Lord Have Mercy, Mr. Gibson:Director’s Brutal Vision of Christ

Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ , from a screenplay by Mr. Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald, based on the biblical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, provides the most brutal depiction of the Christ’s crucifixion ever seen onscreen. But thanks to all the advance controversy, I was not at all shocked by the bloody spectacle. In fact, Mr. Gibson is hardly a stranger to sadomasochistic violence, having garnered two Oscars for Braveheart (1995), his 13th-century saga about the Scots battling for freedom against the hated English, which won for Best Director and Best Film. Mr. Gibson got away with a touch of homophobia in that one: The English king blithely tosses an effeminate prince out a tower window for laughs. In addition, Mr. Gibson shows his own character graphically tortured and killed on the medieval rack. So, at the very least, Mr. Gibson is a consistent auteur-at least where bone-crushing violence is concerned.

I must confess that I wasn’t exactly looking forward to seeing The Passion . Indeed, I’ve never seen a good biblical film in all my moviegoing life, and that includes Pier Paolo Pasolini’s much-overpraised 1964 film, The Gospel According to St. Matthew . Mr. Gibson’s film turns out to share the weaknesses of its predecessors, insofar as it lacks any suspense or dramatic development: The End is preordained from the Beginning, the characters all ritualized replicas of some ancient pageant in which people talked funny-either with excessive formality, or in Aramaic and Latin, in Mr. Gibson’s allegedly more “realistic” treatment.

(How kind of the director to include, after much alleged agonizing, English subtitles.)

“All the characters in the film are heard speaking the languages they would actually have spoken at the time,” the copious production notes tell us. “This means Aramaic for the Jewish characters, including Christ and his disciples, and ‘street Latin’ for the Romans. Greek, which was commonly spoken among the intellectuals of the period, was not quite as relevant to the story.”

As a Greek-American who spoke Greek before English, I feel slighted. But more to the point, how do I, as a Greek Orthodox Christian, feel about Mr. Gibson’s work? So much has been said and written about the film’s contribution to the anti-Semitism that is again sweeping the world, often disguised as anti-Zionism, that I must state my position on the subject. It so happened that after attending the screening of The Passion last Friday, I went to an Orthodox Jewish Sabbath dinner at the home of some dear friends. When I told the assembled guests what I had just seen, they bombarded me with questions, hoping I’d tell them that it was a bad, hateful movie. But since I hadn’t even fully digested what I’d seen, I could only provide bits and pieces of observation. As a Christian, I could never feel as threatened as Jews always will be by any shift in the Zeitgeist . But as a Christian also, I cannot escape feelings of guilt and complicity in the Holocaust-which, of course, Mr. Gibson’s father has steadfastly denied ever happened. I would not expect Mr. Gibson to repudiate his own father, but I do find it hard to understand how anyone of my generation who saw the death camps revealed in postwar newsreels would not be profoundly moved and shaken.

Still, there are people who don’t believe that astronauts ever walked on the moon, but rather on a lunar mock-up in the Arizona desert. And I won’t even go into the question of the creationists (though I don’t think that Mr. Gibson plans to do the life of Darwin anytime soon). Yet there are people-and not necessarily anti-Semites-who argue that the Holocaust footage is unique as far as filmed documents of 20th-century atrocities go, simply in its mere existence. Where, they ask, are the films of the Armenian massacre; of the Soviet gulags, and the millions of Ukrainians starved by Stalin’s enforced starvation policy; of the Cambodians slaughtered by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge; of the Rwandan genocide? Where, indeed? But I know what I saw, and it has profoundly affected me well into the new millennium.

Yes, Mr. Gibson has the right to express his own passion as an artist on the subject of Christ’s Passion, and I do believe he is sincere in his beliefs. Where I suspect he is being devious and hypocritical is in his protestations of fair-mindedness toward the Jews in this movie.

Curiously, Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper seem to have adopted many of Mr. Gibson’s arguments in their televised raves for the movie, and their summary dismissal of all the protests against it. In their selection of clips from the movie, the two failed to include any shots of Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov) and his desperate efforts to save Jesus from the wrath of the assembled Jews. Pilate is shown in the movie asking Jesus (James Caviezel) the famous question, “What is truth?” But what isn’t shown is Pilate “walking away without waiting for an answer”-thus demonstrating, the Gospels imply, his cynical, contemptuous attitude. Instead, Mr. Gibson cuts to Pilate asking the same question of his wife, Claudia Procles (Claudia Gerini), a soulful expression etched on his face. He will know the Truth when he finds it, she answers, sounding as if she’s already enrolled in Mr. Gibson’s Sunday-school class.

None of this “character development” is in any of the Gospels, and one wonders whether Mr. Gibson feels at liberty to embroider the Scriptures when it suits his purpose. There’s no sense from Mr. Gibson’s whitewashed portrayal that the Roman governor of Palestine was a brutal tyrant who reportedly crucified 10,000 Jews besides Jesus. Mr. Gibson’s Pilate is, by contrast, a Jimmy Carter–type worrier, visibly agitated by all the chaotic malaise around him. It’s all the fault of those quarrelsome Jews, led by the duplicitous high priest, Caiaphas (Mattia Sbragia).

