Gender and power among the Pharisees and Romans

Much of the film implicitly comments on masculinity. And the film’s overt anti-Semitism partly derives from its visual style. Pharisees are seen as a conniving group ....

... dressed in ornate gilded robes. Here, Caiphas, the high priest.

The Pharisees have their own militia, who sieze Jesus at the film’s opening. They are dressed in strange body armor, with feathers, as if from a movie about Attilla the Hun.

The Pharisee scenes have a brown hue, often set in crowded locales, often shot angled down. This visual style makes Jewish rule look retrograde, even irrational.

In addition, the Jewish leaders are often assigned facial gestures that connote a clever “putting one over” on the Roman authorities, as a militiaman does here to a Roman soldier who challenges his taking Jesus captive. It’s another Jewish stereotype about being conniving and it’s milked visually at a number of points in the film, especially with Caiphas.

In contrast, and with another comment on styles of masculinity, the visual presentation of Pilate and his military general show simple authority, stressed by their dress and excellent physique. Pilate’s body armor outlines his abs like an ad for some gym.

The camera angles up on the Roman leaders, who ...

..use architectural space as a way of staging their authority. The mise-en-scene’s expansiveness dramatizes this staging of Roman masculinity and power. The site of Pilate’s judgments contrasts with the image seen earlier of the massed groups of Pharisees and Jews in the Temple courtyard.

This same spaciousness is seen in Pilate’s apartments, where he faces a more “modernist” dilemma of leadership. He’s been stuck in a provincial outpost for years, putting down rebellions.

Pilate’s wife is like a stereotypical bourgeois housewife. She has nightmares. We often see her peering out a window against a dark background. Because of her gender and in spite of her class position, she is helpless although she tries to be Pilate’s conscience.

Pilate’s wife comforts him, almost like a mother to a child. The film shows women as compassionate nurturing figures, largely to male children or adults, but repeatedly pushed to the fringes of the action.

Pilate is the only character in the film who is developed with psychological depth. He is the sensitive leader, here meeting Christ for the first time and finding him innocent. This is in contrast to the historical Pilate, who was known as a particularly bloody and ruthless leader. The film presents repeated close ups of Pilate’s “looks of concern.”

The general seeks to act rationally, seeing a need to forestall any potential popular rebellion. Here the close up expresses his fear and concern at the Jewish mob, egged on by the Pharisees to demand Jesus’ death.

Pilate sees the scourged Jesus and despite his better judgment, he “washes his hands” of it and orders Jesus’ death. Before that, he had ordered a severe beating, which he thought would be enough.

The queer Herod

Perhaps with an historical nod to the John the Baptist and Salome story, Herod is presented as presiding over a decadent, explicitly gay court.

As he enters to meet the Pharisees, who bring Jesus for his judgment, Herod’s courtiers are trying to put on his wig, but...

... it remains askew during the scene.

In ths scene, as elsewhere in the film, black onlookers have an expression of sympathy for Jesus on their face.


The Passion of the Christ
Reflections on Mel’s monstrous messiah movie and the culture wars

by Robert Smart

Watching Mel Gibson’s splatter-movie passion, I wondered, was Gibson beaten as a child? Did he undergo the kind of severe corporeal punishment that conservative Christian child-rearing manuals advocate?[1] “Spare the rod,” authoritarian methods of discipline are intended to create obedient, unquestioning children, often future members of the fundamentalist Christian community. But when children experience of early pain and terror, that shapes their entire development and often leads to depression, aggression (tolerable when channeled), denial of feelings, and sexual dysfunction. Today’s advocates of corporal punishment have to reject a by now large body of psychological research[2] and resort to the Bible for justification—almost exclusively the Old Testament.

Physically beaten children characteristically become terrified of freedom and ambiguity. It’s hard for them to rely on their own perceptions and intellectual powers to make their way through the adult social world’s complex reality. They're taught to rely on external authority to guide their behavior, and they learn to embrace a morality dictated by external compulsion and fear of horrific punishment. Obedience to authority becomes a moral ideal, with a suspicion of those who don't submit, or who insist on thinking for themselves.

