Register Monday | August 19 | 2019

Of The Passion and the Pain

After the Hype-What Exactly Hath Mel Gibson Wrought?

Director Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ opened worldwide this year on Ash Wednesday, the opening day of the Christian season of fasting and self-denial. "If you relish the sight of a healthy male body being systematically demolished, beyond the farthest reach of plausible endurance," wrote Garry Wills in the New York Review of Books, "[this] is your movie." At times, says Wills, he had to fight laughter, so over the top and melodramatic were the images of Christ's beating and torture. Theologian Matthew Fox, writing in Tikkun magazine, called it "unrelenting blood and gore . . . a monument to sadomasochism," a quasi-religious film that fails to articulate the revolutionary philosophy of Christ-a social philosopher who lived in Herodic Judea-but instead elevates pain and victimhood, legitimizes violence more than condemns it and therefore emphasizes a unique fascism: "fascist piety." Between random charges of anti-Semitism and Mel Gibson's belief that Satan was conspiring with the New York Times, a rather medieval aura collected around the film. Thinking persons who did not want to appear pious or fascistic avoided the experience. When someone asked if you'd seen it, that person was asking a lot. Did you sit in a theatre for two hours to watch that ? Did you subject yourself to it, knowing how lurid the experience would be?

The narrative spine of The Passion of The Christ is not (as Gibson has claimed) drawn exclusively from the life of Christ as retold in the four gospels of the New Testament, but also from medieval passion plays, those dramatic re-enactments of Christ's last hours-the path from the arrival in Jerusalem to the trial and crucifixion-as well as from the more compact telling known as the Stations of the Cross, fourteen points along that same path that form a specific set of tableaux-from Jesus' condemnation to his placement in the tomb. Passion plays date to the thirteenth century and are still performed at various spots around the globe on an hourly basis. They are much like dramatic re-enactments of the American Civil War: actors willingly go through the motions of an awful story, foregone, full of failure and inevitable death, all for the goal of reaching a cathartic and sympathetic knowledge of the original suffering. It is important for these actors to actually submit the body to a ritualized experience. Merely regarding the suffering is insufficient.

"Regarding" is an important word here. In her most recent work of non-fiction, Regarding The Pain of Others , Susan Sontag writes, "All images that display the violation of an attractive body are, to a certain degree, pornographic." She is articulating what it means to a person of conscience to observe renderings of pain and what is behind the sorry human impulse, both sad and ecstatic, that "slows down highway traffic going past a horrendous car crash." "For many," she concludes, it is "the wish to see something gruesome."

The gruesome, however, is not novel. It isn't all that gruesome even. Fictionalized violence is as banal as soap or food or premarital sex, a thing so common it can be observed without attending to its moral dimensions (the why and to-what-end). Within this rather modern set of circumstances, Sontag makes a separate point-we, thinking persons, are not able to produce unjaded responses to images of violence. Pornography and snuff films might induce the proper revulsion, the right dose of nausea, but otherwise onscreen death is nothing but an idea. The ugly humanity that creates violence is the same ugly humanity that creates an eagerness to watch it unfold, to watch it happening to others. Instead of revulsion, there is exhilaration, even pleasure. This is what our minds have come to.

The Passion of The Christ regards a death. It is not death from cancer, from old age. It is not a cinematic death, or one that I'm accustomed to seeing. The state condemns a prisoner. His death is preceded with beating, with torture and with a long stylized march to the gallows along a desert path, a path of tears. The prisoner's mother follows him each step along the path. The prisoner bears the tools of his own execution. She bears a mother's pain, a mother's devotion and love, that blind, unthinking love-until her son is killed. She is forced to watch it all, and once he is at last dead, she takes him into her arms.

The path this mother's son takes and the various stations reached along that path form a narrative line that is one of the central myths of Western civilization. It is difficult to be ignorant of the Passion. It has been depicted-in graphic detail, in pious reserve-by visual artists in every decade of the last 1,900 years. Purely as narrative, it is as terrible and awesome as Greek myth, a nasty tale of betrayal and prophecy and sacrifice and loss. Audience members at a passion play are bystanders to the protagonist's suffering, but at some point, they realize the option of ceasing to merely regard this particular suffering, for to absorb violence only through the intellect is to fail it, fail to empathize, fail somehow to be fully human. "The wish to see something gruesome" comes from the realm of pure mind, unlocked and detached, a mind that has superseded the base, instinctual strains of sympathy to crave something more refined-what is, for Sontag, perhaps the only truth left to comprehend: a pleasure and ecstasy in realizing this is not happening to me .

The chance that a passion play will be compelling lies in the willingness of the spectator, as of the actors, not to detach but to imagine him or herself in the role of the soldier, the judge, the mother and-perhaps most important-the prisoner. "Meditate on the suffering of Christ," the sisters at Saint Agnes instructed me as a boy. When life is painful, meditate on the ultimate pain; connect with the divine by contemplating a shared fate. For Catholic children, to contemplate the Eucharist is to accept physical reminders of that fate, to remember the living body each of us has, or which has us.   

**   

Walk into any Catholic church and you will see the fourteen Stations of the Cross sculpted in stone or carved in stained glass, myth-telling through gesture and pose. Christ is condemned : a hangdog face, heavy frowns, accusing fingers. Christ falls for the first time : a mother cries, a soldier laughs, a prisoner's legs buckle under the dreaded weight. The poses are without explication. It is telling that Gibson originally intended for the film's dialogue-spoken in Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew-to remain untranslated, and for the living tableaux to tell the story alone, an exercise in pure cinema. This is perhaps one reason for the film's lapses into hyperbole, when Judas' anguish or a soldier's glee fails to measure itself against the dialogue and registers with little room for ambiguity. No words are translated at all during the film's most violent scene, the scourging at the pillar, where Christ receives more than forty lashes from a tool ripped from
The Inferno . Only when the scourging is halted and reason returns, however briefly, do the subtitles reappear.

