Talk About the Passions

Looking beyond the culture-war controversies of two Jesus movies
by Joshua Land  posted April 9, 2009
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In Abel Ferrara’s little-seen Mary (2005), an ambitious filmmaker faces angry protests over his latest project, a movie about Jesus entitled This Is My Blood. Significantly, we never learn exactly who the protesters are or what they’re protesting; the movie’s anonymous crowds seem conceived to evoke both the conservative Christians who picketed Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and the Jewish and liberal groups who protested Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004). Those two films—the most artistically ambitious about Jesus in recent memory—attracted loads of negative press even prior to release, the former over charges of blasphemy and the latter for its alleged anti-Semitism and its extreme violence. And both were co-opted into the culture-war paradigm by a news media ever eager to reify the notion of American society as a continuous pitched battle between godless coastal elites and benighted religious reactionaries.

Considering the tremendous importance of Jesus to many millions, it’s understandable that supporters and opponents of both films were often more interested in what they wanted to see in these works than in what their makers actually accomplished. Still, it’s unfortunate that the controversy has made it impossible for many viewers to really see either film, because The Passion of the Christ and The Last Temptation of Christ, despite their flaws, are both deeply personal, conscientious, and—each in its own peculiar way—reverent films that deserve to exist as more than floating cultural signifiers and to be taken seriously by believers and nonbelievers alike.


***

The Passion of the Christ was largely processed by the mainstream media as another episode in the red state-blue state wars of the Bush years, a conservative analogue to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, which was released just a few months after Passion (and already feels like an artifact from the distant past). Most discussion of Passion in the MSM focused on the question of the film’s alleged anti-Semitism. The movie became something of a Rorschach test in this regard, with reactions falling mostly along predictable lines. Groups such as the Anti-Defamation League objected to the film’s portrayal of the complicity of both the Jewish authorities and the so-called “Jewish mob” in the death of Jesus. The merits of their arguments are unlikely to be resolved here, but it’s worth noting that Gibson does not embellish the Gospels in this regard. And the Romans fare no better in Passion. As in the Gospels, the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate is depicted as a politically motivated coward, and of course it is Roman soldiers—little more than animals in the movie—who inflict the worst of the horrific violence on Jesus’ person that forms the essence of the film.

Homing in rigorously on its chosen subject, The Passion of the Christ confines itself mostly to the last 12 hours of the life of Jesus, beginning moments before his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane and (nearly) ending with his crucifixion. With the notable exceptions of Jim Caviezel (The Thin Red Line) as Jesus and Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene, the cast is composed mostly of little-known actors, but far more problematic from a commercial standpoint was Gibson’s decision to shoot the film entirely in the languages of the first century—Latin, Hebrew, and Aramaic—only agreeing to English subtitles after some resistance. The overall look and tone of the film, as well as its content, are closer to those of a medieval Passion Play than to anything else in contemporary cinema. The chiaroscuro-heavy visual style is derived from Baroque painting, particularly the work of Caravaggio, whom Gibson and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel have cited as an influence.

Such medieval and Renaissance-era elements co-exist uneasily with the film’s action-movie syntax and iconography. The Gethsemane scene, chock-full of slow-motion, rapid cutting, and heavy-handed sound cues, feels like something out of Braveheart—or considering the obviously inhuman presence of the film’s pale, androgynous Satan figure (Rosalinda Celentano), maybe a Lord of the Rings film. This initial encounter between Jesus and Satan also occasions the first of Caviezel’s steely-eyed gazes, an action-hero affectation echoed to disastrous effect in the film’s final shot, an attempt to invoke the glory of the Resurrection that instead comes off as a setup for, as a few Internet message-board wits put it, Passion 2: Revenge of the Christ. But even so, given the context of Gibson’s career, such action-movie tics only confirm the strength of his directorial presence.

