Hymn to a Savage God

Mel Gibson uses a 'hidden script' based on visions of a German nun in making his film.

Before you see Mel Gibson's film, "The Passion of the Christ," read the script. I don't mean the film's actual script, or even the New Testament, upon which the film is based. Rather, I mean the hidden script:

The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ from the Meditations of Anne Catherine Emmerich


Sister Anne Emmerich was an Augustinian nun and mystic who lived from 1774 to 1824 in Germany. Her life was one of poverty, hardship, and suffering, with its final decade spent bed-ridden in constant pain. During the last Lent of her life, she experienced visionary meditations on Jesus' passion, recorded by the poet Klemens Brentano and published in 1833.

Inspired by this work of mystical visions, Gibson has created a film that is two hours of unrelenting brutality. The fleeting flashbacks to the earlier life of Jesus and Mary serve more to intensify than alleviate the savagery. They do not explain how Jesus' life led inevitably to this death or why anyone wanted him dead let alone publicly crucified. He is victim, not martyr.

Why did Mel Gibson do it that way? The answer is in his "Dolorous Passion" script. The text describes "the satisfaction which [Jesus] would have to offer to Divine Justice, and how it would consist of a degree of suffering in his soul and body which would comprehend all the sufferings due to the concupiscence of all mankind, since the debt of the whole human race had to be paid by that humanity which alone was sinless-the humanity of the Son of God."


Thus, my main question about this film is: when does the sustained depiction of a sadistic action become itself an obscene viewing? Even or especially if it actually happened that way? The question is not whether scourging and crucifixion were savage (of course!) or whether Jesus suffered terribly (of course!) but whether this film's unrelenting sadism is pornographic?

The other controversial aspect of Mel Gibson's film is whether or not it is anti-Semitic. Again, I turn to "The Dolorous Passion"--which is not officially endorsed by the Catholic Church. Emmerich's visions often describe Jewish mobs as "cruel," "wicked," or "hard-hearted," as in this chapter: "the sight of [Jesus'] sufferings, far from exciting a feeling of compassion in the hard-hearted Jews, simply filled them with disgust, and increased their rage. Pity was, indeed, a feeling unknown in their cruel breasts."

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