The Passion, Pornography and Polemic: In Defense of The Passion of the Christ
While there are some troubling elements in the film, as there are in all the Jesus films, the case that the film is peculiarly anti-Semitic, or, more accurately, anti-Judaic, has been seriously overstated.
Senior Lecturer in New Testament
Department of Theology,
University of Birmingham, U.K.
Like many other viewers, I went to see The Passion of the Christ with a sense of real concern. I was troubled that so popular a film could be undoing some of the considerable advances made by New Testament scholarship on the passion narrative in the Gospels, specifically over issues connected with the depiction of Pilate, the role played by the Jewish leadership, and the nature of the crowd. Reading the passion narratives in a post-holocaust context has rightly made us sensitive to the appalling uses made of them by many throughout history. Our disgust has helped us to face up to the tough questions about the content of those narratives and the ways in which they have often been read. Scholars have become more sensitive to the troubling things the Gospels say, the important things that they do not say, the striking ways that they spin their traditions, and the problematic ways in which they represent the key characters. And now, scholars, whose views I respect, were suggesting that this film, far from being sensitive to such points, was peculiarly anti-Jewish – it sounded like it had gone out of its way to offend Jews and to treat such delicate subject matter with utter indifference.
On a personal level, I was also particularly worried about the alleged violence in the film. I hate watching violent films. I find the depiction of violence on screen deeply upsetting and will choose to avoid seeing it as far as possible. So when the reviews began to roll in claiming that the violence in The Passion of the Christ was excessive, gratuitous, even pornographic, I began to dread seeing it. I am not alone in feeling this way. One colleague has told me that he has no intention of viewing the film at all. “I don’t do violence,” he said. Another academic emailed me and suggested I take a stand and not go. But this was not a realistic option. I have followed Jesus films since I was a child. I have always been fascinated by the attempts to depict Jesus’ life. As a child, I remember gathering round with the family to watch Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth on Sunday nights in 1977, something of a major national event. I always loved seeing King of Kings (Nicholas Ray, 1961) when it was shown every Easter and learned to think of Jesus as looking like Jeffrey Hunter. Later, as a teenager, I loved Jesus Christ Superstar, the film, the soundtrack, the stage show; I could not get enough of it. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I also loved Life of Brian when it came out in 1979. I had grown up on Monty Python and Jesus films, and here were the two combined!
In teaching, I have found that using clips of Jesus films were a useful way of sparking off discussion, of getting students interested in the subject. The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988) is in this respect the lecturer’s dream, so full of interesting scenes to spark discussion, whether historical, theological, or filmic. When I began lecturing on Jesus films, I often used to say that it was unlikely that we would get a major Jesus film following the old Hollywood epic tradition. How wrong I was. First came The Miracle Maker (Hayes and Sokolov, 1999) and the CBS mini-series Jesus (Roger Young, 1999); then The Gospel of John (Philip Saville, 2003); and now The Passion of the Christ. I simply had to see this new film, albeit allegedly one of the most violent films ever made.
Is The Passion of the Christ Pornographic?
Given this background, I was surprised to find the film very powerful and many of the reviews overstated. In particular, the repeated charge of “pornography” is quite out of place. Yes, the film is horribly violent but while it is graphic it is never gratuitous. Pornography is all about titillating the viewer, drawing him/her to want more to satiate their appetite for flesh. Mel Gibson does not encourage the viewer to want to see more. All the time he is asking you to turn away, to think about what is happening, to be appalled at the Roman guards’ brutality, to share both of the Marys’ grief. This is not pornography.
The primary focus of the pornography charge is the scene in which Jesus is scourged by nasty, depraved and brutal Roman guards, the epitome of a sadistic evil approved by the lurking, hooded Satanic figure. Those who talk about the relentless, gratuitous or pornographic nature of this section of the film tend to ignore several important elements. The extent of the violence depicted is mitigated by the fact that the camera itself cannot bear to look on and repeatedly draws away, sometimes so far that you can only hear it in the distance. And when the camera does look on, its focus is on Jesus’ face and trembling hands. Unlike pornography, but in the tradition of many horror flicks, Gibson realises that it is important not to show everything in graphic detail. Talk of his dwelling lovingly on every injury is quite mistaken.
Moreover, viewers are taken on two other journeys during this scene. They are party to a flashback explaining the past of Mary Magdalene, who is identified with the woman taken in adultery of John 8, following the typical Jesus film tradition. And the camera follows Mary and Mary Magdalene, focuses on their anguish and introduces Claudia Procles with her pieces of linen in the scene adapted from Catherine Emmerich’s visions. In short, the camera chooses not to gaze. Jesus is not objectified. The viewer is encouraged not to look and is often not allowed to look. The charge of pornography is not, in other words, a rational one. It is polemic.
This is not to say that the scourging scene is not traumatic. It is. Few will not find this very traumatic, deeply disturbing, very upsetting. Of course it is possible that a particular kind of viewer might derive sadistic pleasure from looking upon this, but if so they do so, it is markedly against the grain of the film. Unlike pornography, this film does not beckon the viewer to watch more, much less to revel in it. The villains of the piece, the sadistic Roman guards, delight in their depravity, looking on, laughing and increasing the torment. The implied viewer has absolutely no sympathy with the Roman guards but rather turns away, cries, demands them to stop.
Is the Crucifixion an anti-climax?
Contrary to the view of many of its critics, The Passion of the Christ is not one of the most violent films ever made. Nor, for all the graphic violence, is it correct to insist that it features the most appalling brutality imaginable. A moment’s pause confirms that there are many ways in which the violence could have been made far worse. Jesus ben Ananias, for example, was said to have been “whipped till his bones were laid bare” (Josephus' War 6.5.3). Or the possibility that victims of crucifixion often died of asphyxiation is not countenanced here. Jesus gives up his spirit and bows his head; we do not see him writhe in agony as he struggles to take another breath.
Many of the reviews have said that the crucifixion almost comes as an anti-climax after the scourging and the long road to Golgotha. But like many of the criticisms of the film, this is overstated. For most viewers, the really traumatic part of the film will undoubtedly be watching the soldiers crucify Jesus. This is not just because of the agony of seeing a man having nails driven through his hands and feet, but because it is here that Gibson intensifies his use of flashback, the Last Supper, “Love one another . . .”, the Good Shepherd, the Sermon on the Mount, “Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors . . .” This powerful juxtaposition of crucifixion and flashback, in which Jesus’ ethic of love and forgiveness in the face of the most hideous evil, confounds those who speak of this as a film of hate. Its stress on love of one another, love of enemies, prayer for persecutors and forgiveness could hardly be more acute. The Greatest Story Ever Told (George Stevens, 1965) attempted to do something similar by juxtaposing John the Baptist’s beheading and Antipas’s demand that Jesus be arrested with “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake . . .”, which is brought forward into firs place among the beatitudes. But where in that film the link is easily lost, Gibson really makes it work by using flashback.