Notes on the Atrocities
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Friday, February 27, 2004  

Movie Week

The Passion of the Christ is not a 2003 Jeffy nominee, nor will it be a 2004 candidate. But I watched it last night and it's movie week, so here's a review.

The Passion of the Christ
Directed by Mel Gibson
120 minutes

The Passion of the Christ is neither a work of art nor entertainment. It's theology--a liturgy Mel Gibson has offered viewers to participate in with eyes and tears. The usual requirements of the form--character, themes, narrative arc--are missing. In their place are cinematic techniques in service of a religious myth (in the largest sense) the viewer must already know. The movie is an exercise in symbol, and to comprehend it, the viewer must fill in the gaps with personal knowledge. The actors, for example, don't have personalities to create; they're stand-ins for viewer-provided meaning. Because the whole project is religious and not cinematic, the images are ritualistic, exaggerated for theologic emphasis. Christ doesn't just bleed, he rains. The Roman guards who beat Christ aren't just putting in a day at the office, they're sinister madmen, cackling like schoolyard bullies (David Denby called them "Felliniesque"). For anyone unfamiliar with the narrative, the film would be an incomprehensible jumble of ultraviolence.

But Mel wasn't aiming for art, so I'm not going to penalize him for not having made it. Instead, he's offered a soteriological sermon (a word this religious studies major doesn't get to use nearly enough). So what should we make of his interpretation of salvation?

As everyone now knows, the scenes of The Passion are the middle part of a larger narrative--the 12 hours before the crucifixion until just moments after Christ's death. (There are 30 seconds at the end where Christ is shown, stigmata and all, risen in his crypt. It is a perfunctory reminder of how the story ends.) The larger narrative from which The Passion is extracted includes the last supper and extends to the resurrection, where Christian theology generally puts the emphasis (after all, the getting-crucified-by-the-Romans part wasn't particularly noteworthy). In that version, the symbolic meanings of the acts are more important than the acts themselves. With each betrayal and lash Christ receives, we understand that everyone--no matter how heinous or innocuous the transgression--is redeemable. The crucifixion doesn't emphasize Christ's suffering, but the redemption his act affords all sinners.

That's not Mel's reading. By selecting the brutality, Gibson strips the story of symbol. Instead of emphasizing the redemption, it becomes a lesson of endurance. He underscores this point by including Satan in the film. At particularly brutal moments, a slight, hollow-eyed Satan appears in the crowd, trying to break Christ's will. There's more than just a little Mad Max in Gibson's Christ; during the flogging by the Roman guards, Christ heroically stands up after the caning to provoke a more severe scourging that literally leaves him flayed, ribs poking through his shredded skin. Gibson doesn't use realism to depict the brutality, he exaggerates it. The amount of blood Christ sheds is inhuman--gallons of the stuff pours off him. It's ritualistic and intentional, and late in the film, Gibson does tie it back to the blood-and-body speech from the last supper.

Some people have claimed that there isn't enough of Christ's teachings in the film. But for Gibson, the teachings--which are the heart of the redemption of his resurrection--are secondary. It's the suffering itself which is redemptive. Caiphas taunts Christ more than once about his claim that he will destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days. Sure enough, after his death, the temple is rent in half. Christ, the action hero, has endured the pain and metes out the penalty. But like the rest of the narrative, Gibson misses the point--it's not the destruction of the temple that Christ wished people to understand, it was the rebuilding. The resurrection.

posted by Jeff | 8:28 AM |
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