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Mel's Jesus: A "Real Man" or Just a Toon?

    If you read the gospel accounts of the Passion before you view the film, it becomes immediately clear that The Passion does not consistently adhere to the biblical stories

By Paul V.M. Flesher
University of Wyoming
March 2004

    Before the release of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, people invited to the previews spoke eloquently and often about the accuracy of its portrayal of Jesus’ last 12 hours of life. But if you read the gospel accounts of the Passion before you view the film, it becomes immediately clear that The Passion does not consistently adhere to the biblical stories. Indeed, it is no more accurate than previous Jesus films. Measured in terms of the Gospel accounts of the Passion, I estimate that only half the movie’s scenes are actually based on the biblical text. Measured in terms of the Church’s traditional tales about the Passion (mostly from Catholicism and Orthodoxy), Gibson’s film adheres somewhat more to the story line. Even so, the film draws much from the modern world, even from recent filmic depictions of the gospel story; it is easy to recognize elements drawn from Jesus Christ, Superstar, The Robe, Jesus of Montreal, and The Last Temptation of Christ--just to name a few.

This should not be surprising, for all film presentations of Scripture require the director to recast the ancient stories into terms understandable in the modern world. Indeed, directors usually enjoy this aspect of film making, for it enables them to present their own message interwoven with Scripture’s. Gibson’s presentation of Jesus’ Passion is no different in this regard. The film’s central message is about the importance of Jesus’ suffering. But this is not suffering for suffering’s sake; it is not “here’s a victim, let’s watch him suffer.” It is a suffering that Jesus wants, that he manipulates events to ensure he gets, and that he “bears it like a man.”

The film opens with Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, in the throes of doubt about his mission and forthcoming death. Although he begins in doubt and is then tempted by Satan to give up (presumably to save his life), he completes his prayer resolved to carry forward with God’s plan.

God’s plan seems to involve Jesus being tortured and beaten extensively, according to the film, and it starts immediately. As Jesus finishes praying in the Garden, the High Priest’s soldiers arrest him and bring him to the High Priest, beating him all the way and even dropping him off a bridge. This series of beatings, completely without basis in Scripture, at first seems gratuitous and lends credence to the charge that the film portrays the Passion in an anti-Semitic manner. But there is a narrative reason for this punishment; namely, it causes Jesus to look downtrodden and beaten from his very first appearance before the officials who will try him. James Caviezel may be a handsome man, but that beauty is gone by the time he appears in the lighted room of his trial before the Jewish council. His face is puffy and bruised, with one eye swollen shut.

Despite his appearance, Jesus is defiant. In the trial before the High Priest, Jesus takes control to ensure his conviction. The council calls forward witnesses to give evidence of Jesus’ crimes, but they are so unbelievable that the council itself dismisses the witnesses as contradictory liars. So Caiaphas asks Jesus directly whether he is the Messiah. Jesus answers in the words of Mark’s Gospel, “I am” (Mark 14:62), thus convicting himself. He could have used the words from Matthew, “You have said so” (Matt. 26:64), but he did not. Jesus’ defiant response, despite his injuries or perhaps because of them, causes his immediate conviction of the charge of blasphemy. At this point, some of the council are so enraged that they slap him. This biblically based scene seems mild compared to the non-scriptural beatings that have already happened.

The scenes before Pilate provide Jesus with another moment for exercising his control over events. When Pilate takes Jesus into the praetorium to talk privately with him, Jesus turns Pilate’s attempt to find a reason to release him into a verbal sparring match. Following the Gospel of John (19:33-38), Jesus goads Pilate and gives him no reason or even pretext he can use to set Jesus free.

It is clear from the way the film depicts these two scenes that although Jesus looks like a victim, he does not act like one. In both scenes, Jesus has an opportunity to attain his freedom and avoid the coming crucifixion. In both scenes, he throws the opportunity back into the teeth of those judging him. He ensures that they do what he wants. This defiant Jesus controls the outcome of both judgments, even more than the judges themselves. And, just in case the audience missed Jesus’ control of the action, the film has Mary, Jesus’ mother, say during the beating, “My son, my son, when will you choose to be delivered of this?”

Once Jesus has ensured his condemnation, Pilate hands him over to the Roman soldiers for whipping and then crucifixion. Here the torture begins in earnest, and Jesus’ macho character begins to appear. But Jesus shows neither swagger nor bravado, but rather inner strength and a refusal to bow to one’s oppressors.

This character comes out most clearly in the challenge Jesus offers to the Roman soldiers whipping him. Once Jesus is convicted, the Romans take over (the various groups of Jews appear primarily as viewers). The soldiers treat Jesus with a cruelty borne of sadism and a steadily increasing amount of drink. In the Gospels, Jesus is simply flogged. In Gibson’s film, the whipping starts with a caning, which causes Jesus to collapse over the whipping post. Then, when the soldiers stop, Jesus slowly but determinedly rises to a standing position, in defiance of his tormentors. They take up the challenge, switch to scourges, and begin flailing him again. When they next pause, Jesus lies on the ground apparently broken. The soldiers release a manacle from one of his arms, and Jesus makes a small move to rise. In a frenzied response, a soldier starts beating the front of his torso. Jesus’ challenges to his tormentors increase the torture, but they arise from his inner determination to defy the challenges put before him. To put it in more macho terms, this Jesus can take what they dish out and keep on coming.

Jesus’ defiance of his tormentors continues into the journey to Golgotha, in which the Roman soldiers beat Jesus constantly while he carries the cross. This has two results. First, Jesus stumbles frequently and occasionally falls under their whips. Second, when this happens, Jesus forces himself back onto his feet. The glint in his eye shows his determination not to succumb.

