The Orcinus review

Oh no — not another post about Mel Gibson’s The Passion! Sorry, but I find everything about this topic compelling and extraordinary, from its inception to its marketing to its reception by various audiences to the controversy it has managed to arouse worldwide. It’s making waves even here in Singapore, where various Christian groups are lobbying the government to make sure it gets past Singapore’s uptight censors.

My fascination with The Passion started when I first heard of it in a post by Dave Neiwert (Orcinus), which focused on allegations of the film’s antisemitism. Now, finally, Dave reviews the film in one of the most detailed, well-written and well-documented articles I’ve read on the topic to date.

This is an important article for those who have commented, on reading my concerns over the film’s alleged Chainsaw Massacre approach, “But that’s what happened. The Passion is about Christ’s awful suffering.” Neiwert shows us how the latter sentence is accurate, but the former is false. Many, many of Gibson’s touches have absolutely nothing to do with the Gospels. They were thrown in for effect, to keep the action going. And the very first point Neiwert makes is that The Passion is, first and foremost, an action movie.

Mel Gibson has always had a flair for making action-driven revenge melodramas. Now, he’s made the ultimate entry in the genre with The Passion of the Christ.

Mind you, this is the first time anyone has made a film about the life of Jesus that conceived of it primarily as an action flick. Most of the other previous films about Jesus have been, by comparison, boring and talky. The Passion does away with all that inconvenient and boring talk and gets right to the nitty-gritty of the exciting stuff, which is to say, the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life, with all its beatings and floggings, culminating in a real gore-fest of a crucifixion.

So if we’re going to get any insight into the meaning of Christ from this film, it’s going to derive not from all those boring sermons he preached, but from the immense sacrifice he made for all mankind. And that meaning, in this telling, becomes very simple: Bad people brutalized Jesus beyond belief, and deserve to be punished for it.

It’s a revenge melodrama — without the satisfying catharsis of revenge.

About the specifc inaccuracies and made-up material that has nothing to do with the Gospels, read Dave’s review. They are simply too long to list. As always, he is specific and precise. What you see on the screen is not “what happened.” Period.

I’ve long said that Orcinus is my favorite blog, but maybe that’s because it isn’t a blog at all. Unlike bloggers who shower their readers with single-sentence posts and lots of links, Dave takes a more scholarly approach to his material, conducting painstaking research and delving deep into the subject matter. (Of course, this probably works against him, since many blog hoppers are more interested in pithy, punchy posts and a more fast-paced experience.) Today’s post on The Passion is Dave at his very best. If you really want to understand what all the fuss is about, you have to read it.

As noted, he starts by referring to the film as “a revenge melodrama — without the satisfying catharsis of revenge,” and he ties it all up neatly at the end by returning to his premise.

You see, there’s a reason there’s no cathartic revenge in this film: That is what the audience is supposed to bring to the table. That is their responsibility for this sacrifice.

Jesus is on the march, you see. He’s kickin’ butt and takin’ names. And the question The Passion wants everyone to answer is simple: Whose side are you on? Mel’s? Or the evil ones?

That is, after all, what the Culture Wars are all about. And The Passion of the Christ wants to be the loudest shot fired yet. The Birth of a Nation for the 21st century.

Amen to that.

Update: A review from my local newspaper in the US.

Update: UK’s Jewish community erupts over The Passion.

THE first UK screening of Mel Gibson’s controversial new film The Passion Of The Christ provoked a furious response from Britain’s Jewish community yesterday.

Representatives of the Jewish faith were invited to see the film a month before its nationwide release.

Many left the cinema branding it both “disgusting” and “deplorable”, and likely to incite racial hatred.

Depicting the last 12 hours in the life of Christ, Gibson’s blood-drenched epic has been accused of anti-Semitism.


Lord Janner, a former president of the Board of Deputies and now vice-president of the World Jewish Congress, said : “I hated it. The Jews come out of it as a pretty nasty lot and I believe it could cause very great harm in relations with the Jewish community.”

The Discussion: 6 Comments

Wait. Why “The Birth of a Nation?”

February 28, 2004 @ 3:40 am | Comment

Why “Birth of a Nation”? Because D.W. Griffith was an avowed racist and brought all his genius to bear in fashioning a story about the Ku Klux Klan that portrayed them as the Holy Redeemers of Southern Honor.

The film fostered a resurgence of the KKK, which had pretty much died out by the mid-teens. And by all accounts, Griffith was pretty proud of that; he’d intended the movie to be a serious political polemic from the get go.

And since he also happened to be the first great genius in the history of cinema, the movie’s impact is still felt today.

He has a lot to answer for. And so does Mel Gibson.

