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29.2.04

La Passion du Christ: Violence and Art History

With all the talk about and reaction to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (last mentioned here on December 26), I thought it might be a good idea to translate some interesting commentary on the film from the French newspaper Le Figaro. In her review (<<La Passion du Christ>> face au public [The Passion of the Christ Faces the Audience], February 27), Guillemette Faure writes, in part:

America is talking of nothing else but Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ, which opened in theaters the day before yesterday, Ash Wednesday. Even before that, it was criticized for its antisemitic message, notably by the Anti-Defamation League, and at the same time eagerly awaited by certain Christian groups. So, at dawn on Wednesday, in several states thousands of people attended special screenings. . . . In New York, many people cried and lines were mostly full even though it was a work day. In Los Angeles, others were seen with a bag of popcorn in one hand and the Bible in the other. . . . Whatever your opinion, the director, a traditionalist Catholic, has succeeded in creating significant interest, which allowed this film, shot in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Latin and without any stars, to open on 4,000 American screens instead of the 2,500 initially planned. The controversy should reach its peak on April 7, when the film will open in Italy on 150 screens. However, it still has to receive its visa approval. The distribution in France is still in negotiation.

The screenplay seemed to indicate that Mel Gibson, a traditionalist Catholic and son of a father who denies the Holocaust, had made an antisemitic film. The Jewish high priests, we know, asked the Romans for Jesus to be crucified. Faced with the controversy, the Australian director finally removed from his film the line "May his blood be upon us and upon our children" (Matthew 27: 25), which for a long time fueled Christian antisemitism. As for the accusations of deicide leveled against Jews, when asked by the American journalist Diane Sawyer a week before the film's release, "Who killed Jesus?", Mel Gibson replied, "The big answer is that we have all killed him. You know, in this search for who is guilty, I am at the head of the list." Is it this collective responsibility that he wanted to underscore by depicting each lash of the whip in the twelve final hours of Jesus?
That point about the removal of the line from Matthew is important. If Mel Gibson really wanted to make an antisemitic movie that stirred up hatred, that line would have been prominently featured. (Apparently, the crowd scene was filmed with that line shouted in Aramaic, but the translation has been left out of the subtitles.)

Matthias Grünewald, detail of Crucifixion, center panel from Isenheim Altarpiece, c. 1515The newspaper also ran an interview with Mel Gibson by Marianne Ruuth in the same issue, in which some interesting things were said. For example, Gibson explains why he cast Jim Caviezel as Jesus:
No, I did not choose him to play Jesus because his initials are J. C. or because he was 33 years old when I first called him. I had seen him on the screen in The Thin Red Line, and I thought, "Wow! Who is this guy? He is uncomplicated. There is a childlike innocence about him. There is simplicity. There is purity. There is strength. Who is he?" And that was that.

What was your source of inspiration for this film's look?

I really like Caravaggio and his sense of movement. His very cinematographic light seems to have burst forth from projectors. And his subjects are always religious and always violent. There are lots of very different artists whom I admire and who have influenced me, but Caravaggio stands apart. What we know about this man comes to us from prison records. He was a rough man, but out of his venality and his bestial nature erupted this divine expression on the canvas.

What is Mel Gibson's future, actor or director?

I really have no idea. I think that when all this is over, I'll go somewhere no one can find me. You know where that is, right? Where no one can find you? I'm going to set up house near the weapons of mass destruction!

Which proves that, whatever happens in the world and in film, Mel Gibson's sense of humor remains intact.
There is also an interview with actor Jim Caviezel, by Marianne Ruuth. Guillemette Faure's review of the film continues in a second piece (Une oeuvre <<tarantinesque>> [A Tarantinoesque Work], February 27):
With their attempt to use realism to depict the ineffable, the bloody Christs of Mexican churches sometimes evoke religious symbolism more than spiritual depth. Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ produces a similar result. This ultraviolence, as Mel Gibson explains, is what Christ endured.

In this Tarantinoesque "Kill Christ," the punching-bag Christ, one eye swollen shut from the beatings, his body lacerated, dies in a large pool of blood. Perhaps, we wonder, is the Christian being invited to answer the sadomasochistic challenge not to turn away as Christ offers the other cheek or raises himself up? Far from the sweet poetry of Zeffirelli, Mel Gibson offers us a neosulpician Christ under the influence of the worst Hollywood gore.
Other articles in the same issue include Pas encore de diffuseur en France [No French distributor yet], by Marie-Noëlle Tranchant, and several others, links to which are found there.

This was the first time I had read anything about Mel Gibson's admiration for Caravaggio, something that really puts the violence of the film into context. If you think about some of Caravaggio's paintings—like Christ in the Garden (1603, destroyed in World War II), The Taking of Christ (1602), Christ at the Column (1606), The Flagellation of Christ (1607), The Crowning with Thorns (1602–1603, or a disputed second version), Ecce Homo (1606), The Entombment (1602–1603)—it is a good reminder that the violence Jesus experienced at the end of his life has been for a very long time the focus of both Christian meditation and artistic interpretation. Gibson's film may shock more because the images in it move, but what it shows is only the latest example in a long tradition of this sort of art. Mme. Faure's other art example, Hispanic folk art, is in that same line, such as depictions of Jesus bleeding on the cross or Christ with a rope around his neck, although other Christian cultures have produced very similar kinds of art (like this Finnish altarpiece). For me, the most brutal image of Christ's suffering is the central panel (Crucifixion, detail shown here from ArtServe, at the Australian National University) of Matthias Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece (c. 1515). That work was made for a hospital run by an order of monks whose mission was to serve people who were in terrible pain, especially those who had lost limbs. The fact that Jesus chose to die in one of the most painful ways possible, it was thought, is a consolation to a person in pain. In that sense, there is no particular reason, either religious or artistic, to sugarcoat the details of what Jesus suffered.

UPDATE:
See the follow-up to this post on March 5.

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