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."
On the other hand, Emmerich's visions often note that there were at least some non-Christian Jews sympathetic to Jesus. The crowd contained "both his friends and foes" and she says that, against the opposition to Jesus, "there were others who held very different opinions .... but the number of those sufficiently daring openly to avow their admiration for Jesus was but small."
In the filmed version of those meditations, Gibson has a single androgynous Satan-figure lurking regularly among the crowd as, presumably, their controlling force. And the demons that chase the doomed Judas to his suicide are incarnated as Jewish street-urchins. He accepts but does not escalate Emmerich's already violent descriptions of what was done to Jesus by "the cruel Jews," "the Jewish mob,", or "the ungrateful Jews."
Gibson has, however, no reference to those sympathetic non-Christian Jews, except for a single fleeting protester during the trial before Caiaphas, Mary the Mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, and Veronica on the way to the crucifixion. In the film, the crowd is uniformly hostile. Gibson manages, actually, to negate every single one of the 1988 U.S. Bishops' Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion in adapting his Emmerich script.
Meanwhile, the Roman authorities appear in an extremely positive light in Emmerich and even more so in Gibson's film. That is true of Pilate and especially of his wife Claudia. In the Emmerich account, it is a Jew who breaks into the scourging and cuts Jesus down from the pillar--but the film has the centurion Abenadar stop the flogging and thereby become another good Roman authority figure.
Yet it is also true that Gibson relentlessly escalates the brutality of the Roman auxiliary soldiers above what is present in "The Dolorous Passion." Both script and film portray the scourgers as sadistic brutes. A first twosome starts with rods and a second twosome finishes with an iron cat-o'-nine-tails tipped with sharp hooked claws. But Gibson goes beyond even Emmerich with his final stroke. As Jesus' body slumps to the ground, the last blow wraps a clawed tip around his head and destroys his right eye.
During the crucifixion, Emmerich describes long, sharp nails whose "points came through at the back of the cross." Once again, Gibson goes beyond that by flipping the cross over so that its weight slams down on top of Jesus' pinioned body. He then has the soldiers hammer Emmerich's nail-points at right angles until they are flat to the wood, the reverberations going through it to the hands and arms of Jesus.
"The Dolorous Passion" depicts a very clear theology of displaced punishment, expiatory satisfaction, or vicarious atonement--and Gibson's insistent brutality simply films Emmerich's ghastly vision.
So this is what I ask of Gibson and the film's fans: What is the character of the God imagined in that theology? Mel Gibson has said his film is about "love and forgiveness." But vicarious atonement is not the same as loving forgiveness. Reading "The Dolorous Passion" or watching Gibson, we should certainly be moved to love or at least pity their Jesus, but why would we worship--let alone love--their God?
I do not believe in a God who could forgive gratuitously but actually does so only after Jesus has been beaten to a bloody pulp in our place. If I accepted--as I emphatically do not--Gibson's vision of this savage God, I hope I would have the courage to follow Mrs. Job's advice: "Curse God, and die" (2:9).