The Sado-Masochistic Passion of the Christ

How the most expensive "Snuff" Film in history became a Box Offfice Smash

A review by Earl Lee

While Hollywood insiders were predicting that Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ was going to be a box office flop, Gibson was cleverly manipulating the situation to make sure that his film would be a major success—at least financially. Gibson made sure that no film critics would be able to see the film before its release date, thus making sure that his critics would be muted. At the same time, he made sure that Pope John Paul II got an early look at the film. The Pope's diplomatically vague "it is as it happened" was quickly spun into official approval for the film. As a right-wing conservative Catholic, Mel Gibson was now ready to push the film with other conservative Christians.

Leading up to its release, Gibson made numerous appearances on television, and in each interview he squirmed and complained about any criticism of the film, quickly playing the "martyr" card when people suggested that the film was anti-Semitic. Again Gibson controlled access to the film itself, finding selected religious "authorities" who would be sure to praise the film as free of anti-Semitism. Similarly, when film critics trashed the film for its extreme violence, Gibson fell back on the claim that the film was "historically accurate." If The Passion of the Christ was gory and violent, then that was only because crucifixion is gory and violent.

Gibson's "martyr" card quickly brought him support and "cover" from a variety of evangelical & fundamentalist Christians. As the television evangelists began crying "poor Mel, look how he's being persecuted" the evangelical Christian churches began organizing their support. Soon theaters were sold out-for weeks in advance-by church groups who bought blocks of tickets and promoted the film in their churches. These groups rightly saw the film as the best propaganda film ever made. The churches also made sure that there were many "counselors" available at each screening to "help" those people who were emotionally distraught from viewing the extreme violence.

This is probably the most disgusting part of how this film was used. People were often coerced and manipulated by church members into going to see this "spiritual" film. Then, after being emotionally shaken by the horrible violence of the film, they were pounced on by religious "counselors." This so-called "offer to help" was used as an opportunity to evangelize and manipulate them even more. I've heard of several reports of counselors taking crying women into the restroom while assuring them, "Yes, this is how Jesus suffered and died—for you!"

You could see these "counselors" standing around in the hallways of the theater—just like hawks read to swoop down on their prey. And the people who reacted most strongly to the violence-the people who were psychologically raped by this film-then had to deal with emotional predators pretending to be their "friend." Instead of trying to minimize the psychological damage, the "counselors" were there to further manipulate and "evangelize" those who wanted only to forget the horrors they had just witnessed.

This is the first time that millions of evangelical Christians will see the full bloody horror of a sado-masochistic faith. The consequences of their exposure to this form of Christianity could be disastrous, mainly because we know from history that the death of Christ has been used, over and over again, as a justification for murdering non-Christians (especially Jews); and, as one reviewer put it, you walk out of this film "wanting to kill someone."

The Passion as an Anti-Semitic Film

The claim of "anti-Semitism" is one that Mel Gibson has struggled to avoid. He has had ample help from various conservative Christians. You only need to do a google search on "anti-Semitism" and "Passion of the Christ" to find hundreds of websites devoted to defending and justifying this film.

Over and over again, Gibson and his right-wing conservative Christian supporters have fallen back on the argument that the film is scrupulously accurate to the historical events. This claim has several large holes in it.

First, the gospels on which this film is based were written to curry favor with the Romans and with a gentile audience. Blame is shifted to the Jews whenever possible, sometimes in ways that are laughably fake. For example, Pilate, the Roman Governor, asks the Jewish leaders to let Jesus off with a flogging. The Jews respond, "let his blood be on us and our children." This line is so historically ridiculous that most mainstream Christian churches recognized it as being phony many years ago. It is obviously a lie written to absolve the Romans from responsibility for crucifying Jesus, while putting the blame on the Jews. This fraud clearly dates from a time after the destruction of Jerusalem in 77 A.D., when Christianity had shifted from converting Jews to evangelizing gentiles.

