Mel Gibson's Passion

A shorter version of this article appeared as part of BeliefNet's special edition on the film in March 2004. This version was published on this site on January 25, 2005.

"The plot of the Gospel--good, beautiful man confronts evil, ugly establishment, loses everything, but then miraculously wins everything back in the end--is Christianity's supreme gift to Hollywood."

As a cinematic matter, the boldest innovation in Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" is its use of language and subtitles to create, in a religious film, the illusion of documentary. Dialogue in a number of recent English-language feature films has fostered this kind of illusion by shifting into a second language plus subtitles for a few minutes at a time. "Dances With Wolves," for example, shifted at several points into the Amerindian language Lakota. But no film that I know of unfolds in its entirety in subtitles beneath a language other than that of its primary audience.*

Aramaic and Latin, the two languages in which the dialogue of "The Passion" is spoken, are not just foreign but dead. Aramaic survives only in a few remote corners of the Middle East and in dialects different from the one heard in this film. Latin is no longer spoken anywhere. The documentary illusion created by subtitles under ancient languages thus simulates a voyage not so much to a distant land as to a distant era. To the extent that any work of art derived from a classic must make it new by making it strange, this is a brilliant stroke. Yet the brilliance has a deeply regrettable secondary effect.

Before speaking of the secondary effect, I should mention that I spent two years as a student in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University in an era when classes, textbooks, and oral examinations at that institution were still entirely in Latin. To that extent, I am by way of being a Latin speaker and, I might add, one particularly accustomed to hearing Latin as pronounced by native speakers of Italian. (Many of the actors in this film, including most of those who portray the Roman soldiers, are Italians.) Later, as a graduate student at Harvard University, I studied four different dialects of ancient Aramaic. In short, I belong to the over-educated sliver of the audience for "The Passion" that can hear both "original" languages with a measure of comprehension.

Before the film's release, Gibson and his collaborators were belittled in learned circles for filming in Latin. Did they not know, scholars sniffed, that Latin was a language that Jews outside Italy did not speak? In general, the scholars were right: Greek, not Latin, was the English of the ancient world--every educated man's second language. Historical critics of the Gospels have had good reason to assume that if Pontius Pilate and Jesus of Nazareth--a Latin speaker and an Aramaic speaker--had the conversations that the Gospels report them having, they would have had them in Greek. And yet the truth is that no one knows for a fact that Pilate never troubled to learn Aramaic, the language of the common people of Galilee and Judaea.

I call it a defensible artistic liberty, then, that Mel Gibson and his collaborator in the "Passion" screenplay, Benedict Fitzgerald (the son of a distinguished translator from classical Greek), serve up a Pilate who speaks fluent Aramaic to the Jews who come before him. Just this, as it happens, creates the opportunity for a moment of linguistically concealed but rather stunning drama. When Pilate leads Jesus into his chambers for a private word, he addresses him condescendingly in Aramaic. (Imagine, if you will, a Hollywood producer speaking Spanish to his gardener.) Jesus answers the proud Roman serenely--and in flawless Latin. Did the historical Jesus speak Latin? Surely not, but Fitzgerald and Gibson are within their rights to choose, for artistic purposes, the Christ of faith over the Jesus of history. Their Jesus is God Incarnate. He can speak at will any human language he chooses to speak.

There is an inevitable whiff of the schoolroom about William Fulco's translation of the Fitzgerald-Gibson script into the two ancient tongues, yet Fulco does his best to colloquialize the language where he can. Thus, the ignorant, armored Romans who lash Jesus through the streets scream at him in Aramaic when he falls, Qum! "Get up!" but continue in Latin with mocking epithets like rex vermum, "king of worms." Adding a bit to the documentary effect, some of the shouted Aramaic never appears in the subtitles. An anonymous voice bellows mamzer from somewhere in the crowd, but the word "bastard" never appears at the bottom of the screen.

