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Always look on the bright side of life

Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” raises hackles and welts.

As nearly everyone must know by now, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” opened yesterday. The movie has been a great source of controversy, generating claims of anti-Semitism and excessive gore. Meanwhile, other groups and individuals have praised it as a profound statement of faith and one of the most important films of all time.

The first question to ask is why we should care that Mel Gibson is the latest in a long line of auteurs to try their hand at telling “the greatest story ever told.”

Gibson’s retelling is about the most selective reading available. But then again, supporters of orthodoxy tend not to really look for chances to open a dialogue. Gibson is here to push his version of the story no matter what anyone else thinks. There’s been vigorous and ongoing debate on this subject within academic, forensic, ecclesiastical, rabbinical and other circles, but that does not mean, as far as Mel Gibson is concerned, he should have to bow to fancy-talkers. It seems Gibson sees people who disagree with him as Jesus-haters. This is starting to sound like the justification for the Iraq war all over again. “You’re either with us or against us,” right?

In some ways it’s odd that such a conservative Catholic should be giving an interpretation of anything, because that’s what they used to call heresy. Gibson must be pretty confident in either his version of events or the U.S. laws that don’t allow people to be executed for heresy anymore.

Beyond the controversy is a thorny thicket of didacticism, all wrapped up in a mangled celluloid bow. As a filmmaker, Gibson is as ham-fisted as they come. Since when did the narrative of Jesus’ life need crappy special effects? The film spends plenty of time flagellating its audience with horrific images of brutality and blood. Watching a mangled Jesus walk up to Golgotha with his cross seems to take eons, and the audience cringes with every step. This is less because we’re feeling his pain than because this scene and everything leading up to it exhibits a level of gratuitous violence reserved for slasher films. It is impossible to overstate how gory and disturbingly violent this movie is. The only “passion” here is that of the original Latin sense of the word, “suffering.” The sense which denotes the profound love and radical empathy that Jesus was more famous for is utterly absent. Gibson gives us nothing new intellectually, and he spent $25 million and raised a big ruckus to do it.

But perhaps the most troubling element of all of this is that Gibson claims to do the impossible – to give us the literal, un-tampered with Gospels onscreen. The act of translation is, in and of itself, transformative. By using the languages spoken during the time, Gibson disguises the larger translation that is occurring from the literary work to the visual, and the relationships with its readers to a filmic vernacular and its various unique and different relations. Gibson cannot claim to have given us a window through which to view the true history, as much as to have built a shoddy telescope.

In the course of making the film Gibson made decisions about art direction (he wanted it to look like a Caravaggio painting), editing, shot composition and everything else that goes into making movies. There are no stage directions in the Bible, thus Gibson’s fingerprints all but obscure the story.

The best examples of this are Gibson’s use of flashbacks, special effects and extra-Biblical dialogue. In a scene in which news of Jesus’ capture reaches his mother and Mary Magdalene, the women, upon hearing the news, recite a prayer that will be instantly familiar to any Jew as a call-and-response section of a Passover Haggadah. The passage refers to why this night is different; the answer is, “because once we were slaves Ö .” The inference that the audience is meant to draw is that the “we” in question are the speakers and that the change or difference that has occurred is related to Jesus. In fact, the “we” are the Jews, and the change is the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. Gibson expropriates and redeploys meaning repeatedly and recklessly.

Gibson takes a revisionist approach to characters, particularly the infamously brutal colonial despot Pontius Pilate, who now resembles a cross between Elmer Fudd and Joachim Phoenix’s Commodus from “Gladiator.” Pilate is simply a foil for Gibson’s bloodthirsty Jews, and as he washes his hands of Jesus’ blood, so has Gibson attempted to dodge responsibility for the anti-Semitism inherent in his depiction.

Gibson’s frequent repetition of scenes that lay the blame for the crucifixion on Jews prompts the question: Which Jews killed Jesus? Mary was a Jew, the Disciples were all Jews, Jesus himself was, indeed, a Jew. Who are the responsible parties? This broad-brush approach is dangerous at worst and confusing at best.

When a movie of any kind causes a big stir, it’s a heartening moment for critics of all kinds, because at least people take movies seriously (if only temporarily). Unfortunately, in this case a serious appraisal isn’t justified.

Responsible people – particularly in this political climate, the least tolerant the United States has seen since before the civil rights movement – do not allow right-wing fanaticism to set the terms of discourse. We can be confident that Gibson’s film will fade into obscurity in due course.

When faith replaces reason, people get burned at the stake – sometimes crucified – and whatever anyone (including Gibson) believes, we’ll have to learn to live side by side eventually. The movie’s only lasting effect might be to question the wisdom of giving a rich fanatic attention as he spews his hatred, but then, look at the White House.

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