Mel Gibson's The Passion included "let his blood be on us and our children" in its original version. This line was removed later, under pressure from the Vatican. Mel Gibson was very upset at being forced to remove the line, but he did not blame the Vatican. Instead he told the New Yorker that "they" would have killed him if that line was in the movie. We can assume that the "they" he was referring to wasn't The Vatican. Once again, Mel tries to play the victim. And he is ready to blame a nameless "they" for his problems.

The Passion of the Christ is an anti-semitic fraud. The Romans are portrayed as wise and reasonable, except for the soldiers who actually do the crucifying. And even some of these war-hardened thugs are saved in the end. On the other hand, once again, the Jews are portrayed as a bloodthirsty mob, bent on murder and delighting in the slow torture of this "false Messiah."

As the film's producer and director, Mel Gibson has to take full responsibility for what he has created. He could have made an effort to mute the anti-Semitic elements in the story. For example, as several critics have already pointed out, there is precedent in the gospels for giving the Caiaphas the same moral complexity and depth that he gave Pilate. Mel only had to include the line where Caiaphas says, "It is better for one man to die for the people, so that the nation be saved." The critic Steven D. Greydanus, in his analysis of the film, said, "Had Gibson retained this line, perhaps giving Caiaphas a measure of the conflict he gave to Pilate, it could have underscored the similarities between Caiaphas and Pilate and helped defuse the issue of anti-Semitism." But where Pilate, as a gentile, can be redeemed, Caiaphas the Jew must be condemned.

Instead of muting the anti-Semitism, Mel went out of his way to put the Jews front and center at the cross. For example, Mel chooses to have the leaders of the Temple dress up in all their Temple finery and ride their donkeys out to the hill of Golgotha to witness, with their own eyes, the crucifixion. This part is clearly a fake, as it makes no sense whatsoever historically for the priests to witness the crucifixion. And just in case we missed the point (Mel Gibson is not much on subtlety), the earthquake that occurs when Jesus dies (another bit of mythology) also shatters the walls of the Temple and a rock lands on one of the priests (in the manner of Sampson and the Philistines). And if this is not enough, the High Priest burns his hand, in a blatant foreshadowing the burning he will soon receive in the Christian Hell.

There is no way to avoid the blatant anti-Semitism of this film. The only Jews who come out of this story looking good are those who convert to Christianity. This is, of course, the same message we get from evangelicals. In the "End Times" a small minority of Jews will convert to Christianity, but the rest are doomed to the Lake of Fire. The only good Jews are the Christianized Jews. In his review of The Passion, Roger Ebert claimed that the portrayal of Jews was "balanced." This is only true if you balance the good (pro-Christ) Jews against the bad (anti-Christ) Jews.

Mel Gibson's religious background suggests that he would be sympathetic to such a portrayal. His father, Hutter Gibson, has strong ties to right-wing Christian groups in Australia and he has said publicly that The Holocaust didn't happen. So it can be said that, in this case, the apple didn't fall far from the tree.

The Passion as a Historical Film

Any attempt at a historically accurate "Passion" needs to take into consideration the vast amount of historical research done during the past century. For example, we now know that none of the gospels were written until many years after the events portrayed, and scholars (except fundamentalists) generally concede (except fundamentalists) that the authors of the gospels were not actual witnesses to the events they described. In a very real sense, Mel Gibson is already dealing from the bottom of the deck in claiming historical accuracy based on these gospels.

In addition, there are serious problems even in the details of the crucifixion itself. It is generally believed today that the spikes were not driven through the palms of the hands. Doing this would be pointless, as the flesh of the hand cannot support the weight of a human body. It is far more likely that the spikes were driven between the two bones below the wrist. Since the Romans were experts in these matters, it is unlikely that they would have made the mistake of driving a spike through a hand. This, then, is another place where the gospels have led Mel into a historical mistake.

Mel tries to adjust for this by having Jesus' wrists bound to the cross. But this makes no sense. If the ropes are sufficient to hold his weight, why bother with the spikes? Why use such enormous spikes, if the point is simply to torture the victim? The portrayal gets even stranger when the soldiers drive the spikes through his palms. At one point the soldiers stretch out Jesus' arms so they can reach a pre-drilled hole in the wood. Yes, a pre-drilled hole! Maybe the Romans bought this cross on sale at Wal-Mart and assembled it themselves from pre-drilled materials.

