Mel Gibson's Jesus Christ Pose

The Passion of the Christ Marks the Latest Chapter in the Making of a Hollywood Martyr

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The Patriot (2000)
(photo: Anna Barny-Jester)
Audiences might be inclined to chalk up Gibson as just another celluloid violence-monger, but his fundamentalist Catholic faith thickens the plot. Amid the squibs and squishing bayonets of The Patriot, starring Gibson as an American Revolutionary, note too the Caspar David Friedrich-like cutaways to a cross half-submerged in a swamp. In Braveheart, the unrepentant Wallace suffers protracted torture because, according to the English judge, the renegade must be "purified by pain." Any practicing Catholic believes he, too, has been so salvaged, through Jesus' Good Friday ordeal—his kenosis, or emptying-out, in which the almighty Christ is debased and dehumanized by those he seeks to save.

Even approving viewers of Passion have recoiled at the savagery of the film, in which Jesus (played by James Caviezel, himself a devout Catholic) is endlessly beaten, scourged, and thrown about like a rag doll. In the most widely circulated publicity still, the Man of Sorrows is pictured stooped under a massive cross, drenched in blood and howling in agony. And that's before the nails come out.

As Nigel Spivey recounts in his superb 2001 study of art and pain, Enduring Creation, it was in 692 in Constantinople that a meeting of Eastern bishops agreed to a new emphasis on "the human figure of Christ," chiefly manifested in the cross as a universal Christian symbol. "Through this figure we realize the height of the humiliation of God the Word and are led to remember His life in the flesh, His suffering and His saving death and the redemption ensuing from it for the world," the bishops stated. Early medieval saints, as the art historian Gabriele Finaldi writes, "encouraged an 'affective' spirituality which concentrated on the Passion." Francis of Assisi and Catherine of Siena both prayed that they might feel the same woes as Christ did during the passion, and duly received the stigmata. "For the sake of Christ crucified, be a glutton for abuse," urged Catherine, who licks Christ's wounds in a Francesco Vanni painting.

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Conspiracy Theory (1997)
(photo: Anna Barny-Jester)
Artists, of course, largely opted for representation over imitation. In Matthias Grünewald's The Crucifixion (1510-15), the impaled Christ is emaciated and pocked with countless wounds, his neck slumped as if broken, his arms grotesquely stretched as if on the rack. Petrus Christus's The Man of Sorrows (1450) finds Jesus in more confrontational mode, facing the viewer and cupping a mouthlike wound below his right breast, presenting a visceral challenge to the ungrateful sinner. Finaldi writes that "in certain 15th-century representations of the 'Way to Calvary,' Christ is shown with spike blocks attached to a belt around his waist to make every stumbling fall unspeakably painful." Reportedly, a leather strap festooned with similar spikes enjoys an important supporting role in the Gibson gospel.

The Passion of the Christ undoubtedly falls into an art-historical tradition; any of its violence will have, prima facie, a context lacking in, say, Lethal Weapon 4. But history is not on the new film's side. The earliest passion plays, medieval pageants that brandished repulsive caricatures of homicidal Jews, fanned anti-Semitism and encouraged mob violence against so-called "Christ-killers." The most famous passion production, the seven-hour Oberammergau Passion Play in Bavaria (first home of the Nazi party), won Adolf Hitler's admiration after he attended its 300th anniversary in 1934; he later called the play a "precious tool" in the fight against Judaism and reserved special plaudits for its Pontius Pilate, who "stands out like a firm, clean rock in the middle of the whole muck and mire of Jewry." (The play is still performed every 10 years, having undergone substantial revisions in 1990 and 2000.)

More recent renditions of the passion have fallen into the same deformed mold. After the film version of Jesus Christ Superstardebuted in 1973—featuring a slo-mo whipping of Christ—Samuel L. Gaber, the Philadelphia regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of the B'nai B'rith, wrote, "[D]irector Norman Jewison helped perpetuate the lie that slandered the people in [Jewison's previous film] Fiddler on the Roof: the charge that the Jews, collectively, killed Christ. From an anti-Semitic stage production of Jesus Christ Superstar, an even more anti-Semitic film was created."

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Payback (1999)
(photo: Anna Barny-Jester)
Gibson has boasted that The Passion of the Christ is literally based on the Gospels, which emphasize ethnic blame over what Garry Wills calls "the orthodox teaching that Jesus was killed by human sin. . . . In that sense, every sinning Christian must accept responsibility for betraying Jesus." Rabbi Eugene Korn, director of interfaith affairs for the ADL and one of a tiny handful of prominent Jews who have been allowed to see the film, wrote in a letter to the online magazine Slate, "The film fails to depict even one Jew who is not a proto-Christian as opposing the execution, or having any compassion for a brutalized and mutilated victim. Quite the contrary, it graphically depicts a huge Jewish mob and all Jewish authorities forcing an unwilling Pilate to execute Jesus."

In recent years, a favored role for Gibson has been the solitary shepherd tending to his flock, firm but kind, whether as a single parent to seven children in The Patriot or the devoutly Catholic colonel in We Were Soldiers, who is thoughtful enough even in the confusion of nighttime siege to give his men encouraging pats on their helmets and a "Keep it up, son." In Signs, though, Gibson's sorrowing Graham is a strayed lamb of God; his minister's collar has been gathering dust for six months, and yet the whole town stubbornly persists in calling him "Father." When Graham refuses to say a prayer over what could be the family's last meal, son Morgan blurts out, "I hate you," and Graham spits the same words at God when Morgan later suffers a severe asthma attack. The implication is thumpingly clear: A man who's lost his faith in God is as a petulant child who hasn't gotten his way. Graham's fleeting weltschmerz amounts to a temper tantrum.

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