The Marketing of Faith

James Caviezel as Jesus Christ in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (courtesy photo)
You can count on a crucifixion to fill a movie theater

After a millennium-and-a-half of representing Christian martyrdom, painters and sculptors of the late baroque became ever more intricate and even perverse. El Greco's exquisite "Saint Sebastian," for example, eroticizes suffering, portraying its dying subject penetrated by arrows, basking in orgasmic bliss. In less than 100 years of feature films including King of Kings, The Robe, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Jesus of Nazareth, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus Christ Superstar, and The Gospel of John, Christian cinema has entered its baroque phase. With The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson has packaged a classic in the pornography of agony.

The Passion of the title refers of course to suffering, not the carnal desire that Martin Scorsese, following Nikos Kazantzakis, imagined as Jesus' last temptation. Two hours of excruciating, unremitting torture, for its main character as well as for the viewer, The Passion of the Christ is as edifying and inspiring as a cockfight, though the thrice-crowing cock in this event has, like the apostle Peter, enough good sense to stay out of harm's way. But, embracing his own gruesome fate, Jesus celebrates the voluntary sacrifice of his life: "I lay it down of my accord." The paradox of Christian theology, that the brutal abuse inflicted on Jesus was ultimately benign, a necessary part of God's providential design, deflates the drama from the story. Even the crude, sadistic Roman guards who relish the task of beating, flaying, and crucifying their victim cannot be counted scoundrels. Executing the loathsome commands of Pontius Pilate, they deserve our praise for implementing God's plan.

By restricting itself to the final 12 hours of Jesus' life, The Passion of the Christ revels in distress devoid of context. Watching Jim Caviezel methodically transform into a barely ambulant corpse oozing blood from every pore, one might reasonably ask: What is the point? Christian theology responds: the ministry and the resurrection. But Gibson's movie offers neither. A few fleeting flashbacks to the Sermon on the Mount are insufficient to establish faith, hope, and charity as counterweights to the ferocious malice on display for all but a couple of minutes. The film provides no basis for understanding the fury that drives the Temple priests and the crowds in the streets to demand the death of a supremely loving man. It is pain without purpose, the spectacle of savage violence ravaging the Prince of Peace. At the end, a momentary image of Jesus on his feet and washed of his wounds points to the resurrection, but it hardly redeems this bloody film.

Sequels and adaptations are common in Hollywood because audiences are said to prefer the familiar. Not even the Beatles are better known than Jesus, which is why you can usually count on a crucifixion to fill a movie theater. Anyone who has ever been to a motel has at least a passing acquaintance with the Bible and expectations about The Passion of the Christ. Aiming for the ultimate blurb, Gibson reportedly coaxed Pope John Paul II into viewing his film. Although Vatican sources later denied it, the Pontiff is said to have puffed: "It is as it was." Anyone can claim expertise in Scriptural piety, but since the Gospels were written long after the events, the claim cannot be verified by eyewitness testimony. However, the use of Aramaic, a refreshing change from Biblical oratory declaimed in King James English, demonstrates novel respect for historical accuracy. When elsewhere Latin is spoken, it more likely would have been the region's lingua franca, Greek. And was that pita I glimpsed during a brief flashback to the Last Supper? At that most famous of Passover seders, the bread that Jesus broke with his fellow Jews would have been unleavened, the brittle, flat cracker known as matzo.

The Passion of the Christ

Dir. Mel Gibson; writ. Benedict Fitzgerald, Gibson; feat. James Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Monica Bellucci, Hristo Jivkov, Hristo Shopov, Rosalinda Celentano (R)

During the past two centuries, the term "realistic" has come to be applied to situations of intense, continuous, and graphic violence - as if The Last Samurai is inherently more true than Singin' in the Rain. Ours is a cultural bias against gentleness, particularly odd when applied to accounts of the prophet who promised that the meek would inherit the earth. Yet by that definition, The Passion of the Christ might seem the most realistic story ever told. However, its violence is hyperbolic, magnified in closeup and embellished by slow motion. It is also impossible to believe that after the preliminary beating, with boots, spiked whips, and sticks, that Jesus receives he would still be conscious, perhaps even alive, to answer questions from Caiphas, Pontius Pilate, and Herod, much less to groan when the nails are finally hammered through his lacerated hands. Gibson is the God of his movie set, but he has not earned this viewer's credence.

Carefully leaked hints that the script might be anti-Semitic have been part of the project's brilliant marketing strategy. Anyone not already predisposed is unlikely to find cause here to hate all Jews. It is more reasonable to suppose that The Passion is anti-Christian. When he published a novel that mocked Muhammad, Islamic leaders imposed a fatwa of death on author Salman Rushdie. When Mel Gibson enacts an elaborate ritual of extreme cruelty against the most revered figure in world history, Christian flocks respond with gratitude. It is all a mystery of faith. •