Mary and the other women on the sidelines
Mary Magdelene, Mary, and John at Jesus’ arrest, ...
...when Jesus is first brought before Pilate, and
... in most of the scenes of the film where a crowd surrounds Jesus. Throughout the film, the two Marys struggle to reach the center of the action.
Flashbacks show Mary at home with Jesus.
Mary on the sidelines at the scourging: “My son, when, where, how will you choose to be delivered of this.”
After the scourging, Pilate’s wife comes down to give the two Marys what looks to be a shroud, but...
Mary uses it to clean up Jesus’ blood from the courtyard.
Mary Magdalene joins her. The kinkiness of this scene provokes an eerie memory of all the relics of “Christ’s blood” that might have been hawked by charlatans in the Middle Ages.
Mary pushes through the crowd and reaches Jesus’ side when he first falls with the cross. She attempts to comfort him, but he is transcending her world for something higher: “See Mother, I make all things new.”
When Mary sees Jesus fall, a flashback, presumably her memory, shows when he fell as a child and she came to his aid. “I'm here,” she cried, just as she did when she comes to him fallen by the cross. This image also reiterates the “feminine” world of pleasant bodily contact, compassion and love that Christ is leaving behind to undergo his ordeal at the hands of and possible entry into the harsh world of masculine order.
A compassionate woman comforts the fallen Jesus, wiping his blood from his face with her scarf. After Christ is brutally torn away from her, he looks at her longingly as he passes.
She is left on the sidelines, looking on helplessly. Once again, the nurturing female is simultaneously longed for and superceded.
Satan, also on the sidelines
The androgyne Satan says to Christ in Gethsemene, “Do you really believe that one man can bear the burden of sin. ... Saving their souls is far too costly.” A snake slithers from under Satan’s skirt, indicating that evil comes from his/her ambiguous genitalia, ever the site of patriarchal anxiety.
Satan appears in the crowd at the scourging, ...
... appearing much as the two Marys do, ...
... and parodying the iconography of Mary, Mother of Christ, by ...
... carrying a devil child.
Into this contemporary debate strides macho movie star Mel Gibson and his bloody Christ movie The Passion. Mel has outdone himself in this profession of faith heavily marketed to and by conservative Christian churches throughout the United States. In spite of this clever marketing through churches, I believe Mel is sincere in his desire to convert and to change the world—God help us if he succeeds.
Was Mel Gibson beaten as a child? The film impressed me as an elaborate reenactment of a child’s experience of severe corporeal punishment. The film’s imagery and narrative trajectory suggest the father as agent of punishment—but I have no way to glean accurate biographical information from the film. Most memorable in the viewing experience is this film’s marathon session of the cosmic beating of a holy son’s exposed body. There is also an implied complicity of the booming father in the sky, repeatedly signaled by dark clouds passing in the sky. I see this dramatic structure as reenacting a primal drama of the beaten child, forced to undergo painful, unjust blows from the parent, often with a belt or stick. In The Passion, this punishment is demanded by the Jewish Pharisees, portrayed with a few token exceptions as animalistic and hateful mob. The Pharisees seem more effeminate than the Roman guards. But it is the Roman guards who enact the two prolonged beating scenes, which turn out to offer as well a cinematic experience that feels like a drawn out, zestful, homoerotic rape. An analysis of these scenes showing the pleasure the Roman guards take from the beatings can be followed from considering the images accompanying this essay, especially the scourging ordered by Pilate.
I am fascinated by the use of unrelenting cinematic violence, especially direct human blows against the male body, to instill a sense of religious piety in the viewer. This seems to be the film’s main dramatic tactic and purpose. Audience members are indeed emerging from this movie in tears. But is the nature of the emotions they are feeling genuinely religious? The Passion presents the viewer with a parable of the ideal [male] child submitting to the will of the righteous authority figure with the ratification of the great father in the sky. This bloody film where Christ’s body is tortured and bloodied for hours is a reenactment of the child’s early experiences of parental punishment, and love. In its emotional force, it dramatically supports the whole brutal child-rearing ideal.