When it finally becomes clear that Jesus can barely stand and can no longer carry the cross, the soldiers force Simon of Cyrene to carry it. It is here, where viewers think Jesus has no more strength, that his macho determination once more comes to the fore. Jesus stands up next to Simon, shoulders the other side of the cross beam, carries it with him--almost as if he were annoyed that someone else was carrying his cross.

Jesus’ masculine refusal to give in appears in physical form one more time when the Roman soldiers nail him to the cross. This cross is apparently pre-manufactured, for it has holes already drilled for the nails. Unfortunately for Jesus, the span between his hands is not wide enough to reach from one hole to the other--a point discovered only when one of his hands has already been nailed down. So a solder starts pulling on Jesus’ arm to stretch it out to the second hole. Jesus resists the soldier, and there is a short tug of war over Jesus’ hand before the soldier’s superior strength determines the outcome.

Jesus’ determination not to simply give in to his situation but to defy the cruelty with which it takes place constitutes a key aspect of Jesus’ character in this film. Jesus has agreed to God’s plan for humanity’s salvation, but he has not given in to the human agents who carry it out. He is not a weak, passive, or spineless figure who gives up his pride when he gives up his body. His defiance of the Roman soldiers forms an implicit judgment on their actions. In broader theological terms, his continually resurfacing determination to defy his tormentors shows that he has not lost his inner strength. Although he is the victim, he is the strongest person there. He actively carries out God’s will, using his strength to ensure those around him do what needs to be done even as he defies the cruel means by which they do it. This is not the feminized Jesus the twentieth-century inherited from the Victorians, but a male Jesus who displays his macho strength to the end.

So how is the audience who views Jesus’ suffering supposed to react to this macho Jesus? They are supposed to be changed. Gibson makes this clear by adding non-biblical scenes in which bystanders in the film are changed, perhaps even converted into followers, by witnessing Jesus’ suffering and his reaction to it.

One of those changed by Jesus is Pilate’s wife. As in the Gospels, she has the dream which causes her to tell Pilate not to get involved in the condemnation of Jesus. But then she watches Jesus’ trial, sees the physical punishment inflicted on his body, and notices the horrified reaction of Mary his Mother and Mary Magdalene. At this, Pilate’s wife leaves her quarters and goes out to comfort them, giving them a cloth on which to cry.

The bystander affected most by Jesus’ suffering is Simon of Cyrene, who is pulled from the crowd to carry Jesus’ cross. The film’s portrayal begins with him refusing to get involved and he only takes up the cross under a soldier’s threat. As Simon carries the cross, he becomes affected by the suffering of Jesus as Jesus tries to carry it with Simon, even when the soldiers continue to beat and whip him. At one point, after Jesus falls, Simon drives away the crowd and the soldiers beating Jesus; at another, Simon tries to hold Jesus up as he falls under the pain of his suffering. Finally at Golgotha, Jesus looks Simon in the eyes when he is permitted to leave, and Simon must be driven away from Jesus’ magnetism, even at this late stage of Jesus’ suffering.

Gibson’s rendering of the story of the Centurion also reveals Jesus’ impact. In Scripture, a Centurion stands at the foot of the cross and says, “Surely this was the Son of God.” Gibson surprisingly leaves out the line. However, the film shows the Centurion, through quick shots across the film, gradually becoming more and more interested in Jesus and more sympathetic to him, if his facial expressions are any indication. At the end, the Centurion works with the women to take Jesus down from the cross and stands with them in a tableau reminiscent of the Pieta as portrayed in traditional sculpture and paintings. He has joined Jesus’ followers.

To these can be added other viewers mentioned in the Bible and in Church tradition, such as the thief and Veronica. A flashback to the stoning from which Jesus saves Mary Magdalene indicates Jesus’ impact on her life as well. So Gibson’s message about Jesus’ macho approach to suffering is complemented by these vignettes portraying the reaction of viewers in the story. These additions depict the reaction the film wishes from the viewers in the audience--that Jesus’ suffering will change their lives and make them into followers of Christ.

Does the film work? Will viewers begin to understand Jesus in this more male, more macho manner? Will this lead to Christians being more active in reaching out and helping others? Only time will tell, but let me make two observations. First, an older female friend of mine who is both a devout Christian and a seasoned--even hardened-- viewer of film and theater saw the film. She told me that she cried through most of the film, something she has not done for decades. When the film was over, however, she went out not wanting to forgive her neighbor, but filled with anger, wanting to hurt someone, to punish someone.

Finally, to people who get immersed in the film’s story--both believers and others--this is an effective and compelling portrayal of the Passion. In the context of modern filmmaking, however, the continual beating of Jesus constitutes part of the “more! more!” character of its portrayal of violence. It reduces the man to a cartoon rather than elevating him to his divine nature. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, cartoon characters (“toons”) are depicted as living actors, not drawn characters, who pursue lives off the set. Their value to the film industry in Roger Rabbit is that they can absorb without effect large amounts of beating, pain, and injury. In the past couple of decades, the increasing sophistication of special-effect technology has given human actors in film the same ability. That is, the effects enable them to become like toons; they can survive car wrecks, explosions, falling from high buildings, being shot, and then just shrug it off and continue to fight. Has Gibson’s twenty-first-century Jesus become a toon? Several times in the film Jesus undergoes beatings and physical torture each of which would kill a person. He not only does not die, but he continues to be conscious, to be mobile, and to struggle with his fate. Does this film present Jesus as a “real man,” or has it reduced him to a human, live-action toon?