The most salient feature of The Passion of the Christ is surely its overwhelming violence, particularly in the scourging scene, which lasts 10 minutes but seems to go on forever. By the end of the scourging, Jesus’ entire body is a bloody mess, covered in black, blue, and red, and crisscrossed with deep gashes. And that’s before we get to the crucifixion itself. (A widely circulated 1986 Journal of the American Medical Association article that explores Jesus’ crucifixion in exhaustive physical detail appears to have been a source for Gibson’s depiction.) Gibson cited historical fidelity as a reason for his film’s extreme violence, and here he would seem to be on firm ground. Crucifixion was, after all, intended first and foremost as torture, and scourging was common practice for prisoners sentenced to the cross. Still, the violence is so overwhelming that it’s easy to see how some critics could have concluded that Gibson was merely using the alibi of “historical accuracy” to indulge in a pornographic orgy of graphic torture. But such a conclusion fails to do justice to the seriousness of the film’s theological ambitions.

In addition to invoking the old warhorse of historical accuracy, Gibson, in an interview with Christianity Today, defended his film as a faithful adaptation of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion. But as scholar Robert Webb has pointed out, a major secondary source of inspiration appears to have been The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, an early-19th-century text by the German nun Anne Catherine Emmerich that was later anonymously translated into English. Dolorous Passion recounts a series of visions that Emmerich had during the last year of her life narrating the events surrounding the suffering and death of Jesus. In an essay about Emmerich’s influence on the film (which can be found in a wide-ranging collection Webb co-edited with Kathleen Corley entitled Jesus and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ), Webb identifies several extra-Scriptural scenes in Passion that appear to be closely based on Emmerich’s text, including the notorious scourging sequence. A representative sampling of Emmerich’s depiction:

Jesus put his arms round the pillar, and when his hands were thus raised, the archers fastened them to the iron ring which was at the top of the pillar; they then dragged his arms to such a height that his feet, which were tightly bound to the base of the pillar, scarcely touched the ground….The two fresh executioners commenced scourging Jesus with the greatest possible fury; they made use of a different kind of rod—a species of thorny stick, covered with knots and splinters. The blows from these sticks tore his flesh to pieces; his blood spouted out so as to stain their arms, and he groaned, prayed, and shuddered….The body of our Lord was perfectly torn to shreds—it was but one wound.

This could nearly be a description of the scourging scene in the film; if anything, Emmerich’s rendering is even more brutal than Gibson’s. (It should also be noted that the Emmerich text contains undertones that could easily be read as anti-Semitic, reopening the question of whether Gibson may have allowed anti-Semitism to sneak into his film through the back door.)

One of the ironies of the reception of Passion among American audiences is that it was primarily Protestant evangelicals who came to the defense of this very Catholic film. The particularly Catholic nature of Passion is most obvious in the prominence of Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the film (another element possibly drawn from Emmerich), compared to her limited role in the Gospel accounts, but Catholic theology is also crucial to the film’s deep structure. Writing about the influence of classical art on the film, David Goa aptly describes Passion as “a series of tableaux vivants…of the Stations of the Cross,” a Catholic devotion dating back to the 12th century that prompts believers to meditate on the human suffering experienced by Jesus in the hours before his death, in keeping with the Christian belief that it was the suffering and eventual death and resurrection of Jesus that opened the possibility of redemption for humanity.

Viewed in this context, the extreme violence of The Passion of the Christ is not only entirely necessary, but central to the film’s meaning. As Gibson told Diane Sawyer on ABC’s Primetime, he wanted the violence to be “shocking,” so that viewers “would see the enormity—the enormity of that sacrifice—to see that someone could endure that and still come back with love and forgiveness, even through extreme pain and suffering and ridicule.” Once again, there are echoes of Emmerich: “During the time of the scourging of our Lord, I…heard the prayers he constantly addressed to his Father for the pardon of our sins—prayers which never ceased during the whole time of the infliction of this cruel punishment.” Outside of such a devotional context the film is meaningless, even nihilistic. It is little more than, as J. Hoberman succinctly put it in The Village Voice, “the spectacle of a man beaten and tortured to death.”

Indeed, such a context is so essential that one wonders if Gibson’s intended audience ever included nonbelievers at all. Even many sympathetic viewers have found Passion to be, quite literally, “too much Good Friday and not enough Easter Sunday” (as Scorsese has wryly recalled the reaction of his former parish priest to his own films). But if many find the film off-putting or indecipherable, this is a direct consequence of Gibson’s particular vision, one of suffering and death that gives short shrift to other elements of the Gospels, such as Jesus’ earthly ministry and teachings (even the famous Sermon on the Mount is reduced to a couple of sound bites). As Webb rightly notes, while the Gospels mention the scourging of Jesus, they do not dwell on it. Nor do they dwell on the details of the crucifixion.

