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Daniel Burston, & Rebecca I. Denova, ed., Passionate Dialogues: Critical Perspectives on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Mise Publications, 2005, $37.95, 262 pages, ISBN 978-0-9749086-1-8)—Jean-François Baillon, Université Michel de Montaigne - Bordeaux 3


Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) is everything Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) isn’t—except for one thing: the amount of passionate controversy it caused among viewers and reviewers alike. Since its much-publicized release on Ash Wednesday 2004, it has inspired no less than eight monographs and collections of essays. Neatly divided into five sections on historical perspectives (five essays), literary perspectives (two essays), film studies (two essays), psychoanalytic perspectives (three essays) and “interfaith” perspectives (two essays), the agenda of the present volume is to give Gibson’s unprecedented foray into Aramean-speaking film—making a fair trial—something his eponymous hero was arguably denied. Curiously enough, such a distribution of critical territories begs the question of what pure ‘film studies’ excluding history, literature and psychoanalysis (leaving aside religious ecumenism) might possibly be. The problem is especially acute when one is confronted with such a problematic object as Gibson’s self-styled attempt to immerse his audience into the allegedly historically accurate narration of a bloodbath whilst basing his script on the literary outpourings of an early nineteenth-century German female mystic, Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824), who was beatified by Pope John Paul II in October 2004 (it is not entirely clear whether the film’s promoters’ claim that the same Pope commented that “it is as it was” after he saw the film is apocryphal).

Several contributions attempt to place Gibson’s picture within the tradition of the Passion Plays, whether in their mediaeval or contemporary North-American versions. Beyond the issue of the persistence of theatrical forms in the expression of faith, what is really at stake, the authors show, is the potential anti-Semitism possibly inherent in that tradition. In the Middle-Ages, such performances were frequently attended with collective assaults on nearby Jewish communities, which is why they were eventually banned in Rome in 1539—precisely in order to check such outbursts of violence. More recently, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a document, the Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion (1988), whose aim was to offer guidelines to theatre and cinema performers and producers in order to suppress the risk of anti-Semitic exploitations of an age-old genre. Belonging to a pre-Vatican II variety of Catholicism, Mel Gibson deliberately ignored most of those recommendations [232]. What gradually comes to light in the first group of essays is the contradictory stance of a film caught between a claim to authenticity (although one contributor questions the assumption that Jesus might have spoken Latin fluently [29]) and its inheritance of a theatrical and literary tradition combined with a quite specific legacy of spiritual exercises eventually theorized by Ignatius Loyola. The most up-to-date exegetical historical and archaeological evidence consistently shows that much in the Gospel narratives served the contemporary purposes of individual writers and addressed specific problems faced by various early Christian communities, which means that very few—if any—of the episodes narrated in them ought to be accepted as literal truth. Any straightforward adaptation of even a fragment of them is therefore bound uncritically to reproduce ex post facto constructions, some of which have been used to accuse the Jewish people of deicide for centuries.

Literary approaches of the film draw parallelisms between Gibson and various Catholic writers, sometimes but not always convincingly. Thus G. Christopher Williams’s exploration of what he terms the “transubstantial and charismatic semiotics” of Gibson’s film fails to convince, largely because it relies on an extensive comparison of Gibson with Flannery O’Connor. Now there is a world of difference between a writer of fiction and the director of a film which purports to show the Passion of the Christ as it ‘really’ took place. Moreover, Gibson’s admittedly daring depiction of Satan under the guise of an anti-Madonna in a key passage of the film can hardly be considered as identical with O’Connor’s consistent reliance on the literary tradition of the Southern grotesque.

Reading Gibson’s film against the grain, Wilhelm Wurzer argues that it “liberates Jesus [from] institutional Christianity” [133]. Curiously enough, Wurzer credits Gibson with releasing a Nietzschean critique of ressentiment from the metaphysical impositions of the Church, which, in Wurzer’s own terms, amounts to a “de-Christianizing” of Jesus. While few would deny that “the meanings embedded in a work of art […] are never completely encompassed or circumscribed by the artist’s conscious intentions” [136], nevertheless one gets an impression that Wurzer’s contrived post-modernist contortions amount to little short of a total misreading of Gibson’s film. Even allowing for the obvious contradictions between Gibson’s claims to authenticity and the finished project, one wonders whether terming Gibson’s approach “philological” [143] really makes sense. As to the praise of his so-called “major cinematic achievement” [137] as being so unique that it “cannot really be compared to other epic movies” [137], it simply does not stand scrutiny as soon as one thinks of genuine masterpieces based on the Gospel narratives such as Pasolini’s Il Vangolo secondo Matteo (1964) or Denys Arcand’s Jésus de Montréal (1989). Pasolini’s film too was “embedded in a rich genealogy of paintings” and relied on a poetic use of the visual medium and music [137] through a “startling heterogeneity of musical genres and instruments” [141]. The vagaries of this misguided exegetical effort climax in the equation of Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography with the achievements of Caravaggio, Hieronymus Bosch and Mathias Grünewald [142]. Clearly Gibson and his cinematographer deliberately drew on numerous painters such as the aforenamed (and others: Pontormo, Michelangelo); claiming that they managed the same level of artistic success is quite another matter.

