[Marxism] Being there with Jesus Christ and Mel Gibson - Review of "The Passion of the Christ"

andromeda246 andromeda246 at hetnet.nl
Wed Apr 21 17:26:41 MDT 2004

(Melvin P. asked me if I had seen the movie. This is what I thought - JB).
I've always been in two minds about Jesus Christ as the son of God. It seemed a contradiction. Sometimes I've felt like defending his radical expressions of compassionate love against unctiously sermonising christians trying make people obey a moral authority unquestioningly. Or against crude, stupid and trashy people pronouncing verities to me about human sensitivity. Then again, sometimes I've felt like defending the Romans against Jesus Christ, insofar as believers I encountered engaged in  supercilious apology for their own rotten schemes, or tried to insinuate a moral higher ground where they had none, with reference to a cult of suffering. Part of that must be in my personality. But part of it must be the portrayal of Jesus in the Bible. There is the Jesus who throws the money-changers out of the temple. Then there's the Jesus who tells us to render unto imperialism what belongs to it. And then there's the Dutch Jesus. That's not me, by the way.
When people shove two conflicting positions in your face to force a choice on your part, I tend to think there's usually a better third position which you really ought to be taking, because it's better than either of them. If it's John Kerry versus George Bush, the world must be better off with Ralph Nader. After all, the real conflict is between the rich and the poor. Kerry and Bush make it look like the conflict is between who among the rich would be best to tell the poor what's good for them. The poor must have reverence for the rich - after all, the rich didn't get to where they are just by writing film reviews, did they ?
It must have been at the start of the 1980s that I watched a comedy by Peter Sellers of "Pink Panther" fame called "Being there". It was (to me at least) a funny allegory, in which - if memory serves me - the main character is a gardener, a middle-aged simpleton who loves watching TV. Living his sedentary, mousy life in Washington DC surrounded by plants and flowers, he befriends a dying millionaire, and is then suddenly introduced into the sophisticated world of the political elite - who, because of his new friends, read a deep and profound political meaning into each of his modest philosophical observations about gardening. Whereas at first sight the gardener seems just an innocent village idiot, he becomes a society hit. The elite find him refreshing, because his disarmingly positive message forces backstabbers in the corridors of power to drop their masks a little and speak their mind. Just by being his modest, genuine self, and insisting on the simple truths of his own experience, he exposes the pathetic human beings behind the facade of political authority. 
This then has the effect of a comic populist inversion: the elite appears more of a dunce than he is - as I remember it, either they try to span him to their own bandwaggon, without success (because they don't cotton on that he doesn't understand their allusive political doubletalk), or else they reveal their own gullibility, because of their belief that, given his new connections, there must be some "deep political meaning" beneath his harmless sincerity. The simple gardener then turns presidential consultant, and in the end surrealistically walks away on water, leaving behind a bunch of sophisticates whom he has tied up in conundrums. 
Apart from the comic symbolism of the story itself, what makes this otherwise rather superficial movie great is its neat summary of basic dichotomies emerging in our virtualised, sexualised, postmodernised and cybernetized society - a society in which what you can be aware of is such a vast territory, that the real problem is in deciding what you should actually be focusing on to relativise it all. The idea of "Being There" suggests a dichotomy of absence/presence (participation or non-participation, inclusion or exclusion) with the dichotomy of pattern/randomness (significant/not meaningful, deliberately constructed/arbitrary behaviour) - the finish being a surrealistically lighthearted flourish, suggesting that ignorance is revealed as innocence, which offers the promise of bliss.

I had to think of "Being There" again after watching Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ" the other day here in Amsterdam. Mel's movie depicts a scene which is a polar opposite to Peter Sellers but with similar techniques. Here there is no happy ending, and Mel wants to rub that into your eyeballs too. It seemed like a kind of a christian punk confrontation, and emotionally I found it sickening (at a certain point during the film when I felt dry in the mouth, I clocked an overpriced Cola from the machine in the hallway). The only "passion" you get to see in "The Passion of the Christ" is the enthusiasm with which the Roman soldiers beat the shit out of Jesus, who doesn't appear to be a great communicator. 
In fact, Mel's Jesus has almost nothing intelligible to say in the whole movie, beyond a few mumbles in garbled Latin and broken English. The point seems to be that this is a horror story, and Mel invites you to see and understand just how horrible that horror is, or at the very least, that you must be some kind of Jesus yourself to be watching it at all. Why else go and see a movie in 2004 called "The Passion of the Christ" ? It must be some kind of daring cult porno, or else you are seeing it to understand an actor's statement about the nature of our times. 