February 28, 2004 @ 6:57 am | Comment

hmmmmmmm … as is obvious by how often I comment on your website, I have become a regular reader of your blog. It’s also very obvious that we disagree on a lot of issues, but I always respect your opinion, and find your arguments to be reasoned and with justification (even when I disagree with them). However, the same can’t be applied to some of the links you give, and this is definately another case of that. I read through the whole story about the movie and I found it to be a load of tripe. Some of the arguments were so obviously spurious that I was left wondering if the author could possibly not know it. (And yes, here I am breaking my own resolution not to comment anymore!)

The worst section was the part where he was listing things not to be found in the gospels, which hence make the movie Gibson’s invention, and unbiblical. I’m so annoyed by it, I’m going to rebut them, but do it here, since I can’t be bothered contributing to his website since after reading that one article I doubt I’ll be going back.

First his argument that it’s a revenge film without the revenge. Huh? I mean, huh? It seems to be based upon the premise that because Jesus suffers a lot, and Gibson’s other movies (allegedly) were about revenge, this one must be too. What kind of logic is that?

Now, as to non-biblical material. Firstly, in any adaption from text to film, things have to be added. There is so much that simply isn’t stated in the book. Decisions have to be made, and extrapolations are not only possible, they are vital. Every film adaption of a book is different … so, to complain about additional scenes of Jesus being beaten up and brutalised are a load of nonsense. The text makes it clear he was being mistreated, but it doesn’t explicitly state every detail … we’re not talking about a 1000 page epic here … and even if we were, there would still have to be additions for a movie.

Other more specific complaints I have about his presentation of non-biblical material etc.

Satan in the garden … it might not be there, but it’s a reasonable addition. Jesus certainly felt doubt about his mission … to have a devil figure within this context seems reasonable to me. Even if it’s not, so what? Doesn’t seem to make any difference to the story from a theological point of view.

I wish I knew what he meant by Jewish soldiers … not having seen the movie. Romans always used auxiliary troops … roughly half of their army was non-Roman. Even many of the Roman citizens who made up the legions were Roman only because they were born in colonies granted citizenship rights because they were founded by veterans. I see no historical reason why the Jews wouldn’t be permitted temple guards etc (especially after Jesus had started a riot there).

I’ve commented about the whipping scene before, and won’t repeat myself, but doesn’t sound historically implausible to me.

His comments about Pontius Pilate … as a question of historical reality, I agree with him … he wasn’t a very nice man. As a question about the bible story, he is totally wrong as far as I am concerned. My reading of the story is exactly that of the Gibson movie (as described in the article). Pilate was a waffler who didn’t really want to get involved, and in the end permitted the execution to placate the high priests.

Appearances of Satan? It’s artistic license, but considering that the death of Jesus is represented as the great mistake committed by Satan … he was fooled into getting Jesus killed, not realising that it represented his ultimate defeat … to have him hovering around seems totally appropriate.

In response to his comment about the whipping being ordered after the crucifiction order and not before … I am speaking from memory, because I don’t have a bible on hand here to check up … but I think Gibson’s right again. The beating was ordered before the execution order. Well, perhaps I’m getting confused between the bible and the musical Jesus Christ Superstar … in the musical Pilate orders the beating saying can’t see that Jesus has done anything to deserve death, but to placate his foes, he’ll have him beaten.

The next part of his article is the worst of the lot. Previously he has said that there’s no reason to have Jesus beaten so badly, and now in the course of another criticism, he provides evidence that hadn’t occured to me before to say that it is not only possible but probable that Jesus was beaten to within an inch of his life. He points out (rightly) that Jesus died in a remarkably short time. If he had been submitted to “mind-numbly sadistic levels” of torture as depicted in the movie, this would explain it. That particular paragraph is so illogical that it can only have emerged from a bull’s rear end. The same in turn applies to his criticism of how Jesus is shown hung on the cross … Jesus was already in a very poor state by the time he was hung there.

In short, there was not one single comment about non-biblical material that is not either a) totally wrong or b) a matter of debate over artistic interpretation.

Finally, however, I would like to say again that I am not a Christian, and that I have all along been engaging in the debate on the basis of the bible story being something that exists in the texts, and not an historical source. The only time I enter into the “historical accuracy” debate is where people raise points that exist outside the text, such as the nature of Roman whips or methods of crucifiction, etc. There are many places where things told in the gospels can be questioned on the basis of historical accuracy, and passages where it is flat out wrong about fundamental facts, (such as geographical locations). There probably was a man called Jesus and he probably was executed by the Romans. I doubt very much that every little detail of the gospel story actually occured. So, when I comment about the accuracy or otherwise of the movie, I do so in the same way I’d comment on a debate of the Lord of the Rings movies … how accurately do they reflect the text. I think debate about this movie has got out of hand because many people aren’t looking at it on that basis, but rather according to their own religious or political leanings. The reason I am continually moved to make responses to these postings is that some of these comments disturb my sense of intellectual integrity, not any other reason.

