The Passionless Passion

OK. I admit, upfront, that I’m biased. Beginning with the time Sister Mary Whatshername took our sixth grade class to see a Black Friar-produced Passion Play, and continuing through another half-dozen years of Stations of the Cross and Seven Last Words and various other celebrations of that noxious crucifixion, I pretty much had my fill of the story’s gory details.
Maybe that’s why, sitting through Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ this afternoon with my mother snoozing on and off next to me through the less loudly symphonic parts, I felt….well….I felt bored.
Or maybe that’s not why. I mean, I really like going to the movies. And I am deeply enamored of all kinds of mythologies. There was a time that used to to read the gospels over and over because I loved the stories. Hearing Haydn’s interpretation would move me to goose bumps and tears. So, why did Gibson’s Christ leave me cold.
Well, first of all, costly coagulated make-up effects and lots of eerily expressive faces aside, Gibson directed this movie like it was a film student’s final project. All of that slow motion drifting of various droplets, bodily and otherwise! Those creative camera angles and constant crescendos of new age-y music! And, of course, those lengthy close-up portrait shots of fluid-oozing faces!
Anyone who doesn’t know the details of that mythic journey might totally lose track of the story line as it flashes back to various signficant moments in the Christ’s life-before-flogging. You really had to have read the book. Probably several times.
And then there was the flogging. And the flogging. And the flogging. No man born of woman would have lived past the first round. By then, essential organs would have been mortally wounded, and at least a few ribs cracked and sticking in and out of places that they were never meant to be. Certainly, after having just about every inch of skin pretty much flayed to strips, any human would have fainted from the pain, gone into catatonic shock.
Oh, what’s that you say? But he wasn’t human. Oh, but the point of the movie and of scripture is that he was. His father in heaven did not protect him or save him or take that chalice from him. He made his choices and he took his chances.
And so it was with Gibson-the-director. He chose to turn one of the greatest stories ever told into what amounts to a graphic novel. Oddly enough Pontius Pilate comes off as the only character who thinks in more than one dimension. Unfortunately, the historical Pontius Pilate was much less bothered by conscience than the one that Christian mythology has come to embrace and the one that Gibson chose to portray.
I think that Gibson has done a great disservice to both faith and myth, which, when it comes to the passion of the Christ, are based in so much more than the skin-deep story that his movie tells.
Instead of being drawn into the heart of the matter, as I watched Gibson’s movie I was remembering my sixth grade introduction to the Passion Play, when Stanley Szymanski sat next to me and held my hand. And during the most dramatic moment of the play, when the Christ was hanging on the cross and about to utter his last words, and the sound effects thundered and the lighting effects blinded. Stanley leaned over and said to me “let’s get hitched.”
P.S. For some clever related visual sacriligious humor, check out Rage Boy’s “Christ on a Crutch.”

13 thoughts on “The Passionless Passion

  1. My dear, comic books and graphic novels are not the same thing. You obviously have never read Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. It is one of the most amazing stories I have ever read, and to call it a comic book would be a terrible insult. 😉

  2. Errgh. Yes, my son-in-law is going to very disappointed in me for making that mistake. As an illustrator, himself, he’s a Neil Gaiman and Sandman fan and he even got me to read Gaiman’s unillustrated American Gods, which I loved. I guess it’s a generation thing. Sorry about that.

  3. Not to be nitpicky, well… nevermind, Lindsay started it!
    I disagree about the comic v. graphic novel thing. And I think it’s interesting that Gaiman himself sees no purposeful distinction between “comic” and “graphic novel.”
    He wrote that in his blog, here:
    You have to scroll down a bit for the relevent quote, but he writes:
    No, there’s no meaningful difference. For some reason the term “big thick collected or original comic published in book form” has never really caught on, while “Graphic Novel” did.
    It’s a sales category, and a clue to where in the bookstore (or comic shop) you can buy the story. Sandman was indeed 76 comic books, and you can still find those issues on eBay, and on the walls and back-issue bins at comic stores. But if you want to read the story now, the easy way is as a series of ten graphic novels. That’s how they stay in print.
    To me, “graphic novel” is a marketing term. Illustrated stories are either children’s books or comics. There are awesome comics and utterly crappy ones, but they are all comics.