The opening scenes feature the thirty-something Jesus being arrested, while standing in the dark among trees with his long-haired disciples - he books a "farewell kiss" from one of them, which gives you a clue straightaway. At the end of the movie, the bloodied and busted-up Lord Jesus gets to have his stiff left arm broken by a Roman soldier who - with obvious glee - wants to nail his left hand definitely to the wooden cross once and for all (his side-kicks are tied to the cross, one gets an eye picked out by a magpie). Almost everything about the Lord is broken and stuffed up by then - except the Lord's teeth, gored by blood, slime, froth and no doubt plaque. And, of course, he remains strong as ever in his innocent conviction, forgiving his torturers "because they don't know what they're doing". 
So he's still got the moral high ground there, even as he is being lifted off the ground on the cross. But eventually Jesus gives up the ghost, and gets his helicopter ride to heaven, leaving behind a snarling little SF monster, while his groupies philosophise about the wonder of it all, by the entrance of the cave. In between, the constant arbitrary beatings and brutal humiliations, together with the lack of any explicit explanation of motive, makes you search for visual clues about what Jesus has really done to deserve his fate, according to Mel's version. 
So then what's the plot ? Why exactly is Jesus not a Good Boy ? What does Mel really want us to understand ? The Roman soldiers appear to be in no doubt about it. Their cruelty is enacted with clear approval of almost all the men around, even although some wince at the brutality of the punishment being meeted out. They want to "get the lout", and now that they've got him, they evidently believe they are absolutely morally correct in administering their brutal punishment. But the precise interpretation of Jesus's guilt still remains unclear. With all the Latin being spoken, it's difficult to figure out anyway. Could it be a case of mistaken identity, a big misunderstanding ? Is civilisation at stake ? Point is, Mel's Jesus is really bereft of any clear identity or personality, and is portrayed as just some guy, one of those long-haired louts that cause trouble. Why does the incoherently cheering crude mob choose for the criminal Barabas in Pilate's elections ? Is it because his rotten teeth stink less ? Why exactly isn't Jesus popular ? There is no precise narrative here, only a sort of obviousness. Jesus is more civilised than Barabas, but there's Something Wrong.
The explanation really comes from the women who hang around Jesus like limp fish, and who quietly pink away a tear while the Lord is being smashed up by the men - they diligently clean away his blood with linen supplied by Pilate's wife etc., while at the same time their perfect, shiny hairdo's are never a millimeter out of place. This is Hollywood cliche after all, and Mel meticulously follows through that cliche with muted visual caricatures, the emphasis being on the horror of the persecution consequent upon the transgression of the code. His Jesus evidently passed up the bar; basically, his Lord Jesus is a flower-power hippy unable or unwilling to jerk off with women.
To the Romans, he is a Boy Grown Up Bad. To the women he is love without sex.  Jesus proudly and consciously shows a woman (who is it ?) a table he has built with his own hands, but she just smiles somewhat condescendingly and tugs his belt. The scene hints that Jesus Knows What He Is Doing, but has More Important Things on his mind. He might say he knows the Way, but the Romans think his Way is Wrong. If you don't show your balls, you get them ripped off, that's the reality in the Empire.
So then Jesus is the Son of Man, but he is not a Man himself. He lacks balls somehow. A gentle asexual love substitutes for manly dignity acquired through rites of passage. Or, at the very least, he has not earnt respect as a man. He's then really just a lout, rather than an upstanding citizen. All the rest is just verbiage around the subject, impossible to follow really unless you are an intellectual with a degree in Latin. While Jesus slumps in agonising pain, there's a flashback scene which shows him thinking of that beautiful atmosphere when he was doing that Sermon on the Mount, preaching about how we all should be and blessing the people below, and this slightly surreal scene shows him as a Californian hippy guru, a sort of glorified Bee Gee. 
But the Romans believe none of it. They consider Jesus is talking about the next world, without having really lived in this world, really just a nuisance in the Roman world. From their point of view he doesn't walk the talk. Or, he has an irritating strength or appeal that threatens and needs to be broken down by the Empire.  It's cock-power and virile arts that count here, but Jesus is an alien in his perfection. Meanwhile, the women seem entranced in Holy Mystery of it all, or else seem to believe Jesus is "such a nice man". The actual camera work and symbolism is deceptively simple, but really it isn't - it seems deliberately crafted for Jesuses and Mary's in the audience peering at a Jesus and Mary on the screen who just don't mean much visually or auditorily, and perhaps never could mean much, under the circumstances. Of course you could read more into it, filtering the images through your own experiences.
