Mel Gibson's the Passion of the Christ Essay

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Mel Gibson's The Passion Of The Christ

For most of its duration, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ lingers horrifyingly on a mostly-naked male body in pain; as a result, the rest of the film seems exceptionally anxious otherwise about the issue of homoeroticism. Gibson claimed in interviews that the principal source for the film's screenplay (credited to Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald) besides the New Testament came in the recorded vision of a Roman Catholic mystic, the Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich. Yet The Passion of the Christ offers inadvertent proof of the auteur theory of cinema, because Gibson's role as director entails a host of interpretive decisions. I hope by examining the ways in which The Passion of the Christ variously depicts Judas, Satan and Herod in ways that seem to nervously invoke issues of homoeroticism or androgyny, suggesting that the film's original source material may be the Gospels, but Gibson's own obsession with the demonization (both figuratively and literally, in this case) of homosexuals is something that owes more to trends in early twenty-first century American Christianity than it does to the Gospels.

It is something of an understatement to say that The Passion of the Christ is obsessively focused on the physical torture of Jesus. Indeed, the scriptural quotation which Gibson places as the film's epigraph seems intended to prepare the audience for the graphic violence of the film -- the opening titles read: "He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; by His wounds we are healed. Isaiah 53, 700 BC." The violent physical abuse inflicted on Jesus in Gibson's film is matched with an excess of blood and ghoulish sound effects: the scourging of Jesus by the Roman centurions is particularly hard to watch. But to some degree, we may note a kind of nervousness on the part of Gibson to the notion that this spectacle might be homoerotic: to some degree this is how he handles the betrayal of Christ by Judas as (more or less) the opening sequence of the film.

The film opens with Christ praying in Gethsemane. But before the arrival of Judas to betray him, we witness the episode of Christ's prayer to God the Father, begging him to take the chalice away from him. At this point, Christ falls face-first in agony, and the camera spots what appears to be an albino Burmese python. The amateur (or indeed professional) herpetologist is jolted by the sight, as this animal is native to Myanmar and would have had to travel approximately four thousand miles to turn up in the Garden of Gethsemane. At this point Christ prays: "Hear me, father. Rise up, defend me. Save me from the traps they set for me." Then we hear a voice speaking in response -- because no-one in the audience is fluent in the conversational first-century Aramaic of the dialogue, we can only analyze the voice by its tone. And its tone sounds female, but the statement is: " Do you really believe that one man can bear the full burden of sin?" No face has been provided, and "one man" leads the audience to assume that it is a statement of gender difference, and the speaker is a woman. But it is not. It is the albino Burmese python, aka Satan, whom we now glimpse for the first time, under a large black hood, like the evil Emperor in "Return of the Jedi." Satan has no eyebrows and no hair visible, but Satan's lips are glossed and Satan's eyelids have a grayish eyeshadow applied, and Satan's eyelashes are visibly thick with mascara. As should be clear from the very structure of the previous sentence, Gibson's central, indeed only, conception for how to represent Satan is through androgyny. The actor playing Satan looks like Joan Allen if she had played a pre-cog in "Minority Report," and is indeed a woman -- Rosalinda Celentano. We then see Satan's left hand, which tapers into long pointed nails -- they are meant to look inhuman, like claws, but they also read as feminine.

It is within this context that Gibson's story begins -- when Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss, shortly after Jesus curb-stomps the albino Burmese python in a rather uncharacteristic moment of physical violence, presumably meant to be a crude visual equivalent of the "get thee behind me, Satan" topos. Normally depictions of Judas in the Passion narrative are anti-Semitic: Gibson sidesteps this problem by having a Jesus who looks physically identical to Judas. When Judas approaches Christ in Gethsemane and states "Hail, Rabbi" then moves in for a tender if deliberate kiss on the cheek, filmed or staged in seeming slow motion by Gibson, so as to highlight the moment. Of course, Gibson's interpretation of the moment -- in light of his androgynous Satan -- seems to identify Judas' problem as homosexuality. (There has been no context whatsoever to Judas' actions, nor any depiction of Judas' preliminary meetings with Caiaphas to arrange the betrayal with a kiss.) Jesus' response is vehement rather than resigned: "Judas, you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?" At this point, Simon Peter lunges, the fight starts, and Judas runs away. The film is a hair's breadth away from suggesting that Judas' sole problem with Jesus was expressed in that kiss -- in other words, proposing a homoerotic or narcissistic motivation on the part of Judas. But it is worth noting, in terms of the film's equation of femininity with wickedness, that after running away Judas will encounter Jesus one final time, as the arresting officers torture Jesus by tossing him over a wall on his chains, then yanking him back up. While suspended from the chains, Jesus looks Judas directly in the face. What follows, though, is a hallucination meant to represent the guilt of Judas, in which a witch-like female face comes screaming out of the shadows, leading Judas to run away in horror. It is not a male demon with a pitchfork, and one way or the other it is Mel Gibson's addition to the Gospels, and represents the specific gendering of his imaginative conception of evil. To a certain degree, it is possible to understand Judas' eventual suicide in terms of a rather old-fashioned stereotype about homosexuality: Judas is chased by shouting children (whom he has called "satans") into the hills outside Jerusalem. As they kick and abuse Judas, we glimpse Satan among their number. Then the children vanish, we realize that Judas is sitting next to a dead donkey with a rope around its neck, Judas is beset with flies attracted to the half-dessicated donkey corpse, takes the rope, and hangs himself. The introduction of the children into the narrative of Judas' suicide is extra-Biblical, and the effect is reminiscent of "Suddenly, Last Summer"; Gibson seems to be hinting that Judas' wickedness is like that of a pedophile. Judas is otherwise not outwardly effeminate, but he is beholden to the film's female Satan. To a certain degree, though, Judas seems motivated only by mental illness in his appearances in the film's first hour.

The issue of gender as relates to Gibson's depiction of villains becomes more salient with the entry of Herod. After Pilate declares "Let Herod judge him." The high priest, who has hitherto addressed Pilate inaccurately as "Consul," now says "Governor" in protest: it seems like even the Jews can't stand Herod. Herod, fat and effeminate, enters putting on his wig: he has kohl heavily penciled around his eyes, and in addition to the wig accessorizes with rings and a huge necklace of semiprecious metals, and wears what appears to be a kaftan. He has a high child-like voice, and indeed resembles no-one so much as a younger Curly Howard from the Three Stooges, wearing Amy Winehouse's hair. Herod's court features a morbidly obese woman, and a cackling male in some sort of drag, with huge painted eyebrows, and braided locks hanging down from beneath a gold headdress. It would be possible to explain Gibson's depiction of effeminacy in his villains as a kind of holdover of an "Orientalist" worldview of the Near East. But the simple fact is that Herod, who is played purely as a worldly sybarite and not specifically as a homosexual, is depicted in ways which make it seem like androgyny is somehow the very definition of those who persecute and mock Christ.

From a theological standpoint, Gibson is working in a clear tradition: The Passion of the Christ is best understood as a work of Catholic Counter-Reformation propaganda: its literally visceral sense of Christ's incarnation recalls the ghoulish excesses of (say) Richard Crashaw's devotional verse. This explains the blood and gore of the film, the aspect that David Edelstein on would refer to as "The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre." But the combination of Gibson's own fictional addition to a historical narrative in ways that seem both inaccurate and anxious about homosexuality goes beyond this particular film. The analysis of The Passion of the Christ…[continue]

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