But I must turn now to the mentioned and regrettable secondary effect of this otherwise brilliant stroke of linguistic illusion. Nowhere in the world is there a city of a million people who could hear the Aramaic that constitutes the bulk of the dialogue of this film as if it were their native language. There is, however, one city that comes surprisingly close; and that city happens to be Tel Aviv. Aramaic and Hebrew belong to the same northwest branch of the Semitic language family. A native speaker of Israeli Hebrew will hear the Aramaic of this film rather as a native speaker of Italian might hear Spanish. (I speak as a former student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem who thirty-five years ago was semi-fluent in spoken Hebrew.) Nothing in this film will sound quite right in Tel Aviv, but much will sound vaguely familiar. And now and then there will come a sentence of crystal clarity, coincidentally identical in the two languages.

So it happens at a critical moment in "The Passion of the Christ." Reproducing the scene called in Western art "Ecce Homo," "Behold the Man," Pilate has just led Jesus--scourged, bloody, and crowned with thorns--before the Jewish high priests and a crowd of their followers, offering to release him with no further punishment. Rejecting the offer, a priest shouts a phrase in Aramaic that might or might not be intelligible in Tel Aviv. But then the Jewish crowd takes up the same cry in a slightly different grammatical form. They scream in unison a single, terrible word that happens to be identical in Israeli Hebrew and in Aramaic, and they scream it again and again as if it were a football cheer: Yitstalev! Yitstalev! Yitstalev! "Let him be crucified!" as the scene descends into chaos.

Given the agony of the twentieth century for world Jewry, given the complicity of Christianity in that agony, how can a Tel Aviv audience witness with anything less than utter horror this scene of a Jewish mob chanting for Christ's blood in what sounds like Hebrew? American Jews who know enough Israeli Hebrew--and a good many do--will hear the same words in the same deeply disturbing way. It is true that Matthew 27:25, "His blood be upon us and upon our children," the biblical line most notoriously used by Christian anti-Semites against Jews, is not shouted in unison in the film as it is in the Gospel, and that line does not appear in the subtitles. But what remains is nonetheless scandalous in contemporary context. Moreover, though few Americans know this, most Palestinians born under Israeli occupation speak Hebrew as well as Arabic. They, too, will understand yitstalev, and they won't think only of Jesus.

No one can know from reading the Gospels how large a crowd of Jews gathered before Pilate or just how often or how loud they shouted, "Let him be crucified" (Matthew 27:22-23). In saying this, I speak not of what really happened but only of what the writers intend their readers to imagine. In this scene, they cannot intend us to imagine a crowd larger than could be accommodated in a throne room or a courtyard. Earlier in the Gospel story, when Jesus enters Jerusalem in triumph, acclaimed as Messiah by the population, the Gospel writers transparently intend us to imagine a crowd large enough to fill the streets of the city. Unfortunately, the larger crowd, cheering so differently, appears in the Gibson-Benedict script only as a few cryptic seconds of flashback. The result approaches a revision of the "Apostles' Creed" that every traditional Catholic (like Mel Gibson) learns by heart as a child. The Creed summarizes the earthly life of Christ as follows: "conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. [italics added]" Against the Creed and beyond any of the Gospels, "The Passion of the Christ" seems determined to replace the Romans with the Jews and Pilate with Caiaphas. I find this substitution regrettable not only on religious or interreligious grounds but also on artistic grounds, for this original and, in many ways, heartfelt film does not need the Jews as villains. It has another, cinematically stunning villain on hand in the person of Satan, and she (yes, she) is more than enough.

As the usual sort of he-devil, Satan has long since become an essentially comedic character. By contrast, Rosalinda Celentano's grey-faced, hollow-eyed terrorist, speaking in a weirdly masculine or masculinized voice, as if delivering a death-threat in a disguised voice, is the most insinuatingly sinister Satan ever seen on screen. Hers is, in truth, one of the most memorable performances in the film. From the Garden of Olives to the bloody end, she smiles thinly on each scene from the shadows, quietly relishing each agonizing step as Jesus goes down to what seems to be his final defeat. Her omnipresence is matched only by that of Mary, Jesus' sorrowing mother (Maia Morgenstern), the ruthlessness of the one matched by the tenderness of the other. Madame Satan is deceived, of course; and after Jesus' death, we see her shrieking in impotent rage at the bottom of an abyss. The moment of Jesus' apparent defeat has proven to be her final downfall. Nothing remains but the understated denouement: Jesus' resurrection.

It has been suggested that by representing Satan as androgynous, Gibon intends to demonize homosexuals, but this strikes me as a gratuitous charge. Angels are androgynous and benevolent. What should devils be but androgynous and malevolent? I see Satan's presence in the film rather as its one substantial indication that Jesus himself is more than a mere man gratuitously abused.

