2014: I used to ask my grad students in my seminars that, if they could time travel, would they prefer going into the future, or the past. Then I would ask them to indicate a specific time and place. Curiously, none of them ever chose my preference–ca. 35AD, a hill outside Jerusalem, on a Friday afternoon on which three guys were being cruciufied. I would really like to know what really happened that day; I have my suspicions that it was something quite different than the accepted accounts. And I would hang around a couple more days to check out another story I don’t buy into. My insterest would be historical, not religious (I think the movie has already been done).
 Given the shelf life of American popular culture it’s unfashionable to discuss a movie after it has been released into DVD, but I just got my first look beyond a trailer, at Mel Gibson’sThe Passion of the Christ. I decided to wait until the DVD release so that I rent it from Netflix and watch it at home rather than in a theater full of born-again Christians. Now I’m still trying to wipe the blood off my television set (gives plasma TV another layer of meaning). I suspect that a lot of “born-agains” will be finding the DVD in their stockings “hung by the chimney with care.”
As I was reading the reminder that it was only for home viewing I was reminded of a story of when Oscar Wilde was taking his exams at Oxford (or was it Cambridge?). In any case, it was an oral exam, in Greek, and the passage he was given to translate into (or was it from?) the language that gave Christ his name, was the “passion of Christ.” (Not the Christ, as Mr. Gibson likes to stress the Messianic.) The story goes that Wilde was so proficient at Greek that the committee said they heard enough before the story got out of the garden of Gethsemane. But Wilde asked if he could continue translating for a while longer. The committee consented to this, but stopped him again, somewhere around the scourging of Christ, and told him that it was more than sufficient. He asked again if he could continue, but was told he could not. At which Wilde said in a disappointed tone: “I did so want to know how things turned out.”
Gibson is clearly terrified that if we aren’t convinced that Jesus suffered the worst death of any human being before or since we will not believe that he was supposed to be dying for our sins. And so we get a movie that would better have been titled Beating the Bejeezus Out of Jesus, a self-defeating project of gallons of theatre blood and gore that goes on, and on, and on, for two hours, until we realize that we are being punished for Mel’s sins. Worse still, it is hackneyed and hokey filmmaking. Everybody, of course, looks like what they are supposed to look like, a tall and handsome Christ, sneering Pharisees, Roman soldiers who could double as Soprano thugs, Mary and Mary Magdalene are decked out as nuns, and then there is the Devil (how did he get in this thing?), who looks like Boy George with his shaved eyebrows. The dialogue is in Aramaic (or was it Urdu? Who can tell?) and Latin, of which I caught a couple of words and phrases because it was pronounced like, well, Aramaic.* In any case, it’s a blessing, since having to read the subtitles does divert the eye from the carnage.
Since we know Jerusalem as a rather crumbly ancient city Gibson apparently figured it looked that way in Christ’s time as well. A little anachronism is acceptable, I guess, as artistic license. But when the high priests tossed Judas a purse of thirty pieces of silver, did the purse actually float through the air in slow motion? Subtlety is not Mel forte, and he really likes to overcrank that camera; we get Christ being flailed in slo-mo, falling a good half dozen times in slo-mo (dust and pieces of flesh flying about in slo-mo), the pounding of nails in slo-mo, sometimes we get some subjective camera, some ground-level angles, some overheads, bust mostly slo-mo, lots of slo-mo. We actually end up wishing for the ending we all know is coming (but when we are stuck in slo-mo!?). By the time Caviezel (Christ) gets to the mount he looks so much like raw hamburger they might be having a barbeque rather than a crucifixion.
Christ finally, and mercifully, succumbs, the skies darken, the Temple starts crumbling, even the Devil, who showed up at the crucifixion with a grotesque little kid leftover from a David Lynch film, is thrown back into Hell. We get a closing shot of a naked and unmarked Christ walking out of his tomb, and that’s it. The Passion of the Mel is over and his sins are expunged.
Well, not so fast there, centurion. There’s the controversy over Gibson’s portrayal of the Jews as Christ-killers (once again). The Romans get off easy, as do the reluctant Pilate or the brutal buffoons who do the dirty work for the Jews. There’s enough of it to confirm for his prime audience that Christ really wasn’t a Jew, he was the Christ, and those Jews preferred Barabbas, who looks like a drooling, snaggled-toothed madman, to the Christ.
People flocked to the theaters to see Gibson’s film. He made millions and will make more on the DVD, which many churches are buying in lots for the faithful. But I have to wonder how many people are going to say for the second, third or fourth time: “Hey, let’s make some popcorn, slip into our jammies, turn on the DVD player, and watch Roman soldiers beat the bejeezus out of the Christ for a couple of hours. If you’re one those masochists, you might want to invite Oscar Wilde over. But don’t spoil it by telling him how its ends.
©2004 James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 4.18.2014)
*For locational/temporal authenticity Gibson chose as his location the Italian city of Matera, an ancient town In the Basilica region.