(All dressed up to go see The Passion with Matt)

Lethal Weapon 4.5
{Note: Originally, I was going to make this look less like the LJ entry it originally was and more like a proper UGP entry, but I’ve decided I don’t care that much—at least, not today. I’ll get back to this eventually.}

On the one hand, the movie serves at least one necessary purpose: it makes clear to viewers the visceral horror of the crucifixion. This is absolutely necessary in a world that regards itself as Christian but has, by and large, lost many of the critical elements of Christianity. And while there is something overly facile (not to mention hypocritical) in the Protestant critique of the church post-Constantine, it’s somewhat true that Christianity has suffered spiritually every time it has succeeded demographically—the depth and breadth of the religion get effaced, and people are left with vaguely articulated values, a few holidays, and an inexplicably strong sense of “us” and “them.” The physical concreteness of the crucifixion is important, and the Passion succeeds in bringing it to us.
There are other things the movie doesn’t do as well—like suggest the utter commonness of crucifixion as a punishment practice, or provide a nuanced portrayal of the role of punishment in maintaining society. There should be a law saying that any depiction of judical torture and murder should have to take Foucault’s Discipline and Punish into account.
If we come away with the impression that the Romans (and, specifically, the guards in charge of beating and crucifying prisoners) are motivated purely by sadism (as Gibson’s film implies quite clearly), we miss the critical role played by such techniques in the maintenance of many societies prior to the very recent development of subtler disciplinary practices (surveillance, the prison).
Because Gibson reduces the torture to ignorant hatred inflicted on innocent flesh, we don’t see that there is a war being waged in the flesh of the punished, between him and the state or sovereign. The crucifixion is, in addition to being sacrificed, the peculiar form of Christian warfare, in which by refusal to submit, the martyr physically, bodily establishes his freedom.
Foucault tells us that torture inscribes the power of the king on the bodies of the punished, and Christianity shows us that, like any text, this inscription is always already interepretable; for Christians (even, in the martyrs’ time, many of those present at the torture, witnessing their friends’ bodies ripped apart, consumed by beasts, burnt alive, flayed, etc.) the inscription is one of the defiant triumph of the divine over the worldy power of Rome.
Of course, it’s hard to say how this can be straightforwardly portrayed in cinema-it would be easier if the movie dealt with martyrs and not Christ himself, because for most of his followers at the time of his death, the Christian meaning of crucifixion was obviously unavailable. But this is precisely why it’s irresponsible to present a production like this outside the context of a specific community with a tradition of spiritual teachings that allow the viewer to see not only the visceral anguish but also and at exactly the same time the socio-historical, theological, and ritual aspects. In his interview with Diane Sawyer, Gibson practically tried to sell the movie on the basis of its ahistoricity, as though it could somehow have meaning without the contextualization of little things like backstory. In fact, this is one of the few cases where a movie could actually use some narration-making explicit the fact that this is a story being told by someone and not a presentation of mere fact.
I mean, if Gibson really intends it as a religious work (and not merely the pop culture cash cow it’s likely to turn out to be), how does he expect a naive audience to deal with the critical questions of theodicy, kenosis, trinitarianism, etc. that pervade the story of Christ as understood by Christianity. The movie does nothing to address the question of what it means to be both god and man, and provides no forum for consideration of it.
It would also be much more sensible, I think, to address the crucifixion by means of a portrayal of martrydom, because martyrdom, unlike Christ’s original sacrifice, is already theoretically rich; the martyrs (well, many of them, anyway) were quite theologically sophisticated, and new what they were about. For them, martrydom was a way of coming into contact with the salvific moment of Christ’s sacrifice, of bridging time and space to be with him there. This is the deepest strand of early Christianity, and I think that many of the best aspects of the best surviving forms of Christianity are sublimations or reinventions of the martyr’s faith. This case is obviously especially strong for incursions into the political, as with the civil rights movement, but the whole ascetic tradition was also originally conceived as a path available to those who could not become martyrs due to countervailing circumstances.
But even confining ourselves to the framework Gibson uses, which is essentially that of a passion play-one of the oldest, most universal, and most characteristic forms of Christian worship, and now quite scarce in American Christianity-there are still problems. One of the largest is that Gibson appears to have conceived of his movie as a direct representation of the events in the gospels, and (with some exceptions) he largely succeeds at this. But the purpose of dramatic recreation of the passion of Christ is not merely to show the events-which are usually more or less known to the audience-but, by bringing the community together and providing not so much a representation of the events as a loose form inviting the people to project themselves into the events by means of a leap of faith and imagination. As with explicit violence in modern horror movies, as opposed to the much more implicit, atmospheric terror of classic films, too much unmitigated realism and display will kill the active role that must be palyed by the viewer’s imagination if full participation is to be achieved. The Christian viewer should not merely see a man and believe him god, but see a man who is god—and this requires a deeply informed sort of sight, a religious esthetic that cannot be acquired on the fly.
The concerns about anti-semitism are probably overplayed. The movie retains what’s in the gospels, which means it includes some anti-semitic overtones; that’s unavoidable. It’s unfortunate, I think, that Gibson chose to really play up the “predicament” in which Pilate was supposed to be caught, when historical evidence suggests that he was nowhere near as disinterested or non-evil as the movie suggests, and, admittedly, as the gospels state.
Beyond these points, my main concerns with the movie are cinematic ones-it was too…hollywood. Where did all this slow-motion come from? The gospel according to John Woo? The soundtrack was bland, boring, could’ve been to any movie-and the importance of music in the Christian tradition should go without saying. Jesus-cam (several hackneyed POV shots) was a particularly ridiculous innovation…
Essentially, Gibson was remaking Braveheart—the archetypal downer (I can’t bring myself to recognize such movies as tragic, since they contain none of the sophistication and complexity of tragic literature) historical action film. And if any school of filmmaking could bring something powerful and new to this particular task, it’s not an action film of any kind. If instead of Braveheart’s Gibson, we’d had the people who worked on Five Corners, a nuanced and unflinchingly humane consideration of the interplay of good and evil in everyday life, or Magnolia's Paul Thomas Anderson, who has shown a consistent skill at portraying agony without needing to bludgeon you over the head with violence, we might have not merely a flamboyant cathartic gesture with all the theoretical depth of a train wreck, but rather something that could serve to broaden the religious outlook of Americans…

Ah, here are the other images. They make me appear a bit more psychotic than I really am, but WITNTC

(Note the poster for the chorus’s performance of Bach’s St. John Passion)

category:movie religion

h2. Quotes:
  • (on the road to Golgotha, Jesus falls) Simon: (picking Jesus up) We’re almost there! It’s almost over!
    h2. Bibliography:
  • Well, the, uh, Bible, obviously. (Esp. the Gospels, including John, though lord knows I wouldn’t use John if I were aiming for historical accuracy)
    h2. See also:
    Christianity, Bible, Jesus