Or is it a reliving of pain and subjugation from childhood, which is then “redeemed” by being presented as a sacrificial offering of Jesus’ body to his father, suffused with a spurious declaration of divine love. I don't believe I am alone in seeing this film as profoundly pathological. What makes it more disturbing is that The Passion’s sick allegory of submission to vicious parental assault is presented with often effective, though conventional and clichéd, cinematic technique and imagery, which only make its dangerous psychopathology even more insidious and dangerous. The film resorts frequently both to the tropes of Gibson’s earlier action movies and to recent fantasy movies like Lord of the Rings, manipulating audience with a rousing impact. This film is equal parts Fascist cinematic spectacle and religious drama. It’s Mel Gibson’s Triumph of the Will. Or at least a high-gloss updating of Cecile B. DeMille’s strategy of creating blockbusters marketed as family entertainment, which combined crowd scenes, and exotic/erotic imagery coupled with brutality cloaked in religious sentiment. But unlike De Mille’s biblical pageants, The Passion has no enticing female cheesecake on display—only straining, agonized male musculature committing or enduring violent assault.
Satan and Mary on the sidelines
Despite the film’s obvious anti-semitism, in our day and age in the United States the people who are the religious right’s real social targets, and subtly indicated as such in the film’s narrative, are those who do not fit properly into the prescribed sexual categories. For this reason Gibson’s treatment of Satan and Mary are especially interesting, even these figures are clearly on the sidelines throughout the film.
In Mary’s case, the most salient aspect of Gibson’s depiction—not only of her but of other positive female characters such as Mary Magdalene and another merciful female in the film—is how peripheral the women are to the main action. In fact, the film’s narrative and visual structure seems deliberately to marginalize them. They are forever running around streets, standing at the backs or in the midst of crowds, peering into a courtyard, kept distant from direct participation in the action and very emphatically not empowered to intervene in any meaningful way. This is a crucial indication of the film’s concept of the relation of gender to salvation.
Jesus’ adult life seems to consist of his “redeeming sinners” within a world of male domination and male values, presided over by the hard-nosed male patriarch in the sky. In a fascinating way, the film depicts Jesus as entering a world of bitter rivalry and brutality. It’s a harsh and uncompromising world, where all tender feeling has been suppressed if not completely extinguished. Jesus sometimes remarks at various points in the film that he is willing himself to carry through on this mandate to die for man’s sins and to obey the law of the father. The film clearly shows that his adult mission means leaving the world of loving kindness and physical contact, represented by the flashbacks of Mary with her son behind, and sacrificing himself to the authoritarian world of male violence. To me, the film’s narrative is clearly symbolic of a primal, conservative scene. Here, the male child must separate himself from the world of the mother, from females, from love and acceptance of the body.
To embrace the task of his manhood, he must subject himself to the rule of men, which ostensibly represents a realm of order and the transcendent God. What is interesting in this film is how clearly the script and visuals set out that in accepting this role, he in fact submits to an alternative regime in regards to the body. The film gives Christ no intellectual or psychological complexity but indicates that his manly task is to submit to the earthly masters’ realm of inflicting pain and that his strength must consist of maintaining the fortitude to complete this task, under total obedience to the insane demands of the authoritarian male-on-high. Visually, the film presents this man’s suffering as something like a primitive tribal ritual, where the pubescent male is separated from the females, isolated, and then subjected to ordeals of physical pain and mutilation in order symbolically to be reborn into the male realm of pride and autonomy.
In The Passion, women, as exemplified by Mary, are reduced to watching and empathizing from the sidelines and performing acts of tenderness after the fact—like wiping up Jesus’ blood off the tiles of the courtyard after his flogging. Without meaning to, Mel’s movie has perhaps created the strongest argument yet seen for a return to matriarchy and a society where feminine values predominate. I can imagine a young Mel in his childhood perhaps separated from his mother in order to be initiated into the male order of hierarchy, command and control. Perhaps his mother was a longed-for figure, glimpsed at distance, who no longer had a significant role to play. I can imagine she is a figure that in the depths of his mind Mel secretly wishes to return to. For me, these Freudian musings on the religious right and the results of punitive childhood discipline only render the ideology promulgated by The Passion more tragic.