There are, broadly, two ways to state the "success" of Jesus theologically, one without the Devil and one with him. One theology says that mankind deserved punishment for its sins, but Christ "took the rap," heroically and vicariously atoning for all the sins of history by his passion and death. This theology has little need for Jesus' resurrection--his death accomplishes everything that needs accomplishing--and no real role for Satan to play, even as enemy. "The Passion of the Christ"--in this, like the Gospel story itself--offers few suggestions that Jesus is accepting punishment for mankind's sins. It is precisely because the Gospels say so little about vicarious punishment that J.S. Bach's Passion oratorios insert hymns that interrupt the Gospel narrative to make this connection over and over again. The many viewers who have seen a theology of vicarious punishment in "The Passion of the Christ" have largely brought it with them into the theater, as non-Christian reviewers have been particularly effective in noting. In this, the filmgoers are heirs not just to Bach but also to centuries of later "washed in the blood of the Lamb" Protestant hymnody and preaching.

The second theology, dominant in early Christian art as well as in early Christian thought, tells Jesus' success as an epic tale requiring both Satan and resurrection. Back in the Garden of Eden, it says, Satan led mankind through sin into death, but by the end of time Jesus will have led mankind from sin back into life: Paradise Lost will become Paradise Regained. Jesus will accomplish this by binding his followers to him in the endlessly repeated ritual of the Last Supper so that as he rose on the third day, they will someday rise as well. It is in this way, as Augustine puts it, that "Christ's death kills death." In this story and in this theology of a new exodus from mortality and estrangement from God to immortality and reconciliation with him, punishment for specific sins is not the central topic, and salvation does not consist of exoneration.

By including Satan so noticeably, "The Passion of the Christ" seems to me to tilt in this second theological direction, though Gibson and Fitzgerald weaken the sense of cosmic combat by failing to include any flashbacks to moments such as the Transfiguration when Jesus' divinity was manifest to his disciples. Because Jesus' divinity is not asserted in cinematic terms through this or some other Gospel incident, the film scarcely seems to have God Incarnate as its protagonist. The struggle seems to be between Satan and a helplessly human victim. All the same, because this Satan plays the role of villain to perfection, there is no artistic reason to draft any Jew into that role. And this makes all the more gratuitous and all the more regrettable the screenwriters' decision to go so far beyond the Gospels in demonizing Caiaphas and company.

Once the Jewish mob begins chanting yitstalev, Jesus' trial quickly becomes a bloody melee, Jews and Romans attacking each other and battering Jesus at the same time. It is at this point that "His blood be upon us," etc. is audible in the Aramaic, even though it does not appear below the screen. When Pilate finally washes his hands and turns Jesus over, he plainly means to say to both groups: Have at him, both of you, but leave me out of it. Already, his soldiers have gone beyond his instructions (and beyond the Gospels) by brutally prolonging Jesus' scourging. Yet now, cynically, he allows them to do with the condemned man as they will. There is, yes, one noble Roman among the soldiers, as there were two brave Jewish dissenters at the court of the high priest. There is as well a decent Jewish bystander who, drafted by the soldiers into helping Jesus carry his cross, becomes, almost against his will, Jesus' defender. But it is the Roman soldiers--loutish, drunken, sadistic, and depraved--who define the latter third of the film and move the action forward to its savage conclusion.

"The Passion of the Christ" might almost have been titled "The Beating of the Christ." Jesus is beaten at his arrest in the Garden, beaten as he is taken to the court of Caiaphas, beaten en route to the court of Pilate, scourged at length by Pilate's soldiers, and so endlessly on. One of the very first beatings leaves him with his right eye swollen shut, requiring Jim Caviezel, much of whose acting in the role of Jesus consists of soulful gazing, to make do with one soulful eye only. Makeup artists Keith Vanderlaan and Greg Cannom do their best to turn two hours' worth of beatings into a visible descent toward death, but they have a near-impossible task. The script requires Jesus to absorb so much punishment at the start that makeup must turn him into a physical ruin with perhaps forty-five minutes of the film still to run.

