"THE PASSION of The Christ" by Mel Gibson is an obscene movie. It will incite contempt for Jews. It is a blasphemous insult to the memory of Jesus Christ. It is an icon of religious violence. Like many others, I anticipated the Gibson film warily, especially because an uncritical rendition of problematic Gospel texts which unfairly blame "the Jews" for the death of Jesus threatened to resuscitate the old "Christ-killer" myth.
But seeing Gibson's film convinces me that it does far worse than that. His highly literal representation of the Passion narratives, his visual presentation of material that, in the tradition, is meant to be read and heard, together with his prejudiced selection of details and his invention of dialogue and incidents, cause one serious problem, very much at the expense of Jews.
But the impact of his perverse imagination on a sacred story, coming at a time when the world is newly riven with primal violence in the name of God, threatens an even more grievous problem. The subject of this film, despite its title, is not the Passion of the Christ, but the sick love of physical abuse, engaged in for power.
Jews as presented in this movie are overwhelmingly negative. Roman soldiers brutally execute Jesus, but Pontius Pilate is a good man, who stands in dramatic contrast to Caiaphas, the Jewish High Priest. Going well beyond anything in the Gospels, Gibson's film emphasizes Roman virtue and Jewish venality by inventions like these:
Pilate's wife Claudia is an actual heroine, who aligns herself with Mary. Mary, terrified for her son, appeals to benign Romans against the hostile Jewish crowd.
Claudia is the woman behind the Romans. Her dramatic counterpart, the woman behind the Jews, is none other than a female Satan.
Pilate kindly offers Jesus a cup of water. Pilate orders Jesus flogged, but only to satisfy the Jewish bloodthirst.
The Jews are expressly indicted by the Good Thief, who, after the crucified Jesus says, "Father, forgive them . . . ," tells Caiaphas that "He prays for you." Jews are indicted by Jesus, who consoles Pilate by telling him, "It is he who has delivered me to you who has the greater sin."
The centerpiece of the film is a long sequence constructed around the flogging of Jesus. It is the most brutal film episode I have ever seen, approaching the pornographic. Just when the viewer thinks the flaying of the skin of Jesus can get no crueler, it does. Blood, flesh, bone, teeth, eyes, eye sockets, ribs, limbs -- the man is skinned alive, taken apart. In these endless moments, with the torturers escalating instruments and vehemence both, the film puts Gibson's decadent "Braveheart" imagination on full display.
On screen and in the theater, there is nothing to do but look away. Long after the filmgoer has had enough, even the Romans stop. And here is the anti-Semitic use to which this grotesque scene is put: Then Jesus is returned to the crowd of "the Jews," and then, as if they are indifferent to what the filmgoer has just been physically revolted by, "the Jews" demand the crucifixion of Jesus.
Not even the most savage carnage a filmgoer has ever seen is enough for these monsters. The scene, with the Jewish crowd overriding tender-hearted Pilate, is the most lethal in the Scriptures, but in Gibson's twist, "The Jews" are made to seem more evil than ever.
There is no resurrection in this film. A stone is rolled back, a zombie-Jesus is seen in profile for a second or two, and that's it. But there is a reason for this. In Gibson's theology, the resurrection has been rendered unnecessary by the infinite capacity of Jesus to withstand pain. Not the Risen Jesus, but the Survivor Jesus. Gibson's violence fantasies, as ingenious as perverse, are, at bottom, a fantasy of infinite male toughness.
The inflicting of suffering is the action of the film, and the dramatic question is: How much pain can Jesus take? The religious miracle of this Passion is that he can take it all. Jesus Christ Superstoic. His wondrous capacity to suffer is what converts bystander soldiers, and it is what saves the world.
In an act of perverse editing, Gibson has Jesus say, "I make all things new" as his torment approaches climax, as if cruel mayhem brings renewal. When Jesus cries out near the end, "My God, why have you forsaken me?" the film conveys not his despair, but his numb gratification. There's the film's inadvertent reversal, the crucifixion as a triumph of sadomasochistic exploitation. That triumph seems to be what Gibson's Jesus salutes when he says finally, "It is accomplished."
It is a lie. It is sick. Jews have every reason to be offended by "The Passion of The Christ." Even more so, if possible, do Christians.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.