But whatever one thinks of The Passion of the Christ, Gibson deserves more credit than he’s gotten for refusing to compromise his singular vision, to the point of risking some $30 million of his own money. That the film wound up grossing more than 10 times that amount at the domestic box office in no way negates the fact that its maker conceded nothing to commercial considerations. Indeed, it’s safe to say that for many millions of viewers, The Passion of the Christ is the only true art film they’ll ever see.

***

The first thing to be said about The Last Temptation of Christ is that it’s avowedly a work of fiction, based not on the Gospels, but on a 1951 novel by the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis. What with the presence of a Roman Catholic director, a screenwriter from a Dutch Calvinist background, and a source novel by a (later excommunicated) Greek Orthodox writer, it’s perhaps inevitable that the film’s theological underpinnings are heterodox to the point of incoherence. But Last Temptation is ultimately Scorsese’s film, and as such, it is the work of a believer, albeit an unorthodox one.

Scorsese’s desire to make a film about Jesus goes all the way back to seeing The Robe (1953) at age 11. By his student days, he’d conceived a project along the lines of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), an austere black-and-white adaptation of the titular Gospel that hews closely to the original source and was shot mostly on location in Italy with nonprofessional actors and minimal production values. After seeing the Pasolini film, still the gold standard for movies about Christ, Scorsese abandoned the idea but eventually reconceived the project after encountering the Kazantzakis novel in the 1970s.

The single most hollow claim of those who picketed Last Temptation was the notion that Universal was exploiting Christianity in pursuit of the almighty dollar; like The Passion of the Christ, Scorsese’s film was an obviously uncommercial proposition from the get-go, and it remains remarkable that the studio ever pursued it at all, let alone held firm in the face of protests—particularly after Paramount had already dropped the project before it even went into production. (The film’s troubled history, as well as the surrounding protests, are well documented in Thomas Lindlof’s engrossing Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, The Religious Right, and The Culture Wars, published last year—although as the subtitle suggests, the book is heavily invested in the culture-war paradigm.) The vast majority of the protesters presumably never saw the film, making them an easy target for derision. But the substance of their complaints cannot be so glibly dismissed.

Most of those who refused to see Last Temptation on religious grounds would in fact have found the film deeply offensive, given its major deviations from theological orthodoxy. Much of the controversy surrounded the climactic “last temptation” sequence, an extended hallucination in which Jesus comes down from the cross and marries Mary Magdalene and then, following her death, goes on to live in an apparently polygamous relationship with Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus. The entire sequence is unambiguously presented as a counterfactual scenario evoked by Satan to tempt Jesus away from completing his divine mission—and one unambiguously rejected by Jesus prior to his triumphant cry “It is accomplished”—and the images used to portray the sexual elements of the story are tasteful and discreet, but even the intimations of sensuality proved upsetting to many.

Far more disturbing to the discerning viewer is the film’s highly unorthodox vision of who Jesus is. Both the Kazantzakis novel and the Schrader screenplay begin by pondering the central mystery of Christianity, the Incarnation—the notion that Jesus was simultaneously fully human and fully divine. The subject has been a matter of intense theological controversy since the early days of Christianity but the Kazantzakis-Schrader version of Jesus is clearly skewed toward the human end of the spectrum. The Jesus of The Last Temptation of Christ is a Nietzschean superman who struggles to overcome fear, doubt, and self-loathing, and only gradually becomes aware of his divine nature and purpose on earth. When we first see him, he is making crosses for the Romans to use for the execution of Jewish prisoners. Prone to sudden seizures, he’s a masochist who wears a belt of nails to punish himself for his sins—much closer in spirit to Scorsese’s Jake La Motta than to anything resembling God in the flesh. Initially resistant to God’s call, Jesus progresses through several distinct emotional and spiritual phases on his way to self-actualization: love, the sword, and finally the realization that he must die on the cross. At one point, Judas complains, “Every day you have a different plan,” to which Jesus responds, “God only tells me as much as I need to know.”