The true physiological monstrosity of crucifixion--the victim, delirious, dying by asphyxiation, ending his life with hideous gasps, like a man dying of asthma or drowning in mid-air--is not shown, and who would want to see it? Who would want to linger over its true obscenity, either, the shamed victim, with his tongue lolling out of his dehydrated mouth, pulling himself up by his bound and nailed arms to prevent the sedulum, a saddle-like Roman torture device placed beneath his perineum, from grinding his groin to a pulp? Agony of this sort has never been portrayed in art; I doubt that it ever will be, any more than I expect or want the real horror of racist lynching ever to appear on an American. Crucifixion, which usually took days to kill, killed Jesus in just three short hours; but would any audience remain in a darkened movie theater for even that long watching life drain away drop by boring drop? At the traditional tre ore Good Friday service, Catholics have stayed in church that long, but Hollywood will never ask so much.

No, for all its bloodiness, "The Passion" must stun more by the moral evil it suggests than by the physical suffering it portrays. Yes, it imports into the rather tame subgenre of the "Jesus movie" some of the techniques of the horror movie, even the "splatter movie," but these contribute rather little in the end. As the blood drips and the blows land by the scores, if not the hundreds, more begins to seem less. Still more--to the point of duplicating the excruciating boredom of the real thing--would have been still less.

One begins to long, in fact, for the interruptions, the flashbacks, that relieve the monotony. Thanks to the sensitive cinematography of Caleb Deschanel, these include some of the most visually appealing moments in the film. At one moment a candle-lit interior will recall Georges de la Tour, at another Christ's face at the Last Supper will suggest Rembrandt's famous head of Christ, at still another the cut and color of Mary's veils will recall a Bellini pieta, and so forth. There are such allusions in the bloodiest scenes as well. When Christ's left hand gathers to a claw at the moment when the nail pierces it, a few viewers, surely, will think of the claw-like hands of the crucified Christ in the deeply moving Isenheim Altarpiece of Matthias Grünewald.

These reminders and others like them hover, by choice or design, just below the threshhold of visual consciousness. Nothing is ever copied or "quoted" exactly, yet the sneer on that soldier's face.... Have I not seen it somewhere before? Is it Breughel? Actors in ordinary films make you think of other actors and other people you know. Scenes in this film make you think, instead, of art you are sure you must have seen before, though you can't quite remember quite where. It helps, of course, that the film was shot partly on location in Matera, Italy and that the Italian landscape, natural and built, is the visual backdrop to so much of the greatest Christian art. Rather than break new ground in costuming or setting, "The Passion" has chosen to continue an iconographic tradition.

This means, for example, that rather than walk with his arms lashed to the crossbeam of a T-shaped cross, as scholars believe was likely, Jesus lugs a towering "Latin" cross like those seen in most classic paintings, though such a cross would in fact weigh as much as six or eight railroad ties and be so heavy that no man--in fact, no two or three men--could possibly lift it. When we see this baroque cross falling in slo-mo and striking the ground with an amplified, sepulchral "boooom" from the sound track, we are--to repeat a point made earlier--in the realm not of quasi-documentary realism but of refined hyper-realism, the cinematic enhancement of inherited imagery. Real crucifixions did not come with background music.

Before concluding, it seems only fair to note, on the one hand, that this film does not continue any of the anti-Semitic visual cues that one may read about in Ruth Mellinkoff's landmark Outcasts: Signs of Otherness in Northern European Art of the Late Middle Ages (University of California Press, 1994). One observes here, in other words, none of the "[t]ypical distortions associated with Jews [in late medieval art]--enlarged eyes, hooked noses, enlarged mouths, and fleshy lips...." (p. 128). On the other hand, the film must be said to break new anti-Semitic ground in its vivid representation of Matthew 27:25 ("His blood be upon us," etc.). Against the view that early Christian literary and artistic tradition sought to win favor in the Roman Empire by inculpating the Jews and exculpating the Romans for the death of Jesus, the very earliest, thoroughly Roman depictions of the Passion, typically make Pilate a central figure, while Jews, other than Judas, are secondary or altogether absent. (See vol. 2, p. 65, in Gertrud Schiller's massive and comprehensive The Iconography of Christian Art [New York Graphic Society, 1972]). Jewish actors grow more prominent in later depictions, but as it happens artistic representations of Matthew 27:25 per se are essentially not to be had at any period. Thus, in foregrounding this part of the Passion story as it does, "The Passion of the Christ" actually breaks with the tradition of Christian visual art, though not perhaps with the shorter history of Western religious drama, as at Oberammergau.

