"Cheesy Hollywood epics" with "corny" acting, "bad hair or really bad music" -- that's how Mel Gibson describes many of Hollywood's old religious films. His own film, "The Passion of Christ," which is scheduled for release on Ash Wednesday, has sparked furious debate, both for its alleged anti-Semitism and for its raw and unflinchingly violent portrayal of Christ's passion. Although Gibson states that he welcomes criticism and advice on the film, he seems undaunted in his mission to bring the story of Christ's "last 12 hours" to the big screen. Best known for acting in blockbusters such as "Lethal Weapon," Gibson has high artistic ambitions for the film, the style of which he likens to a "moving Caravaggio."
The small group of viewers that has seen the film is divided over whether it is anti-Semitic. Gibson clearly does not countenance any notion of the Jewish people as "Christ-haters" or as engaging in "deicide." When asked, "Who killed Jesus?," he responds that we do, by our sins. One can only hope that Gibson's commitment to historical realism in this film will foster in Christians a greater appreciation for the Jewishness of Jesus' world and of Jesus himself, a point that has been absurdly overlooked or willfully and irrationally denied by Christian anti-Semites.
Since inordinate violence can foment irrational passions, the accusation of anti-Semitism is, in this case, connected to questions regarding the scale of the violence in the film. (Indeed, the Gospels are relatively restrained in their depiction of Christ's physical suffering.) The brief clip of the "Passion" available online is visually captivating and quite moving; it focuses on the infliction of suffering, not by the Jews, but by Roman soldiers. It is also saturated in blood. The clip shows Christ's battered flesh and swollen eyes; the camera pauses over the puddle of blood that trails Jesus' path and focuses on a nail piercing his flesh. The actor who portrays Christ, Jim Cavaziel, predicts that by the time "people get to the crucifixion scene," there will be many who "can't take it and have to walk out." Even before that point, Gibson's choice to have his characters speak Aramaic and Latin likely will keep many from even making it into the theater.
Gibson's instincts may prove quite astute, at least theologically and artistically, if not financially. Before the experience of familiarity and intimacy, there must be the experience of distance and otherness; hence, the use of classical languages and the realistic depiction of Christ's suffering. Gibson himself puts the point autobiographically. Noting that he returned to the practice of the faith after a long hiatus, roughly from the age of 15 to 35, he observes that he became acutely aware that the "fairy-tale" account of Christ's passion from his youth would not suffice. "I had to reconsider and say to myself, now hang on a minute, this isn't a fairy tale and this actually happened. This is real. And that started me thinking about what it must have been like, what Christ went through, and I started seeing it in film terms."
In distinguishing the Gospels' historical claims from fantasy, Gibson is running counter to a number of powerful tendencies in our culture, especially in Hollywood. Where it takes religion seriously and does not reduce it to pathology, Hollywood downplays religious themes that conflict sharply with popular assumptions. The 1999 film, "Dogma," for example, rapidly degenerates into a tiresome, preachy crusade against dogma. "Dogma, bad; toleration, good" is the film's bumper sticker refrain. The filmmakers never entertain the possibility that the reduction of all virtues to toleration might itself become a mind-paralyzing dogma.
Like many contemporary religious films, "Dogma" simply skirts the audacious truth-claim at the heart of the Gospel, what the 19th century Danish philosopher Kierkegaard called "the offense" -- Christ's "claim to be more than man." Gibson's mission is to put that claim at the center of his film. Whether the "Passion" succeeds artistically and theologically will hinge in large part on whether the violence in the film fosters emotional and intellectual insight or turns the drama into a mere spectacle of blood.
Hibbs, BA '82, MA '83 (University of Dallas); MMS '84, PhD '87 (University of Notre Dame), is dean of the Honors College, interim director of the Honors Program and Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture.