Children persecute Judas and hound him into the hills to his death. This child ...
... visually changes into this demon...
... as does another child harassing Judas. These images indicate a repressed rage toward children, and toward the id - the child in the adult - as demons needing to be tamed or suppressed.
The children hound Judas into the hills ...
... accompanied by Satan ...
... until Judas falls by the carcass of a maggoty dead mule, from which he takes the halter and hangs himself. The images that linger on the maggots make this film philosophically and visually kin to the splatter film.
The feet of the hanged Judas dangle with the rotting animal behind them, linking corruption, animal nature, and death.
Blood, the crucifixion, CGI, and splatter
The crown of thorns is forced down on Christ’s head with such relish, it exceeds that of many splatter films.
Jesus embraces his cross with masochistic, almost erotic, fervor.
Jesus’ eye, in close up, iconically stands out. The image is repeated several times. The camera moves vertiginously each time it cuts to Jesus’ POV after this shot, reminiscent of horror director Dario Argento’s surreal imagery.
Jesus falls to the ground in painful slow motion, the first of many slow motion falls that occur throughout the film. With repetition, this action takes on the quality of some kind of ritualistic act lovingly repeated.
The nail is driven into the palm with hyper-realistic detail, including the spurting of blood. Blood is so emphasized, with attention paid to almost every drip, that the visual concentration on it has a fetishistic quality.
The nailing to the cross is prolonged by turning the cross, with Jesus on it, forcefully over twice, before it is hoisted.
The good thief ...
... and the bad thief, whose eye is plucked out by a crow.
Blood at the base of the cross. No detail of bloodshed is omitted.
By the time Jesus dies, his wounds no longer look realistic but painted.
CGI blood spouts out and pours down like rain when Christ’s side is pierced with a lance. The rain of blood falls on a soldier below, converting him.
The pieta when Mary holds Jesus taken down from the cross. She stares directly and accusingly at the audience, as if challenging them to do something, to make her son’s suffering meaningful, to assure his victory. But her power is kept symbolic and abstract: maternal love, chastity, obedience. Women who exist completely in their flesh and have agency have no role in this story.
Unlike the Biblical narrative, the film does not show the Marys at the empty tomb with an angel announcing the resurrection. Instead the film surprisingly ends with an image of the risen Christ in the tomb.
In the film’s final image, the camera pans down from Christ’s contemplative face past the hand with a hole in it to these naked things striding out frame right. Fade to black and then up on Mel Gibson’s credit. It’s a surprisingly overt, homoerotic, visual conclusion to the film.
To me, the film depicts children in a way symbolically parallel to its treatment of Mary and Satan. Children persecute the betrayer Judas and hound him to his death. Their faces distort into monstrosity. They look like demonic dwarves, hounding Judas into the hills where he will ultimately hang himself. Except for the largely invented scenes of the child Jesus, the film shows no positive representations of children. Given my interpretation of all the physical scourging in the film, I have to wonder if the sudden eruption of these grotesque “devil child” figures subconsciously express the taboo rage that the beaten child feels against his betrayer, and which the adult version of that child cannot face. In this film, I see that kind of rage most clearly channeled into a religiously sanctioned presentation which defuses the rage’s true meaning.
And if one is an adult fundamentalist full of such neurosis and repressed rage, then the film could also be presenting in these strange scenes how Mel and his fundamentalist comrades perceive children, or their dimly perceived understanding of their own children’s rage against them that matches their adult selves’ unacknowledged emotions, that heavy legacy of unjust treatment from their own childhood. The film’s grotesque children, these wild demonic creatures that must be subjugated, their demonic natures tamed—by any means necessary, represent fundamentalist ferocity turned against the body, especially against the child. It is a wildly hallucinatory and ugly world.
Interestingly, the closer Christ on the cross gets to death, the more his body is painted by CGI and the more supernatural events occur, such as the spray of blood coming from his side raining down on a Roman guard, converting the guard. The film strangely has a way of presenting the supernatural, the transcendental, in imagery that is pointedly hallucinatory. Many of the scenes representing the supernatural have a quality of primal unreality. While the flaying of Christ’s body is presented in terms of grotesque hyper-reality, especially the first extended flogging scene, the “spiritual” is lit and staged like a madman’s nightmare. It led me to wonder whether or not deep down Mel personally doubts the reality of the grand supernatural story he is telling. For in this film, the body seems to be all.
A splatter film
The Passion has such an emphasis on blood and the body, it seems to fit well in the tradition of the splatter film, but here in a high brow rendition of this low culture dramatic form. The body became the obsessive focus of a new kind of cinema that emerged in the 1960’s, a new cinema with two divergent manifestations: the splatter film and the porno movie. The appeal of this new cinema lay primarily in its capacity to evoke bodily sensations.
The splatter film can be viewed as just another form of lowbrow and vulgar popular entertainment lacking in any kind of serious dimension. But the truth is the splatter film represents something significant: the collapse of any genuine belief in a transcendent reality beyond the physical existence experienced in the here and now. Splatter films display a morbid, anxious fascination with the vulnerability of the body. They dwell on the fact that if you puncture the body here or rip it there, the consciousness inside it ceases to exist. Splatter films dwell on the moment that the human being is reduced to mere inanimate—and in some cases—completely disorganized matter. This genre functions psychologically as a kind of cinematic Fort/Da game. The chief cause of anxiety gets rehearsed again and again, obsessively hoping for an eventual mastery of the fear that’s engendered by a realization that the body and its functions are all there is.
