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Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Gibson's Offering

By now everyone in this world, and possibly in other worlds, has heard about Mel Gibson’s new film and has probably read some of the comment. I cannot remember so much prior talk about a film since Gone With the Wind in 1938. The casting of that picture became a subject of national concern; there was even, as I recall, a Broadway play on the subject. But that rumpus could not match the storm around The Passion of the Christ. After all, here we have the encounter of one of earth’s most popular film figures with the figure who, to multitudes, is the Son of God.

In Christian parlance, the Passion signifies the last hours of Jesus’s earthly existence, ending in the Crucifixion. In his version, Gibson has concentrated on the torment of Jesus by the Romans on the journey to Golgotha, along the Via Dolorosa. Clearly Gibson wanted to exalt the agony that was suffered for the sake of mankind, to make his viewers aware—or more aware—of the sacrifice that was made for their sins. Much of this film is therefore very bloody—more so, as others have said, than the majority of paintings of the subject. On the way to Golgotha, Roman soldiers flagellate Jesus constantly, first with sticks and then with a species of knout.

There is an oddity here. Gibson has repeatedly answered criticism of various points in his film by saying that he has followed the Gospels, but the Gospels include no such bloody emphasis, through Roman torture or the Stations of the Cross. Matthew says only that Pilate ordered Jesus to be scourged before he was taken to be crucified, that the soldiers crowned him with thorns, spat upon him, then "smote him on the head." That is all. Mark says almost the same thing. Luke does not even say that much. John makes no mention at all of the scourging. The torture that this film’s Jesus suffers on his way to Golgotha was supplied by Gibson and his co-writer, Benedict Fitzgerald.

That torture, including Jesus’s struggle to carry the cross, raises a question in the minds of us earthlings. Even if we accord to Jesus every quality that Christianity cherishes, it is still difficult to believe that he could have survived Gibson’s savage treatment long enough to reach Golgotha. Jesus’s physical life was vulnerable, as the Crucifixion proves. Gibson’s film makes us wonder how that life could have lasted long enough to make the Crucifixion possible.

Is The Passion anti-Semitic? Certainly it is, because the Gospels themselves are anti-Semitic—in the sense of fixing Jewish responsibility for the Crucifixion. Gibson perhaps gets some added relish out of his treatment of Caiaphas and his colleagues and the Jewish mob, but no unsanitized rendition of the story can omit their actions. Historians have added qualifications to the account, and the Second Vatican Council in 1965 stipulated that "what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. . . . The Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures."

Gibson might reply that he was filming the Gospels, not subsequent scholarship nor Vatican statements. But this leads to the question of timing. Permit a secular comparison. David Lean directed a film of Oliver Twist with Alec Guinness as Fagin, the villainous Jew who is salient in the story. It was made in 1948, only three years after Hitler’s overthrow, and the uproar about it was loud—rightly, I would say. The control of timing is not the equivalent of censorship. (Lean’s film was eventually released to the praise that, as film, it deserved.) Our age right now is a curious time in which to promulgate a view that can, in immediacy, countervail Vatican II.

One supervening impression, not factual but atmospheric, is for me inescapable. Before, during, and after seeing The Passion, I had and have the sense that, for Gibson, this film is an act of contrition. Here is a man who was brought up and continues to be a devout fundamentalist Catholic, and who has made many, many millions of dollars through films whose violence contradicts the visions of the Prince of Peace. There are Gibson exceptions, of course, including his surprisingly acceptable performance in Zeffirelli’s Hamlet. (But then Hamlet is a very Catholic play.) Still, the $25 million of his own that Gibson is said to have put into this film may be conscience money, and the savagery in the picture may—consciously or not—be Gibson’s way of saying that violence is not always valueless.

His directing of the film is workmanlike, the cinematography by Caleb Deschanel is foreseeably fine, the music is foreseeably banal. The dialogue is in Aramaic and Latin, with subtitles. Scholars have criticized the accuracy of using those languages, yet at the least it is a relief to be spared the sound of Bible characters expressing themselves in the diction of our everyday lives. (Note: The Passion is having the biggest success that any subtitled film has ever had in this country.) The one performance that really registers is Hristo Naumov Shopov’s of Pilate; he gives us the commanding but aloof man who, when Jesus says that he is the truth, can reply coolly, "What is truth?" The best editing touch is the cut away right after this line. Jim Caviezel plays Jesus with more effect as victim than as messiah. (Those who sit through the long closing credits will see that Jesus had a hairstylist.)

Bernard Shaw wrote a substantial exegesis of the four Gospels as a preface to Androcles and the Lion, his play about early Christians under Roman sway. In that preface Shaw says: The New Testament tells two stories for two different sorts of readers. One is the old story of the achievement of our salvation by the sacrifice and atonement of a divine personage who was barbarously slain and rose again on the third day. . . . And in this story the political, economic, and moral views of the Christ have no importance. For the other sort of reader, those views are of high importance. But Gibson is one of the first sort. His film, virtually stripped of Jesus’s incandescent views, is little more that a record of one of the thousands of barbarities committed by the Romans in Judea.

This article appeared in the March 22, 2004 issue of the magazine.