Other unorthodox elements include the portrayal of Judas himself. Described in the Gospels as under satanic possession when he makes the fateful decision to betray Jesus, Judas here is a strong and sympathetic figure who betrays Jesus out of love, as his contribution to God’s sovereign plan. Finally, there’s an encounter between Jesus and the apostle Paul (a terrific Harry Dean Stanton) that echoes revisionist claims that Paul essentially invented key elements of the Christian religion—although this scene is part of the hallucinatory last temptation sequence, and as such, is open to contrasting interpretations.

Aware of the disturbing nature of his material, Scorsese plays it up by eschewing the distancing devices found in the Biblical epics of his youth: elevated speech patterns, British accents, ornate costumes, expensive sets, vast crowds of extras. All the actors in Last Temptation speak in the cadences and accents of the 20th century—early scenes in which Harvey Keitel’s Judas berates Willem Dafoe’s Jesus for collaborating with the Romans are reminiscent of Keitel telling the hapless young Robert De Niro to shape up in Mean Streets. Likewise, the setting is a mixture of contemporary Morocco, where Last Temptation was shot, and the ancient world.

Elements of a low-budget aesthetic are evident throughout. Working on a minuscule $7 million budget, Scorsese and his crew were forced to make a virtue out of necessity to some degree, but the approach was in large part an artistic decision dating back to Scorsese’s original conception of the project, part of a strategy designed to force viewers out of their comfort zone. Even the decision to retain the traditional image of a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus, rather than casting a more Semitic-looking actor, is an attempt at deconstruction.

Whether all this adds up to blasphemy is as much a matter of individual conscience as the charges of anti-Semitism levied against The Passion of the Christ. However principled their objections to the film may have been, it’s highly unfortunate than many religious leaders were either unwilling or unable to make a distinction between a work of humble spiritual seeking and one of empty provocation. On the Criterion DVD commentary, Scorsese hints at his spiritual ambitions in making the film:

Just because he’s dealing with these doubts and this self-loathing at times, it doesn’t mean that ultimately he’s not able to fulfill the role of the Redeemer. You see, it’s part of the process of being fully human and fully divine….People who prefer the image of Jesus as being strong, totally understanding exactly everything he’s doing at every moment—if it works for them, fine. There’s a lot of people it doesn’t work for. So why shouldn’t this be as acceptable an image?

Earlier in the commentary track, Schrader suggests that the very notion of Jesus as a metaphor for the human condition—a conceit at the heart of both the film and the Kazantzakis novel—could be construed as blasphemous by some. Perhaps the thought occurred to Scorsese too—in an intriguing move that recalls Milton’s subtle identification of his own artistic endeavors with the works of Satan in Paradise Lost, Scorsese uses his own distorted voice (blended with that of Peeping Tom screenwriter Leo Marks) for the film’s Satan figure, first seen as a tower of flame.

For much of Christian history, many doctrinal traditions have frowned upon any attempt at artistic representations of the person of Jesus. Even—or perhaps especially—in an era defined by a seemingly infinite proliferation of images, it’s a position worth taking seriously, and not only by the devout. There’s a reason that very few cinematic portrayals of Jesus have been widely hailed as aesthetic successes. Some subjects are so daunting as to defy direct representation; like the sun, they’re best examined obliquely. Scorsese has indicated that he doesn’t consider Last Temptation among his most successful films, musing that he’s dealt with religious material more successfully at an allegorical level elsewhere. It’s hard to disagree. As a fictional parable about sin and redemption, The Last Temptation of Christ is no Raging Bull. And as a meditation on Christ’s suffering and death, The Passion of the Christ doesn’t hold a candle to Au Hasard Balthazar

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Courtesy 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
The Passion of the Christ, directed by Mel Gibson
Photo Gallery: Talk About the Passions

KEYWORDS

Martin Scorsese  |  Mel Gibson  |  historical film  |  Hollywood  |  Religion  |  violence  |  Jesus Christ  |  Paul Schrader

THE AUTHOR

Joshua Land is a freelance writer and a founding co-editor of the online literary journal Essays & Fictions. He is currently studying applied economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

More articles by Joshua Land
Author's Website: Pop Tones