The Passion of Mel Gibson

Mar 222004
Authors: Brent Ables

In contemporary society, one often gets the impression that a

strict line divides what we consider entertainment and what we

consider “real life.” Though there is the occasional worry about

violence in the media or excessive celebrity influence on children,

by and large popular entertainment – especially film – is seen as

an escape from the concerns and struggles of our day-to-day

existence. For many, in fact, this is the sole purpose of art.

There are times, however, when a piece of art is able to tap into

the very foundations of popular culture in such a way that it

becomes more than mere entertainment, and becomes a cultural event

unto itself, indiscernible from the elements of our “real”


It is hard to find a better example of such a crossover

phenomenon than Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” That

there is no need to summarize or introduce the film here is

testament to its pervasiveness: like no movie event I can recall in

my (limited) years, this film has ignited controversy and – forgive

the pun – passionate debate on almost every level. The film,

initially viewed as an independent gamble, has earned box office

income comparable to blockbusters like “Lord of the Rings: Return

of the King” and has reignited cultural debates that have raged for



The controversy began even before the movie was released.

Churches and religious groups rented entire movie theaters in

pre-emptive attempts to support Gibson’s project. Despite knowing

little to nothing about the film, religious leaders praised Gibson

for his honesty and faith. The movie was shown to the Papacy, and

the pope reportedly praised the film, claiming, “It is as it was.”

(This quote was later contested by the Vatican.) Gibson only fueled

the fire; he boasted that agnostics and Muslims on the set of the

movie had found their way to Jesus and denounced critics of the

movie as “anti-Christian.” On the other side, Jewish leaders

worried about the film’s depiction of Jewish people, worrying that

it may stir anti-Semitic feelings by portraying Jews as solely

responsible for Christ’s death.

Now that viewers have had a chance to view and critique the

movie, the scope of discussion regarding the film has expanded from

the level of mere rumor and guesswork. Unfortunately, what I

learned when sitting down for Gibson’s brutal epic was that, in

plain words, it almost doesn’t seem worth the fuss; it certainly

doesn’t seem worth the $30 million that Gibson reportedly paid out

of his own pocket for the film.

Some readers may already be aware of Gibson’s liberties with

certain accepted facts of the persecution of Christ. For example,

the filmmaker’s portrayal of Roman Gov. Pontius Pilate as a

sympathetic and moral leader is entirely at odds with the

historical Pilate, who was notorious even by Roman standards for

brutality and intolerance towards the Jews (and Jesus, in fact).

Gibson’s strange decision to portray Caiphas and the pharisees as

Christ’s sole prosecutors does not deal very responsibility with

the anti-Semitic question, to be sure.

Before going too far with such criticism, however, we should

consider the view that films are not historical reports but rather

vehicles for aesthetic expression and emotional affectation.

Therefore, this argument goes, to judge “The Passion” on its merits

as a historical document misses the point.

This argument is only helpful, however, if “The Passion” truly

stands alone as a fine piece of cinematic achievement.

Unfortunately, it fails to do that. “The Passion,” despite its

sacred subject matter, is in fact little more than a simplistic and

juvenile experiment in cathartic cinema that attempts to win the

viewer over by means of repetitious brutality and unrelenting gore.

Theme, character development, subtlety and narrative are thrown

aside and replaced with blood, pain and misery, as if the holiness

of Gibson’s intentions to create a “faithful” piece of work is

supposed to win over the viewer. Unfortunately, high intentions do

not make a work of art worthwhile. It is difficult to feel anything

but impatience and disgust as one watches actor Jim Caviezel’s skin

torn from his body, or as he falls time after time in dramatic slow

motion under the weight of his cross.

Movie critic David Denby, writing in the New Yorker, offered

this succinct evaluation of the film: “The movie Gibson has made

from his personal obsessions is a sickening death trip, a grimly

unilluminating procession of treachery, beatings, blood and

agony… Gibson is so thoroughly fixated on the scourging and

crushing of Christ, and so meagerly involved in the spiritual

meanings of the final hours, that he falls in danger of altering

Jesus’ message of love into one of hate.”

This is, indeed, the great tragedy of the movie. With so much

influence and financial sway, Gibson had the ability to bring those

aspects of Christ’s life to the screen that would have brightened

the spirits of believers, and rewarded those who threw their

support to the project without knowing the first thing about it.

Instead, Gibson chooses to beat the viewer into submission with

violence and dread, exploiting every trick of sensationalist

cinema. In the end, it is Gibson’s own passion for carnage that

reduces his movie to such a repulsive and disappointing level.

Brent is a freshman studying philosophy. His column runs every


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