Friday, December 04, 2009

Revisiting Reactions to The Passion of the Christ

Over on one of my favourite blogs, The Dunedin School, Eric Repphun has a fascinating post on the Top 11 Religiously Themed Films of the Decade. He concludes with some comments on The Passion of the Christ (dir. Mel Gibson, 2004) that recall many of the scholarly criticisms of the film made five years ago:
And the worst (and this one was easy): The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson, 2004): Gibson’s infamous film is riddled with problems. It is historically inaccurate (Jesus and Pilate conversing in Aramaic rather than Greek, nails being driven through the palms and not the wrists, etc., etc.), which is really only a problem given that the filmmakers made such a big noise about being historically accurate. It is brutally, cruelly sadistic and in its cruelty becomes deeply suspect on a theological level, given that it transforms the suffering of Jesus into an endurance test that no man (not even a white guy with digitally-altered brown eyes and a prosthetic hook nose) could have survived such torture for so long, essentially denying the messianic figure the divinity that has so long defined Christianity’s theological understanding of its own textual history. Despite removing the vaunted ‘blood libel’ from the Gospel of Matthew from the finished film (though they did shoot it), it is also rabidly anti-Semitic as well as being deeply misogynistic – Satan takes the form of a woman who we often see stalking unseen among the Jewish crowds. It makes the Roman authorities into enlightened and sympathetic humanists while at the same time transforming the occupied Semitic peoples of Jerusalem into a vacuous rabble that is violent, backwards, bloodthirsty and in need of some civilising. If this isn’t what a colleague here at Otago calls ‘a theology of empire’, and a thinly-veiled defence of the American occupation of Iraq, I don’t know what is. It is also guilty of the most grievous of all cinematic sins in that it is flat-out boring and at least an hour too long.
There are a few inaccuracies here. Pilate and Jesus converse in Latin rather than Aramaic; the nails been driven through the wrist could be accurate -- we simply don't know how Jesus was crucified. The primary source material for the idea that Jesus was crucified with nails going through the wrists is the Turin Shroud. Although it is a common motif in the publicity for Jesus films that they are "historically accurate", this claim was not part of the publicity for The Passion of the Christ. The remark that "no man (not even a white guy with digitally-altered brown eyes and a prosthetic hook nose) could have survived such torture for so long" is actually the point -- it's a story about someone being tortured to death. The same claim ("no one could have survived this") was often made in the scholarly reactions in 2004 and was one of the more puzzling reactions to the film.

The idea that the film is misogynistic because Satan is played by a woman confuses the gender of the actor with the androgyny of the character. More troubling from my perspective was the tired cliché of aligning Mary Magdalene with the Woman Taken in Adultery from John 8. The charge of "rabid anti-Semitism" is a difficult one to assess. There are profoundly troubling elements in the film and yet it is also clear that it made some effort to mitigate the anti-Semitism of its source material in Ann Emmerich's Dolorous Passion. But the "blood libel" line in fact did make it into the film; it is spoken by Caiphas in Aramaic, but there is no English subtitle.

For several of these points, see further my discussion of the scholars' reaction to the film in "The Power of The Passion of the Christ: Reactions and Overreactions to Gibson's Artistic Vision," Chapter 3 in Robert Webb and Kathleen Corley (eds.), Jesus and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ: The Film, the Gospels and the Claims of History (London & New York: Continuum, 2004) and later in my extended review of Zev Garber's Mel Gibson's Passion. One day I'd like to write another article on the film because the years have actually hardened my view about the film, and made me more inclined to be critical of its shortcomings. Working on the BBC / HBO The Passion (2008; ?2010) helped me to see quite starkly how many of the problems with The Passion of the Christ could have been avoided. Nevertheless, I am still convinced that scholarly criticism of The Passion of the Christ is stronger where it avoids inaccuracy and overstatement.

Update: Eric adjusts one of the comments (that Jesus and Pilate converse in Aramaic); and Loren Rosson comments on the whole post on The Busybody.


Anonymous said...

Can't we say that the film is largely based on the alleged visions of Ann Emmerich rather than historical sources and just leave it at that?

Stephen C. Carlson said...

In the movie, the Jesus was both nailed to the cross through the palms and lashed to the cross at the wrists. My interpretation is that Gibson wanted to tap into the iconography of the crucifixion yet still address the criticism that palms are not strong enough to weight of body.

Mark Goodacre said...

I agree there -- Gibson was attempting to serve two masters, classic iconography and some attempt at plausibility. I'm amazed by how often the claim about the wrists is made uncritically, though, and I think it has seaped into consciousness because of claims made about the Turin Shroud dating back to the 1970s, backed up by alleged medical evidence.

Scott, yes, that's definitely the lion's share of the script's source material. I was amazed when I read Emmerich to see how close The Passion of the Christ was to her.

Stephen C. Carlson said...

Interesting. Poking around, I found a news article from a couple of years ago, Science Replays the Crucifixion, which says that the supposition that nails through the palms cannot support the weight of the body (based on an old cadaver study) has been debunked.

Anonymous said...

Well, I learned something. I had accepted the wrist thing - not much as to base arguments on it but still.

Antonio Lombatti said...

Well, it's not true that the Turin Shroud suggests that the nails were through the wrists:

Last but not least, the TS has no historical information at all on the historical Jesus since it's a medieval fake.

Stephen C. Carlson said...

Antonio: very interesting!

Mark Goodacre said...

Fascinating, Antonio; thanks. I think I recall a big deal getting made about the wrists in the ?1970s "Silent Witness" film about the Shroud. I think it was part of Ian Wilson's case for authenticity? Is the image you provided connected to a blog post on the topic? I have blogged on the crucifixion through the hands / wrists / arms issue before and may do so again. Of course I agree with you about the Turin Shroud being a mediaeval fake, but the point might stand, that a particular interpretation of the Shroud (viz. crucifixion through the wrists) has exercised an influence on the discourse.

Matt Page said...

Gibson did claim at least twice that he was trying to be historically accurate. Firstly in an interview with Raymond Arroyo in the Wall Street Journal on March 7th 2003 ("I'm trying to make it as authentic as I possibly can, right down to the clothing, right down to the eating customs of the Jews of the old law") and then later with Andrew Gumbel for The Independent on 16th August 2003 ("(the film) will show the passion of Jesus Christ just the way it happened... like travelling back in time and watching the events unfold exactly as they occurred")

Unfortunately neither of these articles appears to still be online, I don't have either of them to hand either, but irecorded them and their source in an article I wrote previewing the film back in 2004.

I'll see if I can at least dig out the Independednt article.


Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Matt -- that's very helpful. My contention is that "this claim was not part of the publicity for The Passion of the Christ" though I realize that there is a fine line between interviews before the film and the film's own publicity.