February 28, 2004 @ 10:21 pm | Comment

Li En, thats a rather overwhelming comment. Let me address the most serious charge first, about this being a “revenge” movie. You ask how Orcinus can possible say this. (And it’s not,as you wonder, just “because Jesus suffered a lot.”) This is absolutely key to the article: It is a revenge movie because it inspires those who view it to seek, or at least desire, vengeance upon those inflicting such wicked tortures on Jesus. Look at the last quote I give:

You see, there’s a reason there’s no cathartic revenge in this film: That is what the audience is supposed to bring to the table. That is their responsibility for this sacrifice.

Jesus is on the march, you see. He’s kickin’ butt and takin’ names. And the question The Passion wants everyone to answer is simple: Whose side are you on? Mel’s? Or the evil ones?

About the alleged inaccuracies — you’re probably right that he doesn’t cite things in the movie that are “wrong” — they just doen’t appear in the Gospels.

About the violence, I really don’t want to go there. We have seen Andrew Sullivan and Christopher Hitchens and Orcinus and a number of critics who I respect speak out against needless violence that, they say, either is pornography (Sullivan) or approaches pornography (Neiwert). That word sneaks into lots of the reviews I’m reading. As I said before, how far do you go? 12 hours of torture? That would be more realistic. It’s what happened. Does it justify a 12-hour slash-and-whip fest to depict it? Personally, I say no.

I always respect you opinion and understand your concern for historical accuracy. Although it’s been years since I read the Gospels (I am not Christian, either) , I don’t recall any reference to anything even approaching what I am hearing takes place in this movie. And I know the ingredients that constitute schlock and pornography. The Passion seems to have them all.

I want to proppose we take a minute to look at it another way. Let’s look at one of the most lush and beautifully written books on adultery, Madame Bovary. The heroine and the nobleman (forget his name just now) make love; the book makes that clear. To put it more plainly, they fuck. So in a screen adaptation, would we, could we justify showing them making love like in a porn film? Of course not; we’re talking art, not sleaze. Copulation occurred, but you don’t show it in all its biological detail. If you do, you run a strong risk of slipping from art into sleaze. That’s why Flaubert in his book didn’t go into the second-by-second detail as they make love; it would have spoiled it, made it dirty.

Similarly, although the bible doesn’t go into the details of Jesus’ whipping, the whipping is mentioned (briefly, by the way). So is it okay to show it, to dwell on it obsessively for more than an hour? Isn’t that making the story dirty, showing chunks of meat flying around the room, etc.? I’m sorry, to me, this is not what great art is about.

I’m not saying art always has to be tasteful and refined. It doesn’t. On this site I write up a WWI poem called Dulce et Decorum est. I hope you can take a minute to read it (excerpt of the poem is at the end of the post). It describes a soldier who breathes in poison gas and the hideous, indescribable horror of his slow and agonizing death. And yet it is not pornographic or lurid. Shocking, ugly, scary, yes. But it remains great art by conveying all the horror with metaphors, and not crossing the line into the sensational.

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues

This is art. It’s horrible but it’s beautiful too. Its economy of words is astounding, it says so much in so little space. And that is what art should do — if it needs to take more than an hour to get across Jesus’s whipping, showing chunks of his flesh whipped off his back and rib cage, then it’s not art anymore. At least not to me.

You write, “The reason I am continually moved to make responses to these postings is that some of these comments disturb my sense of intellectual integrity, not any other reason.”

I appreciate that. The reason I’ve posted so much about the film is that something about it (in fact, a lot about it) disturbs my own sense of artistic and intellectual integirty. For the famous hype (“The pope has endorsed it!”) to the select screenings for cherry-picked pastors to the interviews with Gibson and his father that said a bit too much about how they feel about the Holocaust — yes, imy sense of intellectual, artistic and historical integrity were greatly disturbed.

Thanks for engaging in such a civil conversation about such a loaded topic.

February 29, 2004 @ 3:47 pm | Comment

OK Richard, fair reply … I still can’t see anything particularly wrong with what I’ve heard about the movie … but all this discussion has at least moved me to (maybe) going to see it for myself. Anyway, I think I’ve had enough of this topic (at last!). 🙂

February 29, 2004 @ 9:44 pm | Comment

An essential link for the “extra-biblical” crap that Gibson includes in his film. None of it is necessarily “wrong” — it’s just not in the Bible. One cannot defend its inclusion under the mantra, “But that’s what happened according to the Gospels.”

February 29, 2004 @ 10:17 pm | Comment

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