Mel shows his further ignorance of carpentry (a carry-over from his role in The Patriot) when the soldiers drive a huge spike through a beam at least four inches thick and then they flip the cross over in order to bend over the points of the spike. Honestly! A spike driven through a four inch beam could hold up ten men. What's the point of bending over the points! Are these Romans idiots? They're going to have to re-use this cross next week for the next group of criminals. How are they going to get that spike out? These are just a few of the bizarre historical bloopers in this film.

Mel Gibson claims to be going for historical accuracy, but in fact he is trying to match his film to the iconography of the Catholic Church. He shot the scene of Mary at the cross, for example, to match the layout of the Pieta.

Part of Mel's claim for "historical accuracy" rests on his decision to shoot this film entirely in Aramaic and Latin. As a right-wing Catholic, it's not hard to see where Mel's going by his insistence on Latin over English. But Mel's mania for historical accuracy did not extent to his casting decisions. When it came time to cast an actor in the role of Jesus, Gibson selected Jim Caviezel, an actor who is not at all semitic looking. This blue-eyed actor's best-known role before The Passion of the Christ was in a film with Dennis Quaid called Frequency, in which he played an Irish-American cop. If Mel Gibson made "scrupulous" efforts at historical accuracy, how did he convince himself to cast a "Jesus" with obviously light skin and North European features? Maybe Tony Shaloub was too busy doing episodes of "Monk"?

Or maybe Mel Gibson is one of those strange religious throwbacks who believes that Jesus was really a white Aryan. That would certainly tend to explain several odd things, and a light-skinned Jesus fits in well with this theory. How else do you explain this strange inconsistency in this "historically accurate" film? Mel Gibson's Aryan Jesus is in sharp contrast to historical documents which suggest that the "real" Jesus was short, swarthy, balding and rather homely. Maybe Jerry Seinfeld just didn't give off the right kind of sex-appeal. Maybe Mel Brooks was just too old to consider for this role. If Mel Gibson was honestly concerned with historical accuracy, Tony Shaloub, Jerry Seinfeld, or Mel Brooks would have been a better match than the actor he cast as his phony Aryan Jesus.

The Passion as a Violent Film

Historically, since the beginning of filmmaking, motion picture studios have been able to show a considerable amount of nudity and violence by including it in "Biblical epics." The sensuality of films like The Ten Commandments was masked by the overt religious message. This was necessary during the time of the Hayes Code, which restricted what could be shown in films. Religious and historical themes were a convenient cover for what was—at the time—mild violence and rather soft-core sexual themes. This tradition continues even today, with films like the made-for-television Samson & Delilah. Just as motion pictures were self-censored in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, today television is a very much self-censored medium.

Historically, too, audiences have accepted considerable amounts of violence in films, compared with sexuality. Mel Gibson has made a career out of staring in many hard-core violent films, from The Road Warrior to the "Lethal Weapon" series. Mel Gibson took a risk in making The Passion of the Christ in that it is possible that this hyper-violent film might have drawn an "NC-17" rating, or even an "X" rating, instead of an "R" rating. This was probably Gibson's greatest concern during the making of this film. An "NC-17" rating would have damaged the hype. And an "X" rating would have killed the film at the box office, especially with a "religious" audience. Film critic Roger Ebert, in his review of this film, concedes that, except for the religious theme, this film would certainly have gotten an NC-17 rating for violence.

However, in all honesty, Gibson could probably have negotiated to get an NC-17 rating lowered to "R" by cutting some violent scenes. In fact, Gibson may have anticipated this by adding in extra gore (an extended slow-motion flogging scene) that could be cut later, if needed. This would not be the first time a film-maker has negotiated with censors to get a lower rating. Several critics were surprised that the film got the lower "R" rating (which suggests the MPA censors were wary of an attack from Mel's supporters). But once the film got its "R" rating, cutting the gore would only have raised questions. Also, the extended violence makes the film a more effective propaganda film for conservative Christians.

