The 2004 film by M. Gibson opened on a day chosen with care: Ash Wednesday. In another world, purple windy Ash Wednesdays introduced a long period of mild austerities such as not eating meat and renouncing certain pleasures. To go and see films was such a pleasure.
This film is not about pleasure according to first cuts. The director was quoted as saying to a brassy talkshow host that he wanted the film to show extreme violence because, as he argued, people might then realize how great a sacrifice Jesus had made on their behalf. This leads to my first concern: the gospels present the abuse and torture of Jesus in short detail and do not go the route taken by Gibson, of imaginatively and singularly focussing on the violence proper. In fact, they often resort to using memory-polished, known texts from the Hebrew Bible when describing what happened.
Second concern: the director has decided to use only the passion story (or rather stories: a conflation of John’s version and the synoptics’) in which the hero is arrested, beaten and tortured to death. This story alone, however, without at least some notion of the life that Jesus led before his arrestation, makes little sense. The meaning that may be forcefully applied to it, of a divine mechanics of pre-ordained sacrifice, becomes a free-floating ideological element that can be used to justify the worst historical adventures. I mean especially that the iconic sufferings of Jesus make it more difficult, not less difficult, to recognize the un-representable (and under-represented) sufferings of other people whose lacks and pains, across time and space, may be partly occasioned by our own blind self-preservation, exactly like Jesus’—with one difference possibly, that of forgiveness—.
Another concern is that the super-narrator’s camera goes where the gospels tell us none of the friends and followers of Jesus did go. The gospels tell us that his disciples abandoned him early on. The Gospel passion story is told by these disciples, and on what basis exactly? Hearsay? combined with imagery from Psalms and prophetic texts such as Isaiah’s? The camera wielded by Gibson’s team does away with these niceties and claims to tell the truth.
Claims of truth-telling lead to a further concern. If veri-similitude is the objective sought, as in the “vera icona” (veronica) and Turin shroud creations of mediaeval times, the film had better be exact throughout and in all its aspects. There are Aramaic and Latin mumblings, cries, barkings, eructations. But what kind of Aramaic? Pronounced with a modern Israeli Hebrew accent? As for Latin, who could speak it in early first-century Roman Palestine, apart from Pilatus and a few of his officers? And isn’t it passing strange that the Latin of this film bent on very-similitude would sound like that of XIXth c. Vatican priests? In first-century Roman Palestine, the major languages were Aramaic and Greek, and most of the local soldiers, since no legion was stationed at that time in Judaea proper, were probably speaking those two main languages. Many more questions are raised by the choice of clothing (colors? sleeves? existence of “tallith”?), the food, the tribunal’s location, the type of cross used, the techniques (ropes vs nailing, nailing through the palms or the wrists?), the soundtrack…. One may wonder about the miserable ideological reasons for the choices made.
Final criticism: this film makes anti-semitic thoughts and expressions more palatable in public. I hear that the more problematic scene was removed, that where the high priest says: “let his blood be on us and on our children.” But the fact remains that the unexplained, uncommented impact of a fictionalized rendition of an abbreviated part of Jesus’ life is not different from the impact made by the unexplained, uncommented telling of John’s passion in the liturgy of Good Friday, which so often in the past helped foster passions and led to antisemitic outbursts.
Among the problematic characters is Claudia, who according to legend (reframed in C. Emmerich’s highly wrought “journal”) sought to exercise a sweet, civilizing influence on her severe, yet dignified husband, Pontius Pilate. This is the sort of rewriting of history one would expect from elite Romans as their empire became Christianized in the fourth century C.E., when the official politics of this advantageous christianization couldn’t easily suffer the notion of a cruel empire crucifying and terrorizing restless natives just for sheer tribute. I mean, tributary economy and its intrinsic violence did go on after Christianization, as well as all other sorts of wealth extraction, but it needed new justifications. Relics, such as Bethlehem, Nazareth, the “Holy Sepulchre” and the Cross, became part of this new developing form of political representation. The gospel story itself, at least in Mark, encouraged early Christians to think that the Romans of the gospel story had been fair or even gentle representatives of the Roman empire.
As for the use of violence, there is much to be said. One question will suffice for the moment: How is this film different from the other quite violent films in which the actor-director made the money that he could invest into this one?