Time will tell whether this film will have any longer a life or any deeper an impact than its predecessors in the genre, all of which seem faded or eccentric failures in retrospect. The plot of the Gospel--good, beautiful man confronts evil, ugly establishment, loses everything, but then miraculously wins everything back in the end--is Christianity's supreme gift to Hollywood. Think of good, beautiful Tom Cruise in "Jerry Maguire." Think of good, beautiful Paul Newman in "Cool Hand Luke." The list is endless. Generation after generation, the old story keeps on coming; only the faces change. Even Steven Spielberg couldn't do his Holocaust movie until Tom Keneally wrote "Schindler's Ark," uncovering within that supremely intractable catastrophe a story that conformed more or less to the Gospel archetype. This is the deepest, most inescapable impact of the Gospel on American literary and artistic culture.

"The Passion" conforms to the archetype in principle but differs from most Hollywood examples of it by severely contracting the beginning and the end (confrontation and triumph) and greatly expanding the middle (suffering and loss). As a result, despite the length of "The Passion," I suspect audiences who do not walk in with a developed theology to apply will walk out with a feeling of, "Is that all?" This film offers indeed only the Passion of Christ and not the Gospel of Christ. Absent from this film are the Gospels' beautiful and consoling scenes of the risen Jesus' reunion with his disciples. The omission is surely defensible on artistic grounds. The fact remains, however, that catharsis is withheld. Millions will want to see this film, but few will want to see it twice.

Speaking personally, I regret the worsening of Jewish-Christian and Jewish-Muslim relations that I believe is likely to result from the scenes I have lingered over in this review. I fear the use that may be made of the film by Muslim anti-Semites like Syrian president Bashar Assad. A Christian group delivered a copy to Yasir Arafat, who pronounced it without anti-Semitism. Afterwards, his media spokesman took the occasion to say: "The Palestinians are still daily having exposure to the kind of pain Jesus was exposed to during his crucifixion." As of this writing, the film is not in distribution in Israel.

Larger factors than any American film will surely determine both Jewish-Christian and Jewish-Muslim relationships even in the period immediately ahead. More lasting, perhaps, as the film gradually fades away, may be a result of at least middling importance in Protestant-Catholic relations in the United States. I refer to the astonishing fact that in their embrace of "The Passion," Evangelical Protestants have celebrated a portrayal of Jesus that visually and theologically--in every way, perhaps, except in the wail, thunder, and thud of John Debney's deafening score--is flamboyantly, counter-Reformationally Roman. This film is awash in Catholic piety and Catholic imagery that the forebears of today's Evangelicals would have found religiously and aesthetically repugnant. As I write, "The Passion" is being embraced most warmly by Bible Belt churches where, down to this day, the faithful kneel before crosses without corpses. What has come over them? And having come, will it stay? Roman Catholic worship in the United States is far more Protestant in tone than it was before Vatican II. Will Protestant worship now begin to assume a more Catholic tone? Will this film be the improbable occasion for the return of the repressed blood-rite element in the archetypal Christian service that Paul speaks of?

It is astonishing, finally, that political Conservatives should have embraced--during wartime--a film whose message is that when under murderous attack, one should not fight back but instead forgive one's attackers and accept one's death humbly as the will of God. Personally, I tend to think that a serious, life-challenging topic like pacifism is rarely if ever addressed effectively in a film. New films knock down old films as bowling balls knock down bowling pins in successive frames. Even the most grandiose of "major motion pictures" asks so little of the filmgoer that the discussion almost never outlasts the hype.

Will this film be different? Perhaps it will be, but if it isn't, fear not: Within the decade, there will be a remake. Of that, you can be certain. The Gospel is a story with legs--short ones, to be sure, but very, very sturdy.

* Since writing this review, I have learned of an earlier, British film entirely in Latin with English subtitles: Derek Jarman and Paul Humfress's 1976 "Sebastiane," a gay movie about a martyred Roman soldier who, as St. Sebastian, became the center of a long-running Christian cult.