“Passion” as a word has migrated at some point from its original simple meaning of “suffering” to generally describe a deep desire for someone or something, a suffering with desire. Like most words that get used a lot, this mutated further into “passion lite”—a passion is something one likes to be engaged in, more often a delight rather than a longing and a suffering.
Mel Gibson’s film Passion, is a return to the story that made this word a key to Western culture. The Passion, i.e., the suffering and execution of Jesus of Nazareth, has set an indelible stamp on world history whether we are followers of the Nazarene or not. It is not “passion lite” or “violence lite.”
Not surprising, retelling this story is a highly controversial act. From the violence visited on one man, who thought outside of the box and bucked the system, we have inherited not only an enduring paradigm for compassion, freedom of thought, respect and concern for one’s neighbor, but depending on the end user’s needs and intentions, the man’s name and his story have become a lever for contemporary as well as historical violence. In his name (and against his name) come persecution, anti-Semitism, crusades and conquistadores, witch hunts, genocide and isms of all sorts.
For viewers and reviewers of the film, Passion became a touchstone for the good and bad, the gentle and the incendiary in their personal and collective memories. As these passions surge, it becomes harder and harder to view the Passion itself. Some find release and purpose in it, others find fuel for their angers.
I attempted to view the film without an axe to grind. I found it plausible, fair, and without an overlying agenda. It told its tale definitely from a believer’s point of view. It did not target anyone, but showed an assortment of fallible human beings, some Roman, some Jewish, some of JC’s followers. There were both cruel as well as dedicated military as one might find in any occupation force. There were also responsible people and protesters on all sides. Most rabbis who have reviewed it found it authentic and reasonable. Given the reviews I have read, it appears that some went to the film with a need to find something that wasn’t there. That it gives just the simple story of the Gospels to an ahistorical generation that no longer reads about dead white men or much of anything and, for this reason, is probably a service to cultural literacy.
Many of the scenes looked like they were deliberately based on the old masters and mirrored religious art of the middle ages and renaissance (e.g., the Pieta)—visual echoes. Yes, lots of blood, but not more than you find splashed on the crucifixes in the Spanish missions in California or in medieval cathedrals.
It is important to remember blood is the key of the Redemption theme in the Christian narrativfe. It is so to speak the “red” thread that runs intentionally through the story. On the other hand, bloody as it is, even this movie is sanitized and does not compare with real torture and passion for death dealing that is alive and well today, as we all know. The film’s focus on passion and suffering is an antidote to big screen big bang violence. It takes us away from the vengeful Kill Bill and spectacular Terminator type gore. It makes us realize what happens via politics to innocent people and, in particular, to those who directly or indirectly challenge the system, today as yesterday.
The story was done with relatively good attention to the texts of the Gospels (not forgetting that these are also believers’ stories), and to historical setting. Slightly less literal and more graphic than Pasolini’s simple telling of The Gospel according to Saint Matthew (1965), which some will recall was also controversial, perhaps more because the director was gay, Marxist and an atheist. There were few anachronisms—no Roman soldiers wearing Seiko watches as sometimes happens. The film ended in a resurrection scene with no intimation whatever of revenge, though apparently some viewers seemed to project an echo of “Jesus is coming, and boy is he pissed off!” Certainly, reactions are formed by the historical context in which viewers live: Pasolini was accused of making Christ a communist avant la lettre; Gibson is now seen by some as following a rightist fundamentalist zeitgeist.
Most importantly, there were no excursions into literary fantasy, such as that of Nikos Kazantzakis, which Martin Scorsese brought to the big screen in 1988, e.g., the obligatory “affair” between Jesus and Mary Magdalen, the “bathrobe” spectaculars or fictional intrigues that Hollywood is so famous for and which, today, have found a place in Dan Brown’s page-turner, The Davinci Code.
Gibson chose to have the actors speak the languages of the time. Being a survivor of a classical education, I could understand the Latin without the subtitles and you get the feel of the Aramaic if you know a little bit of Hebrew. Fidelity to the story as the story is told seemed to be uppermost in the director’s mind. And perhaps this allows the story to be not just another tinsel town drama but an occasion to examine violence and suffering in a relatively pure form as it touches us and observe what images, feelings, fears, and judgments it touches off in us. Art has this effect. It is about how we see ourselves and what we tend to project on others.
Then, there is the issue of how you show the “bad guys.” There were a lot of uglies on both sides and lots of “good looking” high priests, etc. There was a personification of Satan as a kind of androgynous character – perhaps with a gay feel, but who can tell? The major issue is who is made to be the baddie. This question is not peculiar to Gibson’s film but an issue in almost all films. Connecting ugly and bad is a looksism issue that seems to be unsolvable in all kinds of art, but particularly in cinema. We seem to have a need to give evil a face—as long as it is not ours. This has a lot to do with how we love or hate people, show them compassion or treat them with violence.
It is the aim of this review to search out the roots of violence in contemporary culture, Gibson’s film reminds us that we cannot forget that the Jesus story is implicated in our national histories. How one views this story has consequences for how one chooses to live out perhaps one’s faith or refusal of faith, but, more importantly today, at what level one subscribes to the civil religion of the USA in particular, that is so imbued with values from the religious refugees who colonized the land with their own sort of passion.