I have finally, belatedly, seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Probably everything that can be said about this film , and about the media event of its release, has been said already. Nonetheless, I will try to sort out some of my reactions.
First of all, it is undeniably a powerful film. One can understand why the faithful flocked to see it. The Passion of the Christ owes this power almost exclusively to its unstinting display of tormented, suffering flesh. This display has ample precedents in Christian iconography — the lighting and cinematography owe a lot to hundreds of years of European paintings, many of which Gibson quite consciously called upon as models. But the sight of Jesus’ tortured body in this film has an affective power that cannot be reduced to iconographic references alone; Also, the duration of the body’s torment is crucial to the film, and this is something that can only be captured on film, not in a durationless medium like paint.
More of this in a moment. But there’s an overarching question to be answered first: Is The Passion of the Christ anti-Semitic? Unquestionably it is — but this is not as simple an issue as it might appear. The Jews (given much more “Semitic” features than Jesus and his disciples have) are depicted as monsters of depravity, whose hatred is not slaked even by the torture of Jesus in the very intense whipping scene; they want more suffering, more torture, even to the point of death (Caiaphas demands crucifixion because, he says, Jewish law does not have capital punishment — which is why he needs the Romans to do it). To the contrary, Pontius Pilate is depicted quite sympathetically; as are the other upper-class Romans. (The plebs, or ROman common soldiers, to the contrary, are shown as being as depraved as the Jews, whooping and hollering like drunken frat boys every time they inflict more suffering on Jesus). BUT… in all this, Gibson isn’t really singling out the Jews; he is pretty much just following what the Bible actually says. (There’s one scene where a Roman soldier, grabbing a man from the crowd and drafting him to help Jesus carry the Cross, calls him a dirty Jew, or something like that: an indication that Gibson is aware of the issue). In short, it’s the Gospels that really need to be convicted of anti-Semitism, much more than Gibson himself: though this is an issue that neither Jews nor Christians today are ever willing to face up to squarely. (Though it should be remembered, too, that Gibson quite deliberately stirred up controversy as to whether the film was anti-Semitic, in the months leading up to release, as a marketing ploy to increase anticipation for the film, and to rally the faithful behind him).
The homophobia of Gibson’s portrayal of Herod and his court should also be mentioned. Even as Herod refuses to condemn Jesus (saying that he is insane rather than a criminal), Gibson portrays him as a screaming queen (in the metaphorical sense in which this word is applied to gay men) lording over a court of screaming hysterics of both genders. Homophobia is nothing new for Gibson (there was a lot of it in Braveheart), but it’s worth noting here, if only because (as reported in today’s New York Times) the prospect of a gay pride rally in Jerusalem is the one thing that can bring the Orthodox head rabbis, the Christian Patriarchs, and the Mufti of Jerusalem together in partnership — they all got together to oppose it.
Still, the issue of villainy, or of who is responsible for Jesus’ death, is not really a central concern of The Passion of the Christ. Rather, the display of torture, and the obscene spectacle of Jesus’ flayed and exhausted flesh, is where the libidinal center of the movie lies. Comparisons of The Passion of the Christ to pornography are very much to the point. The film is in many ways quite literally and concertedly sadistic. The figure of Jesus can really only be compared to the Marquis de Sade’s Justine: a body whose innocence is directly correlated to her miraculous, infinite ability to bear and suffer pain: Justine cannot be killed throughout the course of Sade’s immense novel, because that would mean a limit to the libertines’ ability to torture her. As the novel goes on, the torments become ever more extreme, ever more Baroque: but no matter how far they go, Justine survives, and indeed retains consciousness, in order that she may receive and suffer still more pain. This is precisely the logic at work in Gibson’s film. It’s a moot question to ask whether this means that Sade is really a Christian in spite of himself, or whether it means that Gibson’s particular version of Christianity is sadistic: these two are just sides of the same coin. What is important is that Gibson’s film gets its emotional power almost exclusively from its depiction of the human body, the flesh, reduced to meat, reduced to pain, reduced to a spectacle, and yet still fully conscious and able to suffer more. Jesus’ actual death is weirdly anticlimactic; and the last scene of the film, the Resurrection, is almost laughably perfunctory. (In this way it’s almost the polar opposite of Dreyer’s Ordet, arguably the greatest Christian film ever made, which is all about resurrection and redemption). Jesus died for our sins — or more precisely, suffered for them — is where Gibson’s theology begins and ends.
I want to insist that, in specifically cinematic terms, sadism and not masochism is at work here. (This despite the fact that — in terms of film theory — I have committed myself in print, at great length, to supporting the masochistic models of spectatorial identification put forth by Gaylyn Studlar and Carol Clover, against the sadistic model proposed by Laura Mulvey). Masochism implies a pleasure in submission, an ambivalent giving-oneself-over to a all-powerful yet unreliable figure (usually female), and the endurance of an infinitude of postponement and delay. These characteristics may well describe Jesus’ relation to the Father in The Passion of the Christ; but they do not describe the viewer’s relation to Jesus. For the viewer, the film proposes the direct, visceral enjoyment — the Lacanians would call it the “obscene jouissance” — of the spectacle of agonizing, lacerated flesh.