Throughout the film, I was aware of a certain lack of fluidity in the narrative, which includes sequences of Braveheart -like bravado, like the scene in which Christ’s disciples act like bearded brawlers while Jesus is glimpsed now and again wearing a somewhat detached expression of disapproval. Caleb Deshanel’s arty cinematography bathes the characters in a painterly cosmos reminiscent of the evocation of Vermeer in Girl with a Pearl Earring . The artist who provided the inspiration to Messrs. Gibson and Deschanel was the Italian Baroque artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1573-1610). Mr. Gibson says of him: “I think his work is beautiful. It’s violent, it’s dark, it’s spiritual and it also has an odd whimsy or strangeness to it.”

The director himself is not without his own touches of whimsy or strangeness, particularly in his fanciful depictions of Satan. “Get thee behind Me,” Jesus says to the first manifestation of evil. In Mr. Gibson’s eyes, Satan is an androgynous creature with no eyelashes, who wears a robe from which a snake slithers out to further bedevil Jesus in his moments of doubt and torment. The second manifestation of Satan comes as a mother, seemingly holding a baby in her arms, who suddenly turns to reveal the “baby” as a grinning imp from hell, exulting in Christ’s suffering.

Getting back to the snake, I noted that when Mr. Caviezel’s Jesus manfully stomped the snake of Satan, we were back to the Americanized Jesus, all manliness and strength, as opposed to the feminized Jesus of love and forgiveness.

Actually, there’s an obvious disconnect in the film between the words of Jesus (spoken in Aramaic, and offered in English subtitles drawn from the King James Bible), and the brutal and violent images on the screen. Whereas the words say love, love, love , the sounds and images say hate, hate, hate . The hammy Roman soldiers smirk and grimace so broadly as they inflict pain on Jesus that they would’ve been tossed off the sets of Mr. Gibson’s Lethal Weapon vehicles for this ridiculous overacting. Hey, Mel, we get the point.

There was only one brief moment when I came close to being moved in spite of myself, and that was during a mini-flashback when Mary (Maia Morgenstern) comes to comfort little Jesus when he is hurt. I couldn’t help thinking of my own Madonna-like mother, who always told me something that sounded like ” Ee panayitsa vlepee ,” which translated into English means “The Madonna watches.” Consequently, I felt closer to the Madonna than to Jesus from the beginning. By the end, the Jesus to whom I responded was the feminized Jesus of love, forgiveness and redemption, not the Jesus at the head of an army of Christian soldiers, nor to Mr. Gibson’s muscular American Jesus, who can stamp out Satan’s snakes, endure torture, and produce cosmic thunderstorms and earthquakes to confound His enemies. Mr. Gibson’s Jesus can even induce a compliant crow to peck out the eyes of the thief on the cross who chose to mock Him instead of accepting Him as his Savior.

I realize that I myself am contributing, however skeptically, to the Mel Gibson movie-P.R. machine, with its initial $25 million investment and additional $25 million for publicity. The merchandising for the movie proceeds apace, including such dubious memorabilia as replicas of the spikes that are nailed through Jesus’ hands into the cross.

Indeed, the movie’s detailed description of Jesus’ last days is as much a howler as anything by the late Cecil B. DeMille. In one scene, we’re back in Nazareth, where the thirtysomething Jesus is still living with his mother (what fun tabloid journalists would have had with that juicy little tidbit). Jesus the carpenter is busily banging away at a table when Mary calls him to dinner. She stops to ask him why he is making a table so tall that people will have to stand to eat from it. No problem, says Jesus to Mary (more or less): I’ll just make tall chairs to go with it. They’ll never sell, says Mary doubtfully. Are we in first-century Nazareth, or a shop on Delancey Street? And who can tell anyway when the actors are mouthing gibberish, as far as the average viewer is concerned?

To my untutored ears, Aramaic sounded more like Italian than Hebrew, of which it was an outgrowth, but this may be because several of the actors are Italian. Another oddity I noticed: When Caiaphas declares his fidelity to Caesar in Rome and not to the self-proclaimed King of Kings in Jerusalem, the Aramaic word for Caesar is “Kaiser”-a distinctly Germanic term for this generation.

One final note: Previous film versions of the crucifixion have stood back from Jesus to gaze with awe at his presumed divinity. Mr. Gibson seems to be trying to get inside Jesus, even photographing one sequence from his upside-down position as he’s being prepared for the cross. Mr. Gibson clearly identifies with Jesus as no previous filmmaker has. At the very least, this is mere narcissism, a venial sin among movie stars. At worst, such presumptuous subjectivity may strike more perceptive believers as sheer sacrilege.

Lord Have Mercy, Mr. Gibson:Director’s Brutal Vision of Christ