Over the long course of the history of the arts, a gradual generic split, tied to class, money and cultural divisions, let the high arts emphasize good taste, refinement and intellectual complexity, and the low arts appeal to raw emotionalism, anxiety, fear, and sexual arousal. The vulgar genres gained force and popularity in the twentieth century with declining consensus in faith about the universe and its meaning, and with the growing literacy of the masses. Bourgeois culture and the high art it maintained, with its emphasis on the ethereal and cerebral, was founded on an emphatic denial of the body and its functions. High art sublimates themes about bodily impulses onto a spiritual level, which is then profoundly threatened by the needs and possible degradations of gross matter. When transcendent beliefs no longer could gain overall consensus, that old subordination of genres dealing with physical sensation declined.
The body, in both its sexual aspect and as our intimate, fragile, physical manifestation of life vulnerable to death—especially death of the premature and violent variety—has become the chief object of gore and porno filmmaking, with their admixture of pleasure, dread and ambivalence. In contrast to splatter, the porno film is a constantly reiterated visualization obsessively showing the body as source of pleasure, pleasure comprised of an orgasmic intensity that much of its audience are not (pace Reich: no longer?) capable of. Obviously depictions of sexual pleasure or the delectation of the nude female body are out of bounds for a film of and for the Christian right. Instead we are presented with a naked male body violated and damaged for over two hours.
The Passion may be the ultimate splatter movie. It concentrates obsessively on the rending of Christ’s tender flesh and of his self-willed ability to take it. We see chunks ripped out of his side by the scourge, and his crown of thorns jammed into the flesh above his eye with blood pouring down his face. To me, the film’s emphatic tone on flaying and the hyperactive push given the film by its supporters seem a desperate defense against a layer of subconscious doubt about there being anything above the body and its suffering, something that could enable the regulation of the body’s messy and potentially out-of-control processes.
Salvation from the body, as seen in this film, could only come through the saving grace of absolute submission to external authority, by implication divine male control. The supernatural elements seem so unreal because deep down the film cannot convey that the supernatural is real. All the film can show for certain is the physical self reduced to a bloody mess and hung up like a side of beef. Thus the film’s grim inventory of injury and pain encapsulates the religious right’s hysteria, and perhaps even crisis of faith.
Such a terror and anxiety can become strict believer’s overriding reality. If God does not exist, then the body is all there is and life has no inherent meaning. Belief in a transcendent principle must be maintained by a desperate act of will. The dilemma is there are other people out there who act as if God does not exist, who allow themselves to indulge desires of the flesh that are not countenanced by the traditionally religious, who stray from the codes of personal behavior mandated by the Bible. According to the logic I have traced, aren't these people calling the whole fragile structure of belief into question by their very existence, by their very refusal to conform or submit? Don't they threaten the self-control and equanimity of the faithful just by the simple fact of attempting to live their lives according to their own sense of reality and their own desires?
The need to define us as the Other
Ultimately, the presence of people living another kind of life on the wrong side of the culture war creates a constant anxiety and provocation to religious conservatives, no matter how reasonable and non-confrontational the “deviants’” behavior might be. This is because the mere existence of these people and their refusal to alter their behavior calls the whole fundamentalist cosmology into question. And worse, if the Others become belligerent or refuse to be invisible, then conservative anger is even greater. No matter how much we might want to tolerate the right and let them be—let them have their own films, live and let live—they are not content with that. We might be willing to let them alone, but the same is not true for them. We are a thorn in their side, our existence constantly posing a question that agitates their minds. Reality is most comfortable when it can be assumed and taken for granted. And that can't happen with the wrong people around.
It is not the Jews in the next few years who will be the main focus of the fundamentalist anxiety and rage. It will be the people who most emphatically embody ambiguity and refuse to stay within proscribed boundaries: the sexually different, the homosexual, the experimental, and the sado-masochistic. They do more than threaten to dredge up ambivalent emotions from childhood experiences and repressed desires that can't be accepted at any costs. They threaten an entire worldview. The culture war will encompass all of us, liberals and skeptics and intellectuals—but the hammer will fall most resoundingly on sexually Other.
The Passion ends with no explicit promise of revenge. But revenge is always in the offing in the universe of Mel Gibson’s films. And considering the intensity of demonic imagery and aggression on display here, I can imagine the next film, Mel Gibson’s APOCALYPSE. In this film all the bad people will get what is coming to them in the same graphic and horrendous terms depicted in The Passion of the Christ. Here’s the promo for The Passion 2: Apocalypse: “Last time they put the hurt on the Lamb of God. Now he’s back. And this time it’s payback.” Lines will wrap around the block. It’s a shoo-in.
For those of us who think of ourselves as new wine that does not want to be forced back into old bottles, fundamentalist ideology counters with a demand for a return to a set of shared and obligatory beliefs, behaviors and roles. This desperation to forge social unanimity became especially strong in the wake of the divisive conflicts of the 1960s—with its defiance of authority and established values; and with the defeat in Vietnam and the doubt it cast on the righteousness of the U.S. mission in the world. In the last few decades, many people have felt a sense of malaise and uncertainty, of existential vertigo, which cries out for a container, something to constrain the dizzy spirit and help it right itself. For many Americans the answer to this sense of “borderlessness” has been a return to traditional Christianity and for some, the attendant and rather fanatical insistence that everybody else should return to it with them. But many of us have fought for sexual liberation, for liberation from coercive and authoritarian modes of child-rearing, for freedom to express our sexual difference in terms of object-choice and to freely explore reality on our own terms. We have no inclination to climb back into an old cage.