  4. I guess I always think of comics as being for kids and graphic novels for adults. And, in that vein, that graphic novels deal with more sophisticated subject matter and characters, although they’re really the same genre as comic books. But, again, my generation only had comic books. So I’ll let you two duke it out. 🙂

  5. It’s interesting to note that the debate here so far is centred on definitions of what is and isn’t a comic. We’ve skated quite past any question as to whether or not Gibson’s movie can reasonably characterised with any other label.
    I haven’t yet seen it, so can’t comment directly, but the previews certainly make it look like a curious kind of Manga 😉

  6. The whole S&M scene turns me off so I won’t be viewing the Gibson torture fest, but Sam Peckinpah started a movie with a bunch of outlaws shooting the heads off chickens and I remember being slightly grossed out but carried away by the violence as the movie continued. Even so, “Pulp Fiction” and “Natural Born Killers” are really more my style, and if I want to see lots of fluids flying from the face of a young man in conflict, give me an old Bruce Willis movie any day.

  7. Yup. Those movies, and also “Reservoir Dogs” are all about psychologically complex characters surviving in disturbing realities. They make you think so much about contradictions that your head hurts. Gibson’s movie is simplistic S&M for those who’d rather not think.

  8. I ask this as a Jew who hasn’t seen the movie. And I ask it sincerely. If this movie were all you had to go on, what would you think of Christianity? Does it do a good job representing the meaning of the religion?

  9. Hi, Elaine! Are you still blocked from my blog? I miss you. Anyway, I posted a few days ago about my conflict over whether or not to attend this movie. Given the tenor of the reviews plus your observations, I’m now pretty sure I’m going to pass it up.
    I don’t know why I was that much in conlfict about it in the first place. My parents dragged me off to one of those god-awful Passion Plays when I too was somewhere around the sixth grade. When Christ gets nailed to the cross my Dad starts weeping and making repeated signs of the cross. It was the only time I ever saw him cry. I was totally embarassed and just wanted to run as far as I could from that theatre. I think it was the beginning of my disaffection with religion-a sentiment I know you understand well.

  10. Very interesting post, Elaine. I’m with Frank: torture isn’t my thing, and I won’t be seeing this film, and your vivid discussion, along with a sound clip I heard, seals the matter for me: no thanks, I don’t want to see this. I heard a clip on CBC Radio this morning, just a snip (I was driving), a discussion between a Rabbi & a Bishop in Toronto. The bishop didn’t think the movie was antisemitic as such, but he wasn’t moved by it at all as a religious message; he thought it was one-sided. One of them — the rabbi or the bishop? — said he felt assaulted by the movie and that it took him hours to “come back to himself” afterward (I think it was actually the bishop who said this). The rabbi said that xians & Jews will see 2 different films because of the histories they bring to the viewing. As a Jew, the rabbi asked himself, “Why is this happening to Jesus?” and the answer he summoned was, “Because he is a Jew.” This in turn linked the depicted events directly, for him, to recent historical events, viz. the Holocaust. He said xians aren’t going to be asking themselves, “Why is this happening to him?”, at least not from that perspective, least of all from the perspective that it happened to Jesus because he was a Jew. That, I thought, pinpointed the propaganda aspect of the film. The xians are going to say that there isn’t any (propaganda) because they won’t assume a historical perspective, but if you assume a historical perspective, you have to say, “this is propaganda.”
    In addition — sorry to hog all this space on your comment board — check out this Vancouver online mag article, quite interesting. It starts with the following, so what’s not to like:
    “Before Vancouverite Michael McKinley co-produced and scripted a documentary on the life of Christ he authored a history of hockey, so he writes on religion, it is fair to say.”
    Here’s the URL: [editor’s note: the length of the url messes up my screen, so I had to split it up. Sorry.]

  11. I did see the movie the passion and must say… it was amazing, for you to make the arguement that passion playes and the stations of the cross made it boring is downright arrogant, are you suggesting that the death of Christ is to be entertainment? if so you have a problem. as to the comment about the flogging, there is sufficient evidence that the men doing the flogging were pros, they could rip u to shreds and not kill you, and if u noticed jesus did almost pass out, or were u sleeping cause it wasnt entertaining enough? whether you find the passion of Christ a spiritual experience or not, i think it is barbaric to refer to the suffering and death of a human being as somthing that is to appease ur amusement. o and about the jews, christian theology maintains that we all killed christ, and the romans did the dirty work anyways, AND Jesus was a jew… just doesnt make sense to me. this isnt all we have to go on so why ask the question “what if we it was all we had” if u dont wanna c torture and death, then dont go at all, its not like they didnt warn u

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