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The reign in pain
A film review of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST by Camus
"We call people who speak to God, pious.
We call people to whom God speaks, lunatics."
Philip K. Dick, author of The Transmigration of Timothy Arthur


I had a plan.

As a movie character, Jesus has issues. He also has more baggage than any other human being in human history. The most recent entertaining bit of Jesus-lore was Simon Pegg's observation that Jesus was really the world's first zombie. Not much help there but I loved the snapshot of what George Romero's Passion might look like. I had to find a way to look past the baggage and try to see The Passion of The Christ as a movie, an entertainment, a distraction if you will. I have the religious conviction of a microscope (I have no problem with the idea of everyone being nice to everyone else but organised religions leave me deathly cold). And yet, The Passion is being presented as a sort of Christian Boot Camp. Endure this global million dollar conversion-to-Christianity snuff movie project and salvation awaits. Actually a man with a leaflet was awaiting. The good Samaritan outside the small cinema didn't help my plan of objectivity. I was accosted as I left. I can't abide leaflets. I smiled a thin lipped smile wondering what force on Earth could compel a human being to stand outside a small cinema in the hopes of snaring a potential church-goer. In fact, it made me quite sad. No, it didn't. I admit it. It pissed me off.

I tried. I really tried. I knew what I was in for and because all the details of the details had slowly leaked into the press, no amount of self-censorship could stop the flow. I knew it was Gibson's hands that smashed the nails into Christ's palms. I knew the devil's snot was a maggot (go figure). I knew how all the effects were done (I admit I read specialist magazines and was curious) and above all I knew I was in for a two hour experience, an hour of which was full of the most brutal torture a cinematic 'hero' ever had to endure. This was trouble in the Middle East that was remarkable for two things. The first was the domino effect the incident had on a significant number of people in the world and secondly, no Americans were involved.

I pushed away the baggage. I really pushed. But the baggage sat there staring at me from a-cross the way. The Way. The Truth. The Light. See how pervasive all this stuff is? Jesus. I was pummelled by Sunday School in the mid-seventies. I rebelled (more to do with ITV's The Big Match clashing with Bible studies than anything else) and I came to the conclusion that we - as a race - needed myth when we knew very little. The (probably) true story of Jesus' execution had been ear marked by either honest to goodness prophets or self serving zealots and voila, we had a faith. As celebrated atheist Douglas Adams once said (God (!), I miss him) while beating his head against his office wall "This is the 21st century!" He was having to entertain a Jewish businessman with strict dietary requirements. We may note that God is fickle and decided to get rid of Douglas before any more uncommon common sense escaped from his remarkable mind.

It is the 21st century now and we know that religious fundamentalism is not serving the same function as it did in the past (with the exception of misery, pain and death). Once you lock in what worked in the past and apply it to a changed out-of-all-recognition present, you create a not-working thing. Look at that bloody line from the US Constitution about bearing arms and all the people that line has helped to kill over the years. Dare I say the internet is serving us as a knowledge base. We now know things that we didn't know before. But that said, the Christ myth is still something our children are subjected to by default. I despise the argument that if it's normal it is unquestionably right. The notion of secularity being offered in British education makes me very happy. Choice is good.

Nativity may represent another word for Christmas but it's a powerful tool of indoctrination. You learn this stuff as you learn one and one is two. Jesus takes on a hearty significance if only by ubiquity. As I said, I'm all for loving my fellow man (no caveat however smart-ass I try) but following my own way. What is it about God Botherers that are so tiresome, smug and ultimately contradictory? But the faith stuff is powerful mojo. An oft repeated tale often takes on not only the mantle of fact but irrefutable fact. Gibson is obviously a man of strong religious beliefs and despite the slew of starring roles in less than Christian productions, he has made a film that has passion. Anyone who makes a movie with passion is - in my book - someone worth talking about. I don't care that he stands to make $500 million for the work - money is important but not creatively speaking. I don't care that he's made an extraordinarily gory movie in which the 'hero' has nowhere but bad places to go. I care because the film-maker cares and whether I think his views and opinions are, ahem, poppycock (oh, how I hovered over that word for what seemed like months), I will defend his right to have them and express them in such a form.

Think back eighteen months.

