An Analysis of The Passion of the Christ (2004) by Joseph Suglia
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) is a personal film. An exceedingly, excessively, earnestly personal film. “Personal” to the point of autobiography. It is not merely a personal reinterpretation of the Jesus myth, but a hand-wringingly serious appropriation of that myth for the sake of a deeply personal program.
What that “deeply personal program” might be is worth pondering. The film focuses on the condemnation, scourging, and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth; the rest of his life is almost entirely bracketed out. We see snapshots of his past in the form of flashbacks. But these flashbacks seem forced. They appear to be designed to make the torture seem relevant, i.e. “religiously” meaningful.
The film has an independent investment in brutality, in cruelty. One suspects that Gibson has a particular interest in cruelty for cruelty’s sake–not for any “transcendent” purpose.
It is not accidental that The Passion of the Christ has horror-cinematic elements: the attack on Judas at the hands of screeching daemon-children, the ubiquitous presence of an androgynous Satan, the demotion of someone-or-other to Hell, etc. The Passion of the Christ is, sensu stricto, a horror film.
Throughout, Jesus’s voluntary assumption of his torture and death is emphasized. One of the strongest images in the film has The Christ embrace his own crucifix as if it were a lover. It is repeatedly stressed in this work that Jesus loves his persecutors, loves his persecutions, and welcomes and affirms his own death.
Of course, there is scriptural evidence to support Jesus’s affirmation of his own mortality. “How blest you are, when you suffer insults and persecution and every kind of calumny for my sake. Accept it with gladness and exultation, for you have a rich reward in heaven; in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you” [Matthew 5:11-12]. Anyone who has read the Gospels and the Gnostic texts, such as The Gospel of Judas, knows that Jesus’ persecutors were acting according to a divinely ordained, prestabilized plan–a plan that Jesus had accepted in advance.
The undeniable accent on self-imposed violence, however, exceeds any “religious” justification. There is a kind of bloodlust in this film, a joy in the systematic reduction of a human body to dead, shredded meat. Religiosity, in this context, is used as a mere pretext for eroticized violence.
The Passion of the Christ is a violently pornographic film. It portrays violence as something that is deeply gratifying. It presents consumable representations of violence. Predictably, the film’s creator and promoter is self-deceptive, dishonest, about its sadomasochistic dimensions.
Post scriptum: How is it possible that The Dreamers (2003) received an NC-17 rating for a smattering of male nudity and this film did not? A “religious” subtext pacifies the MPAA, it seems…