The Passion’s emphasis on physical beating reminds me of a parallel social situation to that of the beaten child’s. That is, the religious right has been skillfully and aggressively accumulating power and influence in this country in order to make all citizens and governmental policy submit to its moral regime. The Passion and its relentless marketing to conservative religious groups seem to mark a decisive moment in the evolving culture war, an exploiting of the church group for profit and ever increasing social power. For Gibson, the aggressive marketing of the film to religious groups was a profitable tactic and resulted in a box office of $76.2 million worth of tickets for the first three days—"the seventh-best three-day opener of all time, and the best for a new release in February.”[3]

Prior to its release, the film provoked fears that it would engender feelings of anti-Semitism—based largely on leaked copies of the screenplay. Gibson’s elderly father, a member of a Catholic splinter group that diverged from the mainstream Church in the early 60s after Vatican II, publicly has denied the Holocaust ever occurred. In the months leading up to the film’s release, he vented numerous anti-Semitic comments. Gibson himself has been somewhat disingenuous on this issue, telling Diane Sawyer that he can't be anti-Semitic because there are Encyclicals about this and that his father “never lies.”[4] Unfortunately, the Pope issued Encyclicals stating that the Jews were not responsible for the murder of Christ after Mel’s splinter group left the Church. And that group has pointedly disavowed all proclamations issued by the mainstream Catholic Church since that time. For example, Gibson himself told an interviewer that he couldn't include the Jew Ciaphas’ speaking the infamous blood libel, “Let the blood be on our heads,” because “they” would come to his house and shoot him![5] Despite the film’s heavy handed anti-Semitism, however, I don't think it’s Jews who may end up as the most vulnerable, indeed primary, targets of the film’s stirred-up fervor. I see another set of possible victims in the offing.

As I watched this film, I felt the grim realization that to the church group who’d inadvertently given me a free ticket, I was one of the goats to relegate to the flames. As a child I was ostracized and made to feel that I was somehow different, and despite having no ideas what this difference was, I did ultimately grow up indeed to be different, now in ways still impossible to define. For people like me, the rise of the right with its intolerance and contempt for my idea of U.S. democratic inclusiveness is a grim and anxiety-provoking reality. In terms of my career, as a teen and young man I dreamed of and attempted — delusionally — to pursue creating high-modernist films in the tradition of Bergman, Fellini, Kubrick, et al. Now I sat in this film as an older man who had drifted into the realm of unprofitable fringe novels and screenplays for ultra-low-budget erotic horror videos that never seemed to get finished. I sat amongst the flock watching Gibson’s 126-minute ordeal and felt the chill wind of threat, sensing that when the time came for the celebrants of this meat-grinder movie to compile their list, I would most likely be on it. I am one of the people who do not fit and no longer wants to.

The Passion is a right-wing testament to absolute submission to authority, and to unquestioning obedience. It’s also about being a man, a man who knows how to take his whipping without complaint. Issues of manhood and gender are central to the film’s imagery and iconography. The suffering male body is separated from the female world of nurture and pleasure and submits to the male world of brutality and pain. That’s the narrative pattern of this relentless passion play. The film is terrifying. It lingers on the horrific violence visited on Christ’s body. And the mental landscape behind it is literally terrified—of ambiguity, freedom, woman, pleasure. The film offers a glimpse into a hyper-masculine theocracy, which seem to lie in wait for us if the religious right ever gets social control. Since this film comes after many decades of steadily evolving Kulturkampf, I have found it useful to go back in time to trace the evolution of this phenomenon, which I shall briefly trace before returning to a more detailed look at Gibson’s film.


In the mid-70s we witnessed the arrival and ascendancy of the Moral Majority who sought to take back the United States from forces assaulting traditional values, national moral consensus, and community cohesion. The enemy was labeled as “secular humanism.” Historically, humanism means having values centered on principles of equality and justice which one derives from human reason. But for the Moral Majority, secular humanism refers to groups who are eroding a stable and meaningful way of life. And to the religious conservatives, the identity of the destructive sectors seems very clear. Problems are coming from feminists, homosexuals and other deviants, as well cultural institutions such as arts and entertainment, that is, all who might openly attack values such as respect for authority or who might dare to question venerated national or moral myths. Other targets include academics and intellectuals who probe and undermine the legitimacy of long-established authority or challenge iniquitous distributions of power and income.