There are suggestions of moral limits, there are suggestions about love and sex, and the message is loud and clear that a man can get bashed up and brutally killed for doing nice things, because he's ignored the real love code operating. Jesus's inarticulate otherworldliness is balanced against the grotesque cruelty of the Romans. The unreal sadness and lack of real shock by the women hanging around powerlessly while Jesus gets beaten up (hinting Jesus has in some way contributed to his own crucifiction) is balanced with their show of compassionate care and their belief in Jesus's promise as human being. And so on, the composition is balanced out in different scenes, and then Jesus craps out completely. 
So the moral of Mel's story might then be that nobody's perfect, and should not pretend to be perfect. There's is a little bit of Mel's Jesus in all of us, and you can push things too far for your own good. But if Jesus had done something wrong, or was too perfect, he was also punished too brutally by the Romans, who lacked emotional intelligence in some sense. So really it was not fair. Heck, now there's a lot of people talking about Jesus again. And if they are, then Mel, as a catholic, has succeeded. That's clever of him, isn't it. 
As for myself, I walked out of the movie theatre feeling sick, and disregarded the blonde standing by the entrance. I had managed to watch it to the end, and considered it an achievement.  There was nothing uplifting about Jesus's death for me, Mel convinced me of that if I didn't know it already. One reviewer whom I had read in advance wrote: "Sitting through this film does provide at least one revelation: Jesus wasn't the only one who suffered." Quite. But then why see the movie ? As regards myself, I was thinking about my father and things that went wrong between us. As a matter of fact, I had stopped smoking cigarettes the previous day, but the next day I started smoking cigarettes again. So the movie had an undeniable impact, though not for the better in my case. 
Lately I have been reading in the Dutch Marxist writer Theun de Vries's historical account of religious heretics in the history of christianity from Jesus until the Reformation. He writes: "Fascinated from my youth by the trials and tribulations of heretics, and the apparently bizarre character of their heresies, I learnt on closer examination to recognise in many of them the revolutionary precursors of later social movements. They nearly always signified a protest against the pretensions of the authoritarian state, a "battering ram" against the walls of feudalism. They defied in many ways the straitjacket imposed on human conscience by the organized Christian church. Nothing human is alien to man as a heretic. Heretics could be alternately iconoclasts and zealots, libertarians or quietists. But they are always on a quest for the "real truth" - in the course of which, it transpires that that the essence of the faith they seek is nothing other than the essence of man himself, which is wanting to be discovered. The heretical dissenter displays a conviction, a self-sacrificing attitude and a heroism which, in many cases, has changed the course of history. A human history which I, following Hegel, interpret as a progression in self-awareness and, with Marx, as the "great portal" in which all human wills and their clashes serve to lead to us towards a society that is, finally, a truly humanized one. A world without heretics would be a world of stifling conformism." 
It got me thinking, is Mel Gibson a heretic in his depiction of moral obscenity ? Yes and no. Certainly he has the gumption to make his own ideosyncratic statement to the public without fear of treading on religious sensitivities, cloning characters which reflect something about himself and the semi-articulate moral confusions of the American scene nowadays. At one level, it's a protest film about fascist emotional persecution and senseless suffering, and a lot of thinking certainly went into making his film. I admire his craft. On the other hand, the mixture of subtle and unsubtle signifiers does not conclude much more than the death of Jesus and the helicopter ride, and, insofar as you reject inhuman cruelty, you just cannot be other than on Jesus's side in this case. I was hoping for something more - not passion, but insight, something that would challenge the brain more beyond a visual knock-out. 
De Vries's history of religious heretics pointed me to the story of the erudite Spanish-Jewish humanist Juan Luis Vives (1492-1540). Although it is not exactly clear when Vives was born in Valencia, we know that he came from a family of Jewish cloth merchants who converted to Christianity under pressure from the Inquisition. After primary school, grammar school and arts courses, Vives studied at the University of Valencia where he experienced the clash between traditional catholic scholasticism and a nascent humanism which became subsequently inspired his own prolific writings. He went on to study Logic at Montaigu College in Paris in 1517, and became professor in Louvain in 1519, meeting with Erasmus and other intellectual luminaries. Then in 1523, he joined a brilliant group of humanists at the court of Henry VIII in England, lecturing in philosophy, theology and the classics at Oxford. Why is there no movie about Vives ? These days, when we are confronted once more with throwbacks to feudal ideologies to justify a slowly rotting social order, I think we definitely ought to concentrate on the better side of feudalism if the discourses are going feudal - that side which led to the Enlightenment. But some might prefer Mel Gibson's film. Or the Pink Panther.

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