That is to say, the film solicits the viewer to (quite literally) enjoy this spectacle — which is not quite the same thing as identifying with Jesus-as-victim. We can’t identify with Jesus — though we are supposed to emulate or imitate him — precisely because his torment is too extreme, too excessive, to be borne. (Gibson makes it clear that the two thieves who are crucified alongside Jesus do not suffer anywhere near as much as he does: they haven’t been beaten and flayed first, their bodies aren’t anywhere near as bloody, and their agonies are much shorter). Nor, of course, can we identify with Jesus’ tormentors — Gibson uses every trick in the Hollywood playbook to signify that these tormentors are despicable and hateful — despite the fact that Jesus prays to forgive them, “for they know not what they do.” Nonetheless, the film is set up so that we are gratified by Jesus’ torment: the more horrifying, the more explicit it is, the more the believer is justified in his/her faith, and the more the viewers — regardless of whether those viewers are empirically believers — is filled with a kind of sublime convulsion. All we want is more, more, more: we find ourselves in the frenzy of a kind of negative ecstasy that is heightened even further, the more the horror is poured on, the more directly the obscenity is burned into our eyeballs, the more Jesus’ body convulses or collapses in exhaustion, the more the rivulets of blood stream from his flesh.
It little matters that we, the viewers, feel this jouissance in the form of horror and indignation, rather than with the grim self-satisfaction of Caiphas and the other rabbis, or with the brute delight of the Roman legions. It’s still something that we directly revel in, as it takes us outside ourselves, beyond ourselves. And I insist on this “we”, rather than saying “I”; I can think of no film, besides Triumph of the Will or Battleship Potemkin, that so powerfully and emphatically addresses its audience as a collective, rather than as a mere collection of isolated selves.
If this were all that The Passion of the Christ did, I would have to say it was a great work of art, however unsavory — and however unacceptable to most believers — its astonishing sadistic jubilation might be. But unfortunately, it is not the whole story. There’s a whole apparatus that surrounds the sadistic spectacle: and that is where the problem really lies. The torture of Jesus is intercut with lengthy reaction shots, depicting the empathetic sadness of the Virgin Mother, of Mary Magdelen, of the Apostles, and even of some mere onlookers who distinguish themselves from the ugly Jewish mob. The torture is interrupted with flashbacks to the Sermon on the Mount, to “let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” to the Last Supper, even to a scene of Jesus as a young child slipping and falling, and being comforted by his mother. The torture is supplemented with scenes (both in the present and in these flashbacks) in absolutely dreadful slo-mo. And the whole is accompanied by an overbearing soundtrack (as insistent and bombastic as the ones John Williams provides for Spielberg) of santimonious sacramental music. All these aspects of the film are incredibly lame — they manifest the continuing presence of “Hollywood” at its stupidest, laziest, and most cliched — and so overdone that you cannot ignore them.
The effect of this weighty apparatus is to muffle the impact of the sadistic spectacle, to frame it and distance it in a way that makes it “socially acceptable.” This apparatus disavows the jouissance at the film’s core, allowing it to wend its way into the hearts and minds of the spectators, while at the same time reassuring us that we aren’t really enjoying something so cruel and barbaric. Now, of course, Gibson never could have made the film — and Christians would never have flocked to see it — without this elaborate scaffolding of disavowal. But that is precisely what is so insidious about it. What I am calling the film’s superstructure, or surrounding Hollywood apparatus, is what allows us, the viewers, to walk away from the film with a good conscience. And this normalization by way of good conscience is the one substantial way in which Gibson’s art does differ from that of the Marquis de Sade. Gibson restores, as Sade does not, the veneer of civilzation; he gives us the sadistic jouissance, but then he lets us off the hook.
One might make a Christian argument that Gibson’s capital sin as a filmmaker is precisely to forget original sin, to forget that each one of us — every human being — is guilty of Jesus’ death. Since I’m not a Christian, I will not follow up such a line of argument. I will say, though, that Gibson’s maneuver is exactly the one that allows people to support violence and torture — at the limit to become killers and torturers themselves — in “good faith.” The combination of sadistic jouissance and self-exculpating distance is what allows us to approve of foul means because they are in a good cause, or for a valuable ideal. And this is where the film does make contact with the “culture wars” and political struggles taking place in America today. It is what allows people (like President Bush) to mourn Terri Schiavo as a martyr, and to champion the rights of 12-week fetuses, while at the same time gleefully applying capital punishment to scores of inmates, and defending the torture in Abu Ghraib on the (inconsistent) grounds that it was either harmless “blowing off steam,” or a grim necessity in order to win the “war on terror.”
What it finally comes down to, I think, is a kind of exceptionalism. The word is often used to describe the United States of America, allegedly radically different from any other society on Earth, and by virtue of that justified in exempting itself from the obligations and mutual agreements that bind all other nations and societies. But I am thinking of “exceptionalism” in a related, but slightly different, sense. The argument of The Passion of the Christ is finally that Jesus’ Passion is greater than, qualitatively different from, and incommensurate with, any other inflictions of torture and pain that have ever occurred in the course of human history. And this incommensurability is what authorizes Christians to see themselves as uniquely victimized and persecuted, no matter how much actual power they have, and therefore authorizes them to perform (and indeed to institutionalize) actions that they would not allow to anyone else.
Lest I be accused of anti-Christian bigotry here, let me note that the same phenomenon runs rampant among my own people. Jewish identity today is largely built around the memory of the Holocaust, and on the idea that the Holocaust is unique, greater than and absolutely incommensurate with any other incidents of massacre, slaughter, genocide, enslavement, etc., in all of human history. And this in turn provides an alibi for Jewish (anti-black) racism in the United States, as for Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians. We’ve suffered more than they have, the argument runs; with the implicit (but rarely stated outright) corollary that therefore we are justified in what we do to them. This kind of thinking, however much it arises out of high ethical principles — in the cases both of the Jews and the Christians — can only lead to extending the cycle of pain and oppression.