The religious right’s greatest bête noir has been the feminists, and women in general, who seem to threaten the stability of the family. Above all, the right considers the intact, heterosexual nuclear family the main way that “good” people can grow up gaining a sense of solid identity, strong moral values, and obedience to duly appointed authority. Not only does such a family ensure the continuity of life but also the validity of heterosexual relations as the only form of sexuality ratified by the divine. Many women have ought to escape the yoke of compulsory heterosexuality, rejecting having their identity determined solely by their relation to men—as wife, mother, sister, daughter, caretaker, or broodmare. Starting in the 70s, women have openly explored the parameters of their own sexuality and emotional lives as well as built a new body of feminist thought about the proper conduct and organization of society. In many ways women have developed their own sense of value as to what constitutes the primary basis of human relations. It is clear to me that one of the major animating obsessions of the fundamentalist right derives from a fear of women, ambivalence about their sexuality, and a profound insecurity about gender roles. The result is a rage around gender issues, especially around having to deal with women as equals who have the right to assert, question, and refuse to accept assigned roles.

An even more threatening ambiguity comes from the increasing visibility and social demands made by gays and bisexuals. This group presents a different threat, though one that in many respects dovetails with fundamentalist fear of women moving away from traditional roles. Homosexuality seems to result from women’s attacking and undermining the emerging masculinity of young boys and even of older males, as if women were like vampires draining away the vital essence of poor hapless men. But the issue has another dimension as well: a genuine moral ambiguity that sexual deviants represent. If God ordained two sexes with two rigidly assigned gender roles, then what’s going on with queers? The right has to pose to itself the following questions about homosexuals: Is this way of life evil, plain and simple? Have homosexuals been afflicted with some spirit of pride and rebellion that causes them to seek bizarre sexual expressions simply as a provocation? If they develop or are born with such tendencies as a result of genetic endowment, intrauterine trauma or early psychological difficulties, can't they choose to repress these tendencies in order to maintain the legitimate structure of human relations and the moral order of society? Shouldn't they be willing to do this?

Beyond clinging to a goal of morally reforming the queer, fundamentalists are bedeviled by the very existence of gender ambiguity in a more profound way. Because if sexuality is random, or free-form, or subject to many vagaries, then how stable are the “absolute” givens of a reality created by God? People may not be simply right or wrong, black or white, male or female. And if we cannot be simply slotted into proper binary categories, but rather exist as beings sliding and slipping mercurially from category to category, role to role, without an absolute identity, then the universe itself is in flux and gender categories themselves called into question.

The sexuality of women, of gays and lesbians and other sexually indeterminate people are a living, breathing reminder of the possibility of some radical instability in the universe. And if the universe is unstable and random, what happens to God? I remember in the 70s how Jerry Falwell declared vehemently in a New Yorker interview that he objected to the traditional depictions of Christ as a soft-looking or willowy man: “Christ was a man with muscles.”[6] In retrospect, I now see how Falwell’s homoerotic obsession with masculinity over twenty years ago chillingly anticipated the dynamics of Gibson’s The Passion. For Falwell and for Gibson, a man without muscles is no man at all, and God cannot be less than a “real” man. From this point of view, you're either one or the other, and God cannot be that kind of other.

I see this link between fundamentalism and a fear of queerness as revealing the psycho-dynamics of most religious conservatives. That psychology is based on a need to think in terms of either/or, to divide the world into mutually exclusive dichotomies. On one side of the dividing line are all things right and proper, on the other, the wilderness of the goats. But like many of us who live on the other side of the dividing line—and need to understand this kind of hostility since we confront it so often—I see one thing very clearly about those who must define themselves as “normal,” and thus define themselves against us: More than anything else, fundamentalists fear a potential ambiguity within themselves. They struggle mightily to repress an ambiguity within themselves, or in their families, by insisting almost hysterically on adhering to proper gender roles and sexual object choices.

The temptation and terror presented by those of us who fall outside the ordained categories can be alleviated only one way—eradicating the provoking object. Those of us on the wrong side of the culture war must be converted, transformed (with a whole host of factually and theoretically dubious therapeutic interventions) or gotten rid of. The fundamentalist needs to live in a world petrified into frozen and eternal positions. Those of us who refuse to stand still are a threat to the cosmic order—and the psychic equilibrium of those who fear that social movement or cohesiveness among sexual minorities equals collapse.

Continued: Holding back change

To topPrint versionJC 47 Jump Cut home