The Relentless Sadism of 'The Passion of the Christ'
The suffering of Christ is bad and gruesome enough without exaggerating it to this insane degree.
BY: Andrew Sullivan
But then it seems to me designed to evoke a sick kind of fascination. Of over two hours, about half the movie is simple wordless sadism on a level and with a relentlessness that I have never witnessed in a movie before. And you have to ask yourself: why? The suffering of Christ is bad and gruesome enough without exaggerating it to this insane degree. Theologically, the point is not that Jesus suffered more than any human being ever has on a physical level. It is that his suffering was profound and voluntary and the culmination of a life and a teaching that Gibson essentially omits. One more example. Toward the end, unsatisfied with showing a man flayed alive, nailed gruesomely to a cross, one eye shut from being smashed in, blood covering his entire body, Gibson has a large crow perch on the neighboring cross and peck another man's eyes out. Why? Because the porn needed yet another money shot.
GUTTING THE MESSAGE
Moreover, the suffering is rendered almost hollow by a dramatic void. Gibson has provided no context so that we can understand better who Jesus is - just a series of cartoon flashbacks. We cannot empathize with Mary fully or with Peter or John - because they too are mere props for the violence. The central message of Jesus - of love and compassion and forgiveness - is reduced to sound-bites. Occasionally, such as when the message of the sermon on the mount is juxtaposed with the crucifixion, the effect is almost profound - because there has been an actual connection between who Jesus was and what happened to him. But this is the exception to the rule. Watching the movie, you can see how a truly powerful rendition could have been made - by tripling the flashbacks and context, by providing a biography of Jesus, by showing us why he endured what he endured. Instead, all that context, all that meaning, has been removed for endless sickening gratuitous violence.
PILATE, THE SAINT
Is it anti-Semitic? The question has to be placed in the context of the Gospels and it is hard to reproduce the story without risking such inferences. But in my view, Gibson goes much further than what might be forgivable. The first scene in which Caiphas appears has him relaying to Judas how much money he has agreed to hand over in return for Jesus. The Jew - fussing over money again! There are a few actors in those scenes who look like classic hook-nosed Jews of Nazi imagery, hissing and plotting and fulminating against the Christ. For good measure, Gibson has the Jewish priestly elite beat Jesus up as well, before they hand him over to the Romans; and he has Jesus telling Pilate that he is not responsible - the Jewish elite is. Pilate and his wife are portrayed as saints forced by politics and the Jewish elders to kill a man they know is innocent. Again, this reflects part of the Gospels, but Gibson goes further. He presents Pilate's wife as actually finding Mary, providing towels to wipe up Jesus' blood, arguing for Jesus' release. Yes, the Roman torturers are obviously evil; yes, a few Jews dissent; and, of course, all the disciples are Jewish. I wouldn't say that this movie is motivated by anti-Semitism. It's motivated by psychotic sadism. But Gibson does nothing to mitigate the dangerous anti-Semitic elements of the story and goes some way toward exaggerating and highlighting them. To my mind, that is categorically unforgivable. Anti-Semitism is the original sin of Christianity. Far from expiating it, this movie clearly enjoys taunting those Catholics as well as Jews who are determined to confront that legacy. In that sense alone, it is a deeply immoral work of art.