Jesus Christ is no stranger to Hollywood. His repertoire includes epic drama (Ben Hur), art house (Jesus of Montreal), and even comedy (The Life of Brian). And then there are his cameo appearances in cartoons (South Park) and Broadway (Jesus Christ Superstar). But perhaps his most memorable on-screen moments have been under the direction of the giants of modern cinema—Pasolini, Zeffirelli and Scorsese.
That is, until now. The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s contribution to the on-going drama of religious cinema, is one of the most highly anticipated films of the year and has set new standards for period films in general. Beyond its artistic achievements, the first week’s box-office earnings—in excess of US$117 million—and the film’s unrivalled media coverage prove that, after all these years, Jesus’ audience appeal still rivals that of Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts.
So what distinguishes this film from its predecessors? The Passion was publicised as overcoming the directorial idiosyncrasies of other Jesus-films by offering an unprecedented level of "cinematic detail and realism", right down to the actors speaking in Aramaic and Latin. Reading between the lines, however, this means that Gibson deliberately avoided those flashes of artistic brio that made previous depictions of Jesus so objectionable to Christian audiences. The result has been astonishing: despite the film’s adults-only rating, Christians have flocked to theatres as if to church itself.
This is what I find most remarkable about the public’s response to The Passion. On the one hand, unlike the massive protests against Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988, church leaders from Sydney to Rome have embraced the film wholeheartedly as an authentic presentation of the essence of the Christian faith. On the other hand, Jewish communities, who remained all but silent amid the controversy surrounding other Jesus-films, have objected strongly to the film’s alleged anti-Semitic tone.
Nevertheless, both responses somehow miss a crucial point because both remain confined within the film’s own terms of reference. To put it simply, The Passion, as the name suggests, is the depiction of the singular, incomparable suffering of one individual. It is this depiction that has polarised audiences: Christians are deeply moved by the explicit realism of Jesus’ torture and execution, while Jewish audiences reject the presentation of those who perpetrated this violence.
But both leave unquestioned the suffering itself — from the film’s own depiction to its intended effect on viewers. This isn’t hard to do: The Passion’s entire strategy is to exude the appearance of historical realism so that viewers believe they are not just watching a movie but are engaging in an authentic experience. My point is that the graphic violence and empty novelty of subtitles are mere diversions from the historical and theological inaccuracy of the film’s representation of Jesus.
For instance, in order to present Jesus’ suffering as being unparalleled, The Passion had somehow to overcome the relative frequency of crucifixion as a mode of Roman punishment. (Recall the final, moving scene from Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, in which the road to Rome is lined with hundreds of crosses.) It does this by exaggerating the length and severity of Jesus’ flogging to the point where the violence becomes gratuitous, even unjustifiable. Interestingly, two of the Gospels mention that Pilate "had Jesus flogged" as a brief prelude to the execution itself, one Gospel says that Pilate considered having Jesus merely "reproved" rather than executed, and one Gospel omits any reference to flogging.
But this raises the further question of what sort of people were crucified? The Passion inexplicably depicts Barabbas as a psychotic criminal — no doubt, to contrast Jesus’ pathetic, vulnerable demeanour — and the two men crucified with Jesus as vulgar "thieves". The Gospels, on the other hand, say that Barabbas was a political prisoner who attempted to overthrow Roman rule. As such, he would hardly have been despised, much less feared, by the Jewish crowd. Similarly, the Gospels do not refer to the two men as "thieves" but "rebels". This points to the undeniable fact that crucifixion was a punishment reserved for political insurrectionists who dared to challenge Rome’s occupation of Judea.
It makes no historical sense, then, that in the film Jesus is condemned to death for blasphemy. In the first century, the terms "messiah", "Son of God" and "Son of Man" were not divine but political titles. The expected messiah would free Judea of Roman domination and inaugurate a golden age of prosperity. The controversy surrounding Jesus was that he represented the wrong kind of messiah because of his insistence that the Jews must break the destructive cycle of violence by "loving their enemies" — that is, the Romans. Jesus was thus betrayed to Roman authorities by those who thought his message would erode the spirit of national resistance. The irony is that Jesus was charged with the very crime he had spent his life opposing. But isn’t there a further irony in the fact that Barabbas himself is the first person for whom Jesus died?
From this perspective, the resurrection represents God’s vindication of Jesus and consequent criticism of the political machinery responsible for Jesus’ execution, not, as in The Passion, a disjointed postscript to the whole affair. The resurrection is thus the revolutionary core of the Christian message that condemns the injustice of state apparatuses and the violence they promulgate.
When compared with the disarming moderation of the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ execution and its overtly political character, The Passion becomes reduced to an absurd blood-fest, a theatre for gratuitous violence which is empty, lacking actual meaning. But perhaps this is the real intention of the film: to offer viewers a kind of cinematic penance, to strip the crucifixion of its revolutionary character so that it can be accommodated into a culture already obsessed with violence, but now to present violence as having a redemptive quality.
I am reminded of Philip K. Dick’s haunting short-story, The Little Black Box. In this story, the dominant religion of the future revolves around an empathy box — a TV -like mechanism that allows adherents to feel vicariously the suffering of Wilbur Mercer, the religion’s mysterious messiah-figure. These are the central character’s reflections on his first experience of an empathy box:
The sense of absolute pain … that was what appalled him, held him back. It was unbelievable that people could deliberately seek it out, rather than avoiding it … They want to suffer as a means of denying their private, personal existences. It’s a communion in which they all suffer and experience Mercer’s ordeal together.
In Dick’s vision of the future, technology itself mediates religion, so that by merely participating in culture one also becomes a recipient of grace. The Passion, it seems to me, is the first step toward realising this terrifying vision of virtual religion in which theatres and shopping centres become the new places of worship. But there is a cost: for Jesus Christ to retain his celebrity status within our culture, he must abandon the revolutionary cause for which he died.