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The Passion of the Christ: Revisited (1 Viewer)


Senior Member
The Passion of the Christ: A Second Look :cry:

There has been so much reaction to my first review, critique, comment on Mel Gibson’s film ‘The Passion of the Christ’ that I felt a need to write a second statement. This statement will deal with some but not all of the main threads of response that I received. The responses, the postings at internet sites, of most people were responses not so much to what I wrote but, rather, responses to issues raised by the film itself--not necessarily my article in particular. :idea:

The first concern was the violence in the film. That seemed to be the most generized concern, although there were many cryptic responses that gave vent in sometimes creative and often puzzling ways to various conspiracy theories, to a range of anti- government sentiments and a host of other passionate and not-so-passionate worries of the respondents. The literature on violence in cinema and society is burgeoning. That was a major concern more than 25 years ago when I taught media studies in Ballarat, at what is now a university in that old Australian gold-mining town. So, too, is the concern with real violence. The violent image has been extraordinarily preeminent in the visual media as is the profound concern about the culture of violence in general. There has been, what you might call, a hyperviolence in post-1960s cinema. I was only 19 when Kennedy was shot in 1963. I have lived in a society filled with real violence and hyperviolence. Gibson’s film in some ways is just one of 1000s that have a violent base.

The media is now both scapegoat and cause, explanatory framework and rational for the violent society. Of course, religion and politics have been intertwined with violence since the days of universal animism in 6000 to 8000 BP. One writer whom I read over twenty years ago, Guy Murchie, wrote that we’ve had 14,400 wars in recorded history. Violence is as human, it appears, as apple pie or should I say potatoes, pasta or pumpkins?

In The Passion we are exposed to Gibson’s serious effort to represent a particular conflict, a crucial event, in the history of Christianity and its accompanying emotional sensibilities. Can we arrive at a historical account faithful to the evidence when we move from prose, from books, to film? Poets like Homer(750 BC ca) and historians like Thucydides(420 BC) exaggerated and invented what they wrote to please and engage the audience. It became a convention of historians to insert made-up, but appropriate, speeches for 2000 years, until at least the sixteenth century.1 Just as poetry can enhance the power of history to convey aspects of the past so, too, can film. But poetry and film can also be creatures of invention with little connection with the experienced world or the historical past. Film has had only a century to find its way as a medium for history. It’s future, I think, suggests some exciting possibilities.

No single view holds “the truth.” Our eyes and ears are different than those of 2000 years ago. Small fragments are inevitably incomplete. There is a final unknowability, as Spielberg said in discussing the efforts of film makers to capture the lives of great men. Freud said the same of biography in print. A movie blends fiction with true events.2 Considerable artistry, ingenuity and money went into giving “an overall impression of what it really would be like to be transported back into that time”3 of the life of Jesus of Nazereth. For millions, if not for all, Gibson achieved this effect.

But there remains, it seems to me, too cavalier an attitude to the evidence about lives and attitudes in the past. This evidence is all we have to go on and the imagination must work from there. The danger is that the audience is left with the false impression of “a true story.” Considerable dramatic license is taken by directors. The truth status of historical films often remains unclear, obscure. In this film, the story comes from the New Testament. And the evidence here is far from clear. It may be clear to those with a more fundamentalist theology, but it has not been clear for at least two hundred years to literally millions of students of the New Testament, liberals, agnostics, atheists, non-Christians, et cetera.

History is not a closed venture, fixed and still, but open to new discovery and reinterpretation. Spectators don’t just look in at the events of history becoming in the process all-knowing. They look at and engage with the ideology of the director and make their assessments partly in terms of their own ideology, often conscious and unconscious, that they themselves espouse. It is this, among other things, that gives rise to the varied reactions to a film like Gibson’s. Then, too, cultural historians generally acknowledge that there is a time lag between the moment a new technology like film is invented(1895) and when a full understanding and utilization of the potential of that technology emerges. After one hundred years, I often think we have just begun to utilize the power of cinema. I wonder how long it took civilization to begin to use the wheel with dramatic effect after its invention in about 3500 BC?

The flow of images in our lives is increasingly torrential. Film images often cloud reality with pseudo-events. We are often adrift in an illusion that seems real. Peter Weir’s 1998 film “The Truman Show” illustrated what is often called ‘the cultivation effect.’ Put another way, cinema transforms the world into a spectacle. There is a mysterious energy in the swirl of shadows and light in film that is sometimes called mise en scene and it often produces vain and empty show, a show that bears the mere semblance of reality It is this mise en scene that captures our attention, although often we are looking at a vapour in the desert which we dream to be water but, when we try to taste it, we find it is but illusion.

We get moved and satisfied as much, though, by illusion as by reality. In the last decade there has seen the beginning of a demise of the cinephiliac. The love-affair with movies in western society is in decline.4 Millions of us have also developed a stimulus shield to protect ourselves from cinema’s neurological shocks. But in cinema we also recover our own sensuous experience; history is disclosed to us in unique ways. The upside of that vaporous illusion is a sense of the real. Proust referred to this as memoire involuntaire, being seized by memories, by mixtures of the past and present which flow into a strange no man’s land. What was once ignored by us in our daily lives often becomes registered with a striking, sensuous clarity because of film. Movies often grip us in a way that life does not. It is not so much the illusion of reality that movies create as the construction and organization of reality that goes on, an order and identity not found in daily life. Movies tend to be easily grasped, accessible in a way not present in daily life especially with complex aspects of history and psychology. Such cinematic experience must be countered by some voluntary memory in the service of the intellect.

The Passion was Gibson’s third movie as a director. All his movies involve a culminating spectacle where the doomed hero faces death agonies. They all employ the sufferings of the title character to critique the social structures imposed on them. They all present decadent societies that have lost contact with traditional patriarchal values. Gibson is a champion of conservative and vanishing social orders.5 He is also a champion of Christianity. You might not like what he does, but he has electrified millions for good or ill.

1 N.Z. Davis, Film as Historical Vision, Harvard UP, Cambridge, Mass., 2000, p.4.
2 ibid., p.126.
3 ibid, p.127.
4 Christian Keathley, “the Cinephiliac Moment,” Framework: the Journal of Cinema and Media, 2000.
5William Luhr, “Mutilating Mel: Martyrdom and Masculinity in Braveheart,” Mythologies of Violence in Postmodern Media, editor, Chistopher Sharrett, Wayne State UP, Detroit, 1999, p.229.