The film enacts the rejection of the feminine, its relegation to the margins as Jesus, the masochistic hero, surrenders to the male order of pain and forbearance. Even the thief who supposedly will join Christ in Paradise proclaims Christ’s innocence and the injustice of His punishment. And that thief is like the other sibling getting punished, contrasting Christ’s situation to his; like a good boy, contrite and tearful and masochistic, he admits that he deserves his sentence and accepts the brutal punishment meted out to him by the authorities. The bad thief is shown raging and mocking and is repaid for his defiance by a crow pecking at his eye. The Father’s response: don't question authority or the righteousness thereof or you'll get another taste of the same medicine. The sibling’s response, that is, the response of the viewer, let’s see the really bad brother get the worst beating. Nothing like that crow eating out the bad thief’s eye, of course, occurs in any of the four Gospels.
Indeed much of what occurs in the film, and some of its most symbolically telling moments, lie outside the Biblical narrative of the “passion.” I find that curious for a film that promotes itself as the most authentic Biblical film ever made. Gibson and his screenwriter apparently feel as free to manipulate Scripture, while claiming absolute fidelity to it, as some of our better-known televangelists have long done for the sake of a good television show. In The Passion these added incidents underline the lesson of stoic, manly submission—with women relegated to the sidelines.
Interestingly Mary is not the only figure at the sidelines. A parallel figure, dressed in black like Mary, also follows along Christ’s path much like Mary does. The character of Mary, usually accompanied by Mary Magdalene, has a narrative counterpart. That figure is linked to her throughout both in terms of visual similarities, narrative structure and placement in the mise-en-scene. The character of Satan watches Christ’s great sacrifice with what appears to be simultaneous hope that Christ will fail at this task and a certain degree of relish at the pain Christ suffers.
Clearly, the most salient feature of this character is its sexual ambiguity. The film presents Satan as an androgyne of no fixed gender. It is hard to tell whether Satan is an effeminate male or a masculine woman. That figure’s depiction thus tellingly represents the fundamentalist “demonic” in microcosm. This enemy incarnate, that is, made flesh, becomes visible to the audience as a creature that refuses proper gender definition, one way or the other. Satan so much mirrors Mary, that in one scene the devil carries a baby, a parallel to the infant Jesus, no doubt signifying the future anti-Christ. And that baby is a hideous hairy child with a deformed face.
Conservative anxiety over sexual roles and possible sexual feelings is palpable here. The visual depiction of Satan, especially as this memorable bad mother and child, clearly delineate fundamentalist ambivalence toward women and its dividing of them between the negative and monstrous mother figure and the positive mother figure, largely sexless and obedient. Historically, interpretations of the Bible could easily find women the weaker vessel, more sensual, less rational, more subject to the blandishments of the demonic, and in turn tempters of men, leading God’s sons to weakness and perdition. The feminine is dangerous. It all started with Eve and the snake (!) and Adam’s fall.
The film’s brief treatment of a campy Herod, wearing eye makeup and an askew black curly wig, typically expresses a male rightist’s sexual anxieties about gay campiness. Herod sees that Jesus has already been flogged and chooses not to crucify Jesus. By implication, as a sissy, Herod fails to fulfill his role, fails to be a real man. His deviant sexuality renders him incapable of acting with authority.
In The Passion no positive depiction of sexuality or of the body is possible. This is not just because the story’s scope can't encompass such a scene but just as much because Mel’s mental world won't allow it. There is no positive life of the body in Mel’s world. The body is a crucible of suffering, or of weakness giving way to temptations—a trial to be endured. I shall return to the primacy of the body in Gibson’s film later in a discussion of splatter films and pornography.