Unlike Wurzer’s, Sarah Hagelin’s study aptly refers the film to the context of contemporary America and contrasts Gibson’s “fundamentalist” iconography and aesthetics of certainty with Scorsese’s “non-fundamentalist” practice of doubt—a distinction surely borne out by various denominational reactions to both films on their release. Tracing Gibson’s shift from a “theology of the cross” to a “theology of the whip,” Hagelin successfully exposes the pornographic relationship to violence which allows Gibson to “create a sense of persecution for wealthy, white Christians” [153]. In Hagelin’s reading, Gibson’s literalism, embedded in the filmmaker’s choice to film his own hand-nailing Jesus to the cross (he is ‘driving his argument home’), makes political as well as theological sense, especially in the context of Hollywood politics, with Gibson “claiming that Hollywood dislikes Christianity” [157]. According to Hagelin, the conversion strategies at work in the film explain the paradoxical appeal of a deeply Conservative Catholic picture to Protestant Evangelicals and ultimately accounts for the film’s “ethical failure,” based as it is on a “legacy of violence” [163].

In a similarly critical vein and on the basis of a Kleinian and Winnicottian perspective, Donald L. Carveth shows how Gibson’s indulgence in a pornography of violence supports a pseudo-literalist version of Christianity that scapegoats the Jews instead of reaching to the radical critique of scapegoating which is precisely of the essence of mature Christianity—thus getting close to René Girard’s analysis of Christianity as the exposure of the mechanics of victimization. Indeed Girard’s anthropological insights into the nature of Christianity through his theory of mimetic desire are taken up by Britton W. Johnson, who claims that Gibson “has exploited the narrative in contravention of the Gospel message” [189]. Instead of a subversion of the “primitive sacred,” Gibson revives it in an age which, according to Johnston, is deeply ambivalent in its relation to it [193]. This strategy, which repeats Anselm of Canterbury’s sacrificial atonement theory, is consistent with Gibson’s previous films, most notably the Lethal Weapon tetralogy (1987-1998). In The Passion of the Christ, the audience is led to indulge in the very scapegoat mechanism which, according to Girard, the Gospels have carefully deconstructed: thus all the major distortions and shifts of emphasis from the Gospel narratives to the final script can be interpreted in terms of the designation of a culprit to an innocent audience, i.e. of a deep misunderstanding of the biblical message.

Relying on Lacan and Zizek, Philip A. Gunderson relates the film’s logic of sacrifice to the collective trauma of 9/11 and describes it as part of “an ultra-conservative fetishization of sacrifice” [181]. By making “a film that only the most devout Christian or perverse sadomasochist could enjoy” [183], Gibson has merely responded to a collective demand for sense in the aftermath of the collapse of America’s symbolic order.

While providing a convenient list of the main additions to the Gospel narratives drawn by Gibson from the writings of Anne Catherine Emmerich, David Shtulman’s discussion of the impact of the film on Christian-Jewish relations eschews the delicate matter of the film’s anti-Semitic contents. Promoters of the film, including its director himself, repeatedly paralleled the behavior of the Jews in the Gospels to that of the Nazis in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List: this makes it difficult to disregard the distorsions of both historical truthfulness and Gospel narrative in a film that purports to offer a version of the Passion “as it actually happened according to the gospels” [209], whatever such a phrase may mean. It is equally difficult to ignore the similarities between the thrust of those distortions and the ultimate message of the Oberammergau Passion Play, a German Passion Play actually praised by Hitler himself in 1942. Should we really blame the demand for “historic accountability” [212] which Shtulman wrongly ascribes to punctilious and overreactive Jewish viewers only? While such accountability can hardly be offered as a standard of aesthetic or ethical judgment per se, the issue of the responsibility of filmmakers cannot be evaded. Certainly Daniel Burston’s lengthy discussion of the film’s impact on the future of Christian-Jewish dialogue cannot be accused of that. Refusing to yield to strategies of intimidation on both sides, Burston examines the irreconcilable difference between Jewish and Christian views of history, claiming that “they are always potentially on a collision course” [229]. Taking seriously Mel Gibson’s father’s denial of the Shoah, Burston reads it as a symptom of hostility towards the Christian-Jewish dialogue in those religious groups to which the director of The Passion of the Christ happens to be affiliated. Burston conveniently relies on much circumstantial evidence to suggest that it can be no coincidence that Gibson’s film was backed by rightwing Evangelicals and Christian Zionists and the like, although in fairness to the film such a well-researched argument tends to erase the potential ambiguities of the final picture. Yet Burston’s preoccupation lies with the concrete consequences of the controversy on society—and the bleakness of his conclusion is amply justified by the range and relevance of his evidence.

Some will say that such a heap of critical writing surely pays Gibson’s film more attention than it deserves. Seen as the latest Hollywood version of the “greatest story ever told,” to borrow the title of George Stevens’s 1965 epic, Gibson’s is certainly not the most challenging from an aesthetic—let alone ethical—point of view. One is bound to prefer Abel Ferrara’s much more inspiring investigations of the relation between cinema and Christian imagery, whether in his masterly Bad Lieutenant (1992) or in his late Mary (2005). But considered as a social and political phenomenon, the controversy caused by The Passion of the Christ is probably worthy of our interest. While this collection of papers offers few innovative or unpredictable arguments, it provides an honest discussion of the main issues involved and intermittently introduces the kind of academic seriousness which is often missing from similar debates. In the end it should be more profitably read as a forum of contemporary cultural issues than as a lasting contribution to Cultural Studies or film hermeneutics.

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