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A Man Needs A Fish Like A Woman Needs a Bicycle
Monday, March 22, 2004
THE PASSION ABOUT THE PASSION Well I went and saw The Passion so that I could judge for myself what was going on. Apart from the fact that some people I know think that I have condoned anti-semitism by my act, that I am a medievalist, someone who doesn't understand or know the Bible very well, and probably a bead short of a rosary myself as well as being an unwitting lackey of a corporate machine laughing all the way to the bank, I found it an interesting mix as a film.

On the one hand, I can understand why some people think that it is anti-semitic. After all, the Jewish authorities are most unpleasant for the most part. They come for Christ alone (though John 18.3 suggests that they were accompanied by Roman soldiers--We must always keep in mind that the Gospels do not present a story that agrees in all details), beat him, watch with some pleasure and disgust as he is scourged, urge his cruxifixion before a morally ambiguous Pilate, and generally spit, reign blows, and heap scorn upon Jesus' person on the slow journey to Golgotha. Yet, I disagree with this reading. I agree with one acquaintance who put it succintly: "It is not an anti-semitic film; rather, it is a film about the abuse of power. Its a film about the psychology of crowds (who happen in this instance to be Jewish)."

What of the evidence mounted to declare the film anti-semitic? Much has been made of the scene of Satan travelling amongst the Jews. Charles Crackhammer puts it thus:

"In Gibson's movie, Satan appears four times. Not one of these appearances occurs in the four Gospels. They are pure invention. Twice, this sinister, hooded, androgynous embodiment of evil is found . . . where? Moving among the crowd of Jews. Gibson's camera follows close up, documentary style, as Satan glides among them, his face popping up among theirs -- merging with, indeed, defining the murderous Jewish crowd. After all, a perfect match: Satan's own people. "

That is quite some indictment. Except that Charles does not mention that Satan glides through a crowd of Jews AND Roman auxillaries. So, is Gibson's film anti-Roman? After all, they do the flogging, show almost unremitting inhumanity to the Christ, acting in an extraordinarily brutish manner, and finally execute the cruxifixion. Rather than hammer the auxillaries, probably Syrian, Samaritan, or Caesareans (rather than actual Romans), I think you can argue that what we see here is the way in which the devil corrupts those who actually have power. Christ's tormentors are in the grip of sad passions of hate, fear, and envy. The power they wield and fear losing pushes them to attack the Christ. Gibson makes that point abundantly clear.

Is Pilate a "good man"? I think Gibson does a nice job of painting him as morally ambiguous, and riven by the passion of fear. Clearly, he is no friend of Christ, and the cold-blooded way he weighs the realpolitik of Christ's execution is a marvellous piece of political theatre that would have made Machiavelli proud. Pilate's wife is strictly a side-show of mis-direction.

Ultimately, the only ones who appears to have freely chosen an outcome (by which I mean that he did not act out of the embrace of a passion of fear, anger, or envy), is the Christ and others of a lowly station. Some people act courageously in the face of abusive power to offer solace or aid to the Christ. That is not an accident. Gibson is very aware of this.

This brings me to the crucial question: the violence. I find it marvellously ironic that in a country that celebrates violence and its creative expression in war and in the media as much as this one does that there are folks who find the whole Passion-thing to be "over-the-top." Yes it is. But i did not find the flogging to be gratuitous. I felt it to be the violent apex of this film--more so then the cruxifixion, which comes almost as an afterthought and a relief. I was moved by the suffering inflicted on the Christ. It ripped away the distance that I had been feeling up to that point. The visceral reality of Gibson's interpretation leaves you no room to dodge the issue. This man/god believes that he is suffering, voluntarily, for us. The scourging also serves as the opening to the Madonna, coming at last to comfort her son as he carries his cross to Calvary. Critics say that "they were moved." What they mean is: "I cried when I felt the emotional impact of that scene, as mother chooses to comfort the scarified vision of her son, juxtaposed with images of Jesus as a small boy, falling and hurting himself." A powerful scene--it is the emotional heart of the film. And, it is only possible because I have watched the horror of the scourging--with Mary--and now face the reality of what it has wrought.

What did not work for me? I felt a numbing to the horror after a time. This is a classic response to the Sadean excess that I saw unfold on the screen. After a while, after numbing, one becomes bored by what one sees; the repetition never ceasing, till one is sick of this repetition, and begs for it to stop. I could have all kinds of Freudian interpretations of this. But the only one relevant to this review is this: By overdoing the violence, I was left benumbed and distanced from the final third of the film, which had no where to go but into "nothingness." What I do not know is whether this was a delberate choice on the part of Gibson, or an unfortunate side-effect of the affective peak of the scourging and Mary's comforting of Jesus.

That is it for now...




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