The Passion of The Christ: A Uniquely Unsettling Picture

Although not a true believer, I have tried in my life to be sensitive to others’ religious and spiritual beliefs. So you can trust me when I say Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ is a film for religious weirdos, fellers into gay bondage and misanthropes who just want to see the Son of God beaten to a pulp.

From my perspective The Passion has as much to do with divine redemption as porn has to do with true love, which is to say not much. Like pornography, Gibson has laid flesh bare in an attempt to shock and titillate –a cheap imitation of passion – but if you are looking for a sign of the sacred or the divine I’d turn back to the scripture if I were you. All you will find in this film is suffering meat, the body’s ultimate disintegration and degradation, the death of the flesh. It owes more to the perverse psychological mindset of Marquis DeSade than the bible.

The film tells the final 12 hours of Jesus Christ’s first life. It does not explore his teachings or the events leading up to his capture, but is primarily concerned with showing the beating he suffered in his last hours. The Pharisees accuse him of blasphemy in these final moments, he is sent first to the Roman governor Pilate then King Herod, and then returned to the Romans to be judged by a crowd of Jews, where he is condemned to death. 
What follows is perhaps the most sadistic string of scenes seen this side of Faces of Death IV. This is the movie you want if you’ve ever wondered what the New Testament would be like if it was performed as a WWF operatic event.

Who is Gibson’s Christ? A body accepting all the pain of the world, taking on the sins of others to transform them into ultimate redemption? A figure that shows the all-loving lord I’d heard about in Sunday school? A man sacrificing himself to a religious ideal? No. This is the suffering son of god, a body torn asunder in a constant reminder that humanity sucks the big one. A sanctimonious vehicle designed to elicit guilt… from the guy who played saints like post-apocalyptic outlaws and bloodthirsty Celts no less.

The Passion is as extreme a film as has ever appeared in mainstream cinema. It is a uniquely unsettling picture of one man’s particular religious views, and so is a very personal sort of movie. This is not Peter, Paul and Mary’s take on the bible, kids. Don’t expect the lord of light who sends angels to look over your children while singing “I believe I Can Fly.”  The Passion is the crucifixion on steroids, a bloody little nightmare that could only be torn from the mind of a complete whacko. 

Yes, Mel Gibson is nuts – in an unpleasant David Koresh sort of way – but I don’t think he is anti-Semitic. I think he hates each and every one of us, regardless of our race, color or creed. He’s an equal opportunity asshole, happy to bring toothless ugly Jews and toothless ugly Romans together to show us that in each one of us hides a despicable inner sinner who should be punished. His framing of the narrative certainly shows the Pharisees at their worst, but Gibson’s ugly world is populated by mostly ugly people doing mostly ugly things, so I’m inclined to believe he just hates all of us – including the audience itself, whom he assaults at every turn.

The crucifixion signifies our salvation as much as our guilt, but strangely The Passion is not concerned with deliverance. It is too theatrical and superficial to try to depict the reasons behind Christ’s sacrifice. The marks on his body point to nothing but our capacity for brutality and violence, the fundamental, wicked flaw in each of us. I kept waiting for the moment when Gibson would show me the true sign in Christ’s flesh, illustrate in some way the full meaning of his suffering. Without this evocation to the divine the film feels nothing more than brutal, sadistic and violent, stirring little else than mild revulsion.

The Passion is an art-house snuff film masquerading as religious fable. Directorially, it is the work of someone with more money than creativity and a tendency to exaggerate rather than allow a story to move its audience. Its repeated use of slow motion and gory special effects owe more to the Nightmare on Elm Street than The Ten Commandments and its repetition is awe-inspiring. Christ falls down, spewing blood, gets up, is punched in the face, spat on, whipped, and falls again, in slow motion so you can see the droplets of blood around his mouth, just like in Rocky.

Directors use special effects when they cannot evoke true emotion from their narratives, but there’s no excuse for falling back on cheap gimmicks when recounting arguably the most moving story in Western civilization.

But Gibson takes the most direct route to his subject, erasing any subtleties that may be embedded in the story while shocking us with shameless dirty tricks. Gibson uses Christ as a weapon against his audience, literally drenching it in the blood of the savior. It is his passion we see on the screen, not the passion of Christ, and all it really signifies is his uniquely weird feelings of guilt. It’s his cross, not ours, and god gave us the freedom to choose between good and evil, or in this case, between good and really, really, really bad, since The Passion is a historically bad film working in uncommonly bad faith.

I don’t know if I believe in the Christ fable, but I know I wouldn’t want to go to the place that Gibson sees when he meditates on the crucifix, and I pray that he will never get the chance to make another bible epic.


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