In the comments thread of an earlier post there’s a discussion on whether or not it’s fair to refer to The Passion as “pornography.” I’ve been arguing that, based on all I’ve read so far from writers I trust, I suspect the label is a fair one. After reading Andrew Sullivan tonight, I feel it’s particularly justified.
In a long post of breathtaking power Sullivan condemns the movie as undisguised pornography — and worse. After briefly noting that there are several very moving moments in the film, he lets it all out.
At the same time, the movie was to me deeply disturbing. In a word, it is pornography. By pornography, I mean the reduction of all human thought and feeling and personhood to mere flesh. The center-piece of the movie is an absolutely disgusting and despicable piece of sadism that has no real basis in any of the Gospels. It shows a man being flayed alive – slowly, methodically and with increasing savagery.
We first of all witness the use of sticks, then whips, then multiple whips with barbed glass or metal. We see flesh being torn out of a man’s body. Just so that we can appreciate the pain, we see the whip first tear chunks out of a wooden table. Then we see pieces of human skin flying through the air. We see Jesus come back for more. We see blood spattering on the torturers’ faces. We see muscled thugs exhausted from shredding every inch of this man’s body. And then they turn him over and do it all again.
It goes on for ever. And then we see his mother wiping up masses and masses of blood. It is an absolutely unforgivable, vile, disgusting scene. No human being could survive it. Yet for Gibson, it is the h’ors d’oeuvre for his porn movie. The whole movie is some kind of sick combination of the theology of Opus Dei and the film-making of Quentin Tarantino.
There is nothing in the Gospels that indicates this level of extreme, endless savagery and there is no theological reason for it. It doesn’t even evoke emotion in the audience. It is designed to prompt the crudest human pity and emotional blackmail – which it obviously does. But then it seems to me designed to evoke a sick kind of fascination. Of over two hours, about half the movie is simple wordless sadism on a level and with a relentlessness that I have never witnessed in a movie before. And you have to ask yourself: why? The suffering of Christ is bad and gruesome enough without exaggerating it to this insane degree.
Theologically, the point is not that Jesus suffered more than any human being ever has on a physical level. It is that his suffering was profound and voluntary and the culmination of a life and a teaching that Gibson essentially omits. One more example. Toward the end, unsatisfied with showing a man flayed alive, nailed gruesomely to a cross, one eye shut from being smashed in, blood covering his entire body, Gibson has a large crow perch on the neighboring cross and peck another man’s eyes out. Why? Because the porn needed yet another money shot.
And that’s for starters. Sullivan also addresses the charge that the movie is antisemetic.
I wouldn’t say that this movie is motivated by anti-Semitism. It’s motivated by psychotic sadism. But Gibson does nothing to mitigate the dangerous anti-Semitic elements of the story and goes some way toward exaggerating and highlighting them. To my mind, that is categorically unforgivable. Anti-Semitism is the original sin of Christianity. Far from expiating it, this movie clearly enjoys taunting those Catholics as well as Jews who are determined to confront that legacy. In that sense alone, it is a deeply immoral work of art.
(After all that, it’s rather surprising to see Sullivan refer to it as a “work of art” at all.)
While I can’t state with one-hundred percent certainty that The Passion is pornography (I haven’t seen it, after all), I can now say that I’m pretty sure it is. Across the board, those I respect most (and I do respect Sullivan, on several levels) have come to almost the exact same conclusions about this movie. It strikes me as an exercize in depravity; the more I read about it, the greater my sense of revulsion.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.