By centering on the last 12 hours of Jesus' life, Gibson has already pretty-much boxed himself into a corner. The trial and crucifixion are clearly the center of this overly-long, bloody extravaganza. Although the Hayes code prohibits violence to the extent that "Brutal killings are not to be presented in detail," this film ignores this quaint, old-fashioned notion.

The focus on blood and gore is so pronounced that it leads Mel into historical inaccuracies. Assuming that the Bible is an accurate account of the crucifixion, it states that the Roman soldiers "cast lots" for Jesus' cloak. But in The Gospel according to Mel, by the time they reach the crucifixion, the cloak is little more than blood-soaked, tattered shreds of cloth-hardy the kind of thing soldiers would fight over.

The Passion as a Pornographic Film

One CNN news commentator reported that 92% of the Christians who saw The Passion praised it as a great film. It's fair to assume that the other 8% have some reservations—perhaps having to do with its containing not enough violence and gore. You would probably get similar statistics if you questioned the audience as it left a porn theater. "What did you think of that last scene, the one with Ron Jeremy?" It's easy to imagine a middle-aged man pulling his raincoat tight and saying something like, "Yeah, it was pretty good. Especially that facial. And the gagging during the blow-job. I thought she was going to vomit—it was great!"

Actually, you probably have trouble imagining someone saying that. Like most people, you probably would have preferred not to see the facial or the gagging. But the inclusion of such things in a pornographic film seems to be driven by the wacky 8% of kinky fetishists who enjoy such things. And therein lies the problem

The enjoyment of extreme violence in films is a fetish, much the same way that enjoying watching a man ejaculate on a woman's face is a fetish. Most normal people view these things with revulsion. But in both cases the movie-makers are driven by a minority of fetishists who enjoy that kind of thing. Until recently, these types of fetishes were found only in underground films, but that seems to be changing.

American films—including mainstream films—are often made by fetishists, or at least those who cater to them. And a significant minority of American audiences are attracted to violence as a fetish. Worse, they are becoming less sensitive to the mixture of violence and sexuality. There is a clear danger in mixing the two, as the mixture of sex and violence can create an even more explosive mixture than violence and sex viewed separately. This is why reputable pornographic filmmakers have generally avoided having violence in their films. The mixture of sex and violence tends to be dangerous, and it also attracts the attention of the authorities.

In the case of The Passion of the Christ, this film combines violence with a strong homoerotic element. The strongest bond in the film develops between Jesus and Simon, the Good Jew who is pressed into carrying the cross. There are several moments of tenderness there, as Simon has to carry the cross and physically support Jesus. The flogging and torture serves to whet the appetites of the violence fetishists who sit in the audience. At the showing of The Passion of the Christ I attended, there were dozens of people weeping in the audience. But no one left the room during the extended torture scene.

Finally, the film reaches the point where three nearly naked men are hoisted onto wooden crosses. Ironically, Mel Gibson chose do drive the spike through Jesus' hand, himself. And Mel has earned the right to be the first to penetrate the flesh of the victim. I don't think Mel could have resisted the opportunity to "do" Jesus.

This is the main problem with

The Passion of the Christ. If you ignore the religious story-line, what you have left over could be shot as a episode of the HBO prison series "Oz." A young man of extraordinary physical beauty (obviously not Tony Shaloub) is slowly beaten and tortured to death. It is a very long, slow death. It is shown in intimate and graphic detail, with plenty of blood and even chunks of flesh flying onto the people standing nearby. The audience of the film views the movie as a "religious film," but eroticized violence is clearly a central part of the film, too.

On the other hand, maybe this is too much sexualized violence even for "Oz." Episodes of "Oz" are only an hour long, and this much violence would probably provoke a reaction from the satellite networks which carry HBO. Five minutes of this kind of violence is too much for most people—and The Passion of the Christ has over two hours of it! Maybe only Mel Gibson could imagine and create this sustained level of violence.

It's fair to ask whether Mel Gibson is a violence fetishist. It's difficult to explain why he would make The Passion of the Christ with so much eroticized violence, unless he was drawn to graphic images of violence and death.