One of the top Hollywood stars was embarking on a project that had every atom of commercial disaster written all over it. Mel Gibson is a star because he's regarded as good looking, starred in internationally famous films and lucky enough to have come to the attention of certain people. He is probably one of the most famous Catholics in the world and his father (no doubt the probable source of Mel's own beliefs) gained notoriety for downplaying the horror of the holocaust. But given all this, Mel understands Hollywood. He should also understand that L.A.'s God is money. Just look how much of his own he was willing to throw away... The film was to portray the last day of Christ's life (sadists take note, there's a lot of blood, a lot of pain). It would be shot in Aramaic with English sub-titles (say, what? Mel's lost his marbles). Steve Martin's superb New York Times parody ("What if The Passion was a studio movie") is so funny, it's worth the movie being made for that piece alone. Lethal Passion! Priceless. Naysayers take note. Mad Max has paid for and directed the most commercially successful independent film ever. I was comforted more when that film was HALLOWEEN but I can adapt.

OK - let's drop the baggage. Let's pretend I don't know any religion but a smattering of history...

A frightened bearded hippy called what sounds like 'Eshwar' wanders around in a wood while a cloaked figure has a maggot up his nose. Eshwar's mates fight to save him from a group of soldiers who are doing the bidding of MIORs - men in ornate robes. A mentally tortured man takes money revealing Eshwar's whereabouts. In the fracas of capture, one soldier cuts his face and Eshwar touches his wound and the wound disappears. Eshwar has made a convert. Eshwar is dragged in front of various judiciary bodies (a Roman who's reluctant to punish a man for saying what the MIORs are calling blasphemy). They keep passing the whatever passed for a buck in 32AD. Eshwar's friends desert him in fear for their own lives. The betrayer, after many images of demons in children's faces, hangs himself near the rotting carcass of an ass. As you do. We are reminded that this Eshwar fellow made claims that he was 'the son of God' and that he had stepped on a number of toes of self styled pious men. The Roman (a decent guy all told) orders Eshwar to be severely punished but not killed.

He is dragged away and attached to a low rock. Taking considerable relish, five or six drunken, loutish Roman guards use a variety of instruments to tear the skin off his back while their sergeant looks on. Even his ribs are exposed by the brutality. Also looking on are two women, Eshwar's mother and another, a stunning beauty. The cloaked figure also re-appears with what looks like one half of The Krankies suckling at its teat. Eshwar's back looks like tenderised steak and the most horrifying image of the sequence? The sergeant indicating with a wrist twist that Eshwar should now be turned over and flayed again. Eshwar is once more brought in front of the masses and despite his terrible appearance the mob and MIORs bray for crucifixion. The Roman has the power to let a prisoner go and despite the choice between a flayed pacifist and a raving loony murderer, the crowd go for the latter. What cha gonna do? The Roman, reluctantly, gives in.

On his way to the place of crucifixion Eshwar falls over many times (as well he might given the horrific nature of his injuries) and is helped by a man who shoulders the cross with him. The guards are indifferent and by the time a hill is climbed, Eshwar thinks back to happier times (just how difficult is that?) and we realise the stunning beauty accompanying his mother is a woman who crawled to Eshwar's ankle - was she saved by Eshwar? The guards then take what seems like great pleasure in nailing Eshwar to his cross in a protracted scene while all the while the poor man keeps asking God to forgive them. Mr. Gibson spares us nothing. They even flip the cross over and hammer down the nails from the back so he's nice and snug. Eventually, God lets a tear fall as Eshwar breathes his last. The MIORs temple is rent in two (as Eshwar had predicted) and some of the principle MIORs look shocked as in "Oh Jesus, he was the real deal? Faaack!"

And then we find the perfectly normal non-skinned naked Eshwar (with hands that simply could not hold Smarties) leave his place of rest. I remember thinking why does he have holes in his hands and yet all the other wounds have healed? And then I remembered the line that would explain it all.

God moves in mysterious ways...

So Braveheart wasn't a fluke. Gibson has the passion to make movies and it's clear that however one disagrees with where and how the passion is channelled, The Passion of The Christ is at least a film with a soul. True, we don't really understand why Jesus has pissed off the VIPs so badly but then how many of us understand the politics of the time? Historians tell us that Monty Python's Life of Brian was a reasonably accurate depiction of the Middle East at the time of Jesus. It was so hard, so hard for me not to add a line every time I heard 'Eshwar' being told he was 'not the Messiah'. Yes, that's right. He's not the Messiah. He's a very naughty boy.

I can easily see myself in many arguments with the religious Mel Gibson but hell, as a film maker he gets my vote. But I did prefer the mad Scotsman as a protagonist. Jesus? Too much baggage...

The Passion of the Christ

USA 20045
127 mins
Mel Gibson
Bruce Davey
Mel Gibson
Stephen McEveety
Benedict Fitzgerald
Mel Gibson

Caleb Deschanel

John Wright
John Debney
production design
Francesco Frigeri
James Caviezel
Monica Bellucci
Claudia Gerini
Maia Morgenstern
review posted
15 May 2004