Mel Gibson’s Jesus Christ Pose


Generations ago, film exhibitors used to dread the springtime “Lenten slump,” when many Catholics atoned for their sins by giving up the movies. If Hollywood’s most famous Catholic has his way, though, the pious will kick off Lent at their local movie house. On February 25, Ash Wednesday, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ will finally arrive in theaters, more than a year after the project first began fomenting controversy for its brutal, exhaustive depiction of Jesus Christ’s last 12 hours as a mortal man. Alternately praised as a “miracle” and condemned as anti-Semitic medievalism by the few who have seen it, the film might prove a must-see rumpus or a cross to bear for independent distributor Newmarket Films, which recently scored a decidedly more low-profile success with the art-house sleeper Whale Rider.

“The Holy Ghost,” Gibson has claimed, “was working through me on this film”—and perhaps not for the first time. His canon may heavily favor jokey action thrillers and grandiose war pics, but closer scrutiny reveals that Gibson (who does not appear in The Passion of the Christ) has long been in piecemeal rehearsals for his divisive passion play. As his clout and asking price have increased over the decades, so has the degree of Christian overtones and iconography in his films. (Passion marks only the third time Gibson has taken the director’s chair, but his oeuvre presents an excellent argument for the actor-as-auteur.)

Lethal Weapon (1987)

(photo: Staci Schwartz)

Gibson belongs to the fringe Traditionalist wing of Catholicism, a movement that rejects the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council. Among other reforms, Vatican II replaced Latin mass with local-language services and issued the grievously belated Nostra Aetate, which absolved Jews from collective guilt in Christ’s death. In Passion (on which Gibson and his production company Icon have spent some $25 million), the actors ahistorically converse in Latin (as well as Aramaic and Hebrew), and Gibson originally planned to eschew subtitles—perhaps to rekindle the wonder, or at least the bemusement, felt by the millions of Catholics who couldn’t understand much of mass pre-Vatican II. Whether Gibson acknowledges the Nostra Aetate in his Passion remains to be seen; early signs look very dismal indeed, according to findings by an interfaith group of scholars who examined a draft of the script. (Newmarket has not yet screened the film for critics and did not respond to requests for comment.)

Conservative if not Traditionalist, Gibson’s typical onscreen persona might suggest a stoic priest surrogate, a complex martyr, even a Christ figure. In last year’s Revelation rewrite, Signs, perhaps his most overtly devotional film pre-Passion, a former reverend played by Gibson discovers—after an alien invasion, naturally—that both his wife’s horrific death and his son’s near-fatal asthma are cogs in the divine wheel: God working in mysterious ways. Aside from near-constant bereavement (the actor also portrays a widower in the Mad Max and Lethal Weapon series, Braveheart, and The Patriot), movie after movie finds him variously tortured, scarred, smeared in his own blood—at the end of Ransom he looks like the post-prom Carrie—and, yes, resurrected. Is The Passion of the Christ an autobiopic?

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

(photo: Staci Schwartz)

In Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, a desert outpost of orphaned kids greet Gibson’s nomad as their messiah; one of their paintings illustrates a larger-than-life Max in a Jesus Christ pose, his outstretched arms lined with tiny child-figures. In Conspiracy Theory, Gibson’s jabbering paranoiac (who, incidentally, calls the Vatican “a festering scab”) is kidnapped, poked with truth-serum hypos, and finally shot dead by CIA agents; romantic interest Julia Roberts weeps at his grave, but minutes later there’s our Mel, alive and kicking and eager to reveal himself to his beloved. In Forever Young, Gibson rises after 50-plus years in a cryogenic chamber to the screaming horror of two boys: “It’s a dead guy!” In Payback, maternal hooker Maria Bello is more polite: “You look pretty good for a dead guy,” she tells career criminal Porter, previously left writhing and gargling blood on a garage floor after his junkie wife shot him in the back. The unkillable Porter is subsequently struck by a car, multiply pounded to a pulp, and made the barefoot subject of a “This Little Piggy” game played by a henchman with a hammer. (Regarding Porter’s mashed toes, an observer muses, “They’re starting to look like roast beef.”) Porter later engineers an apparently impossible escape from a car-trunk tomb, then limps into the arms of Bello’s Mary Magdalene. Happy Easter!

Such endurance tests apparently extend off-screen as well: “I just know I’m going to get crucified,” Gibson said before the release of his previous directing effort. Braveheart is the grisly creation-mythos of medieval Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace—embodied by, who else, Gibson—and possibly the urtext for The Passion of the Christ. (In his first go-round as actor-director, The Man Without a Face, Gibson played a loner disfigured by burns and suspected of a crime lately associated with the Catholic priesthood: pedophilia.) Charges of homophobia and rabid Brit-baiting indeed flew at Braveheart, which nonetheless won Oscars in 1996 for Best Picture and Director.

Braveheart‘s ample impalings, throat-slicings, spearings, and hatchetings, not to mention its close acquaintance with arrows snagged in human flesh, may provide a warm-up for Passion‘s already well-documented barbarities. There’s even a run-through for the crucifixion. When Wallace refuses to confess to treason—like Christ, remaining mostly silent before his judge—he endures his own stations of the cross: pelted with rotten produce by a screaming mob, hung until barely conscious, put on the rack, laid out on a cross to be disemboweled, and at last decapitated. Unlike Jesus, hardass Wallace doesn’t ask why God has forsaken him. Instead he sounds a Dubyan blanket battle cry: “FREEDOM!”

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.

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 Superstar debuted 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.”

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.

In its finished form, The Passion of the Christ may prove to be a spectacularly misjudged tantrum—against Jews, the Vatican, lapsed Catholics, or ancient Romans. It may instigate violence, stir religious awe, or inspire indifference. If it strings up Gibson for the crucifixion of well-founded ridicule, he will only have himself to blame—or thank, for that matter. Like Saint Catherine, Gibson’s métier is gluttony for abuse. As a Payback baddie prophesied, “He just wants to get himself beat up, that’s all.”

Related Articles:

J. Hoberman’s review of The Passion of the Christ

The Backlash Passion: a Messianic Meller for Our Time” by Richard Goldstein