gibson’s new film, technique and meaning reinforce one another to overwhelming effect. Unfortunately, that effect is one of overwhelming failure. “The Passion of the Christ” expresses through slick Hollywood devices a theologically and morally grotesque worldview that owes far more to Steven Spielberg’s vision of profits than to simple Christian piety. Gibson’s motivation is not to instill a sense of contemplation or care in the viewer, but to indulge his fetish for merciless self-mortification.

Guilt and even shame are genuinely useful emotions that, if used properly, spur introspection that leads to better actions and toward overall perfection of the self. But if this was Gibson’s motivation he has missed the mark. Instead “The Passion” invites solipsistic wallowing in the audience’s sinful state, a path that can only lead to entropic obsession with one’s lack of worth. The Resurrection, itself the teleological focus of Christianity, feels grafted on in absentminded haste, and the redemptive nature of Christ’s sacrifice is swallowed whole by the nonstop carnage of the preceding 120 minutes. While the viewer is left sinking into his or her personal vat of sin the consolation offered is that while the viewer is personally culpable for Jesus’ suffering, the Jews are even more responsible.  This is a vision not out of the Gospels, as Gibson claims, but from the ugliest parts of the Pauline Epistles.

More than one reviewer has drawn comparison between Gibson’s iconography and Nazi propaganda films of the 1940s but that is overblown — Gibson’s Passion Play falls far short of such explicit ugliness. A few high priests of the temple dismiss the charges against Jesus as baseless and later Simon of Cyrene, a Jew picked from the bloodthirsty mob, provides comfort to Christ on the path to Calvary; upon their arrival he flees in terror, knowing only that he is in the presence of powerful forces beyond his understanding. Providing cold comfort, these elements are quickly abandoned in favor of a caricatured portrayal of the Jews and of Judas.

Having betrayed his master for the High Priest Caiaphas’ thirty pieces of silver, Judas is immediately afflicted with remorse akin to a spiritual malarial fever and is accosted by literally demonic forces taking the shape of Jewish children who attack and chase him into the wilderness, tearing at his flesh with their teeth. Having isolated Judas in the desert, the satanic children abruptly disappear and are replaced instead by the sounds of fly swarms and a carcass of a rotting donkey slowly comes into focus. Nearly alive with maggots and decay, its lips have rotted away to reveal a perverse, leering smile expressing gleeful malevolence. Horrified at the sight and by the knowledge of what he has done Judas immediately hangs himself.  Considering how heavily iconography weighs on each frame of this film (Gibson’s company is, after all, Icon Productions) one has to consider even the smallest details. When Caiaphas and the other priests leave Golgotha on the backs of donkeys while the Romans ride horses, one has to wonder what the writhing donkey represents.  

But wonder may be too strong a term, considering the dim view the film takes of Jews in general. While Pontius Pilate waxes stoically on the burdens of power in a conversation with his wife, who has accepted Jesus (and in one particularly embarrassing moment, offers a shawl to the two Marys before running away crying), the hook nosed high priests express their perverse pleasure in Christ’s suffering and destruction with melodramatic fervor as the camera lingers on Caiaphas’ smug, scornful face.  

Those that say, “But it’s in the Bible,” the common refrain heard when such issues are raised, should look to the criticism of Steven D. Greydanus, who notes the passage from the gospel of John where “Caiaphas argues that it is better for one man to die for the people [so] that the nation be saved.” Such a telling omission turns the charges of revisionism leveled at Gibson’s critics back toward the filmmaker where they justly belong.

A no less disturbing instance of revisionism is the homophobic slur that abruptly appears as if out of the ether. Bible literalists have quite a bit of explaining to do in order to justify the depiction of Herod as a frivolous queer with a court of male concubines at his lascivious disposal. Frankly, I went to Catholic school for over twelve years and never once did they mention that little detail (though in Luke, Herod does gift the Christ with a “gorgeous robe” before sending him back to Pilate). Nor did they teach me that the crucified thief who mocks Jesus immediately has a crow peck at his eye in an apparent instance of divine retribution, Hollywood style.

Why the majority of film critics are dead silent on these additions is something of a mystery. Perhaps it is the religious politics they have discussed instead of the film. Or perhaps it stems from the uniformly excellent reviews of Braveheart, which contained similar stereotypes and cinematic clichés, so that for the critics to mention such flaws this time around they would have to admit that they had previously been asleep at the switch.  (This assuming they have enough knowledge of the Bible to even notice Gibson’s dozens of interpolations and outright falsifications, at best a dubious assumption.)

The most disturbing lack of development, of course, concerns the title character Himself. Personal devotion on the part of Gibson is little excuse for ignoring the basic grammar of film, even if the director assumes we all already know the story. Constant whipping and scourging does not elucidate who this man is at all. The crudely done flashbacks to the Sermon on the Mount and the Last Supper, amounting in all to less time then is spent on the suicide of Judas, aren’t much of a help either. Jesus is the Son of God, who died to absolve the sins of man and offer the true way to universal redemption.  There is no way to know from the film itself that he was anything more than a bearded lunatic assailed by hypocritical Jews.  Even more disturbing than the flying gore is that this film could have just been entitled “The Passion of the Cypher.”