The Passion of the Christ is a direct descendent of the Revenge Tragedies of the Elizabethan era, filled with murder and mayhem. This may explain Mel Gibson's earlier film Hamlet, not to mention the scene in Braveheart where the hero is drawn and quartered (a particularly brutal and violent way to die, in which a man's entrails are torn out while he is still alive). A close look at The Passion of the Christ seems to reveal a lot about its creator. And it's not pretty.

The escalation in violence from Road Warrior to Lethal Weapon to Hamlet to Braveheart to The Patriot to The Passion of the Christ is all too clear. We should have seen this coming. Like many people, I am attracted to a certain amount of violence, especially when it is portrayed in a certain way, in the following case in defense of a child. In The Patriot, when Gibson rescues his son with pistols and a tomahawk, I can empathize. But the later murder of the Heath Ledger character in The Patriot was excessive, as was the burning of a church full of people. No wonder the Brits complained about this film. The Patriot is full of realistically violent battle scenes, but the British "war crimes" are made up out of whole cloth. So much for historical accuracy! Mel knows that the audience wants blood and gore.

Even worse, the execution scene in Braveheart was simply grotesque and gratuitous. If Mel had used the same level of detail in that film which he used in The Passion of the Christ, people would have been gagging and puking in the aisles.

As it is, The Passion of the Christ is clearly pornographic. It is in fact a "snuff" film showing the slow torture and deliberate murder of a helpless victim. Enough said.

The Passion as a Catholic film

The violence fetish is common among Catholics, especially those raised in traditional families, much the same way that the bondage fetish is common among British schoolboys. That's not to say that all Catholics are into violence. It's simply a fact that Catholics as a group tend to be attracted to violence in films.

It would make sense to compare Mel Gibson's career to that of another famous Catholic actor, Gregory Peck. While Mel's specialty is acting in violent films, and now in making ultra-violent films, Gregory Peck's acting career was quite different.

Where Mel is famous for films like Lethal Weapon and Braveheart, Mr. Peck is largely remembered for films such as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Yearling, or Spellbound. That's not to say that Peck doesn't have a few kinky roles here and there. His portrayal of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, and his role as Dr. Mengele in The Boys from Brazil were very, very convincing. Like Mel, Mr. Peck was a good Catholic actor, and played in a religious dramas like David and Bathsheeba, Keys of the Kingdom, and The Omen. Where Mel is different from Gregory Peck is in his attitude toward the Jews. Against Mel's The Passion of the Christ, we have Mr. Peck stepping into the role of a Jewish King David. More importantly, we have Mr. Peck in the role in the groundbreaking film Gentleman's Agreement.

Rarely seen anymore, except on classic movie channels, the film Gentleman's Agreement (1947) examined the pervasive anti-semitism that existed in America up through the 1940s. According to VideoHound, "this film was Hollywood's first major attack on anti-Semitism." Gregory Peck plays the role of a reporter who pretends to be Jewish in order to experience first-hand the sneaking, back-door kind of bigotry that was common in America. The film was very controversial, but won several Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

This first time I saw this film was on television, as a young boy in Arkansas. I don't think I had ever met a Jew, and except for Sunday School classes, I'm not sure I would have known what a Jew was. But living in Arkansas in the 1960s, I had a pretty good idea of what hatred and bigotry were all about.

And this is the ultimate test for a film and for the man who made the film. Did the movie contribute something toward humanity, or did the film subtract—even in a small way—from the total sum of humanity.

And this is where Mel Gibson and The Passion of the Christ obviously fall short.

The Passion of the Christ will draw support from the anti-Jewish crowd in Hollywood, perhaps even enough support to get an Oscar nomination. Clearly the film will gross hundreds of millions of dollars. Mel Gibson will come out of this pretty well financially, no matter what the critics say. Mel is already a multi-millionaire, and this film will probably at least double his net worth.

And Judas only got a lousy 30 pieces of silver.

Earl Lee is a librarian and the author of numerous articles in many periodicals, including American Libraries, Journal of Information Ethics, The Humanist, and Counterpoise, and his writings have been anthologized in Alternative Library Literature and You Are Being Lied To. The author of several books, his most recent book is Kiss My Left Behind, a parody of the fundamentalist "Left Behind" series.

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