Time and again, the higher faculties of the mind are silenced. After Christ's arrest, Judas observes the crowd convulsing around Jesus, beating and kicking; the former disciple does not speak, but rubs his face, his nose, not so much in anguish or regret but in complete incomprehension. Reason is silenced with unreasonable truth, unreasonable facts. In one of the film's quieter moments, Mary moves into the space where her son was just condemned, over the stones and blood, her face impassive, to kneel. The camera then descends through the stones to the cellar directly beneath, where her son waits, sensing her presence. The specific distance between this mother and son could not be more cleanly articulated. Many of the film's visual transitions create a similar connection, as when a round of beating stops and Christ's bloodied face lingers (for a suspiciously long time) before the audience. The camera cuts and the same face reappears, this time as a young carpenter building a table or, later, as the rabbi seated amid the candles of his last supper. Opposite visuals are presented with equal weight, equal force-two sides of the same coin.

Whenever violence to any one body is sustained in The Passion -and my God, this occurs a great deal-the camera slows. This is not the slowing down of cars on the highway but slow motion in film, directed and controlled, a concentrated seeing. The descent of a blade as it cuts the ear of the arresting soldier. The stumbling of Christ as a child, intercut with his mother's memory of reaching to stop him. Words have no place in slow motion; they don't work as sound and therefore don't work as sense. It's difficult to recognize-to sympathize, to feel -a body's movement onscreen unless that movement is somehow halted, or allowed to linger. For all its potential melodrama, it's an effective technique. When we observe slow-motion photography in film, we silence ourselves, only witnessing the movement, its beginning and end, its particular arc, endlessly fascinating-the body stirs, as if in sympathy.

At the end of Gibson's film, the audience is given (for the first time in nearly two hours) a moment to regard itself. The tableau of the famous Pietà -the crucified prisoner, his mother and the witnesses-appears suddenly and not quite realistically, stylized like thousands of renderings before it, a composed visual translation of grief. The witnesses lean into the broken body draped in his mother's arms. An audience member remembers with a certain amount of shame those who were forced to regard this scene, bystanders helpless before the actual event. The silent mother holds the body for the last time and stares directly into the camera, at those of us who have been regarding this pain-the ultimate pain of the body-as the camera retreats, slowly, to a distance wide enough to contemplate.   

**   

So a medieval passion play has been filmed by a Catholic, and a Catholic's interest-even unsubtle Mel Gibson's-falls on the human body: tormented, abused, forced to suffer "beyond the farthest reach of plausible endurance." But this body is also in a motion picture, a Hollywood film, photographed with a clear desire to make the physical suffering "shocking," a sympathy mostly foreign to Hollywood filmmaking, where suffering is mathematical (rent a family film like High Noon and catch yourself tallying the number of dead villains) or stylized to the point of eroticism (like The Wild Bunch , with its long, drawn-out spatterings of viscera). Of course, objecting to those graphic films purely based on their treatment of violence is to miss the point. Likewise, objecting to a passion play because it neglects to include a larger, more intellectually pleasing context is to miss the purpose of contemplation without distraction.

Yes, Catholics grow up obsessed with bodies. The obsession is found in the papal stance on contraception, continued in vows of celibacy and chastity, violated in case after case of priestly abuse, and written into the dress and obedience codes of parochial schools (no long hair, lipstick or exposed upper arms-or else corporeal punishment). One result of this bodily obsession is millions of fully grown Catholics dealing with the residual guilt of their most abiding desires.

There are times in The Passion of The Christ when "sympathy" and "suffering" weld themselves together visually in such a way that the mind seems to have little place in the union. This is one aspect of religion to which I am not yet reconciled, for if this premise is taken to its logical conclusion, then religion must at some point abandon reason. Is this possible? And yet isn't much of what I believe-or attempt to believe-as a Catholic collected along a line of unreason?

The "divine mysteries" of the Catholic Church have always resisted explanation: for committed Catholics, they are concepts most strongly understood through metaphor. The body is suffering, is endurance, is pain; the body cannot live apart from suffering. A life lived is not merely of the mind, but a life inside a temple, and a temple that will be destroyed in its own time. For a committed Catholic, especially one who favours the Church's social-activist strain, emphasis on the body means that faith must go hand in hand with works-bodily participation in faith. Without works, religious belief is merely the mind left alone, left to its own noble intentions, and any evangelical will tell you where noble intentions ultimately reside. (They line the road to hell.)

The secular lesson hidden in the Catholic Eucharist is that the most profound and pronounced states of living-joy, love, creativity, suffering, grief-will occur outside the mind's regarding . The mind reasons its way inside these states, understands what it can and theorizes the rest. Each one of us owes a death, regardless of how fine or crudely one imagines that end. This is the ultimate truth of the body

The Passion of The Christ is not subtle. But neither is it necrophilia. Instead of the life and teachings of Christ the Philosopher, we observe a Passion, and in one Catholic filmmaker's hands the Passion has become a visceral and hyperbolic meditation on the body, both as realism-I choose to believe what I am seeing-and as blunt metaphor-I feel what I am seeing, on a cellular level, and understand this inevitable suffering as a metaphor for life.

Be the bystander. Regard another's pain, fictional or factual. The human body, like a conscience, will tell you just how far back you can step to observe. Do not flinch; get a good look. The regarding is entirely up to you.