Skip to comments.The Jesus War (New Yorker Piece on Mel Gibson, "The Passion")
Posted on 09/11/2003 4:25:18 PM PDT by Greg Luzinski
A REPORTER AT LARGE
THE NEW YORKER
SEPTEMBER 15, 2003
THE JESUS WAR.
Mel Gibsons obsession.
BY PETER J. BOYER
One rainy Wednesday afternoon this summer, I made my way to the Sony Building, on Fifty-fifth Street and Madison Avenue, where, through the accommodation of a friend in the entertainment business, I attended a private screening of The Passion, Mel Gibson's unfinished film about the final hours and Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. I didn't know quite what to expect. I'd heard that some people had been so moved by the film that they openly wept, and that others were rendered speechless. I knew, too, that a group of religion scholars and Jewish activists had condemned Gibson and his film as dangerous and anti-Semitic, based upon their reading of a Passion screenplay. That afternoon, Gibson, wearing jeans, a Hawaiian shirt, and a pair of leather clogs, perched on a table at the front of the room and explained that he was still editing the film, and that the version we were about to see was quite rough. There were a couple of dozen people in the small screening room, two or three of them in clerical attire. Gibson joked a bit, then said, Let's get started. He took a place in the back row as the lights dimmed.
The dark screen filled with the printed words of prophesy from the Old Testament Book of Isaiah, written four hundred years before Christ: He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities. By his stripes we are healed. There was, in the two hours that followed, much wounding and crushing, and, when the lights came back up, there was some wiping away of tears. I found the film riveting and quite disturbing, and I was struck by an insistent memory from a Jesus movie from my childhood, George Stevens's The Greatest Story Ever Told. In the final scene, the risen Jesus, wispily played by Max Von Sydow in a pageboy haircut, levitates in the clouds as a heavenly choir sings the Hallelujah Chorus. Gibson had undertaken The Passion with the avowed purpose of contravening the overwrought piety of such conventions, and in that, certainly, he had succeeded. Gibson's resurrected Christ rises in the tomb with a steely glare, and then strides purposefully into the light, to the insistent beat of martial drums. With that, Gibson's Passion story, and perhaps even, the controversy that has attended it, became clear. Gibson had once said that he wasn't interested in making a religious movie, and in The Passion he hadn't. He was making a war movie.
Ten days later, I arrived at Gibson's Icon Productions, which is housed in an unremarkable office building on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica, across from a fast-food Mexican restaurant. Nothing about the place hints of show business until the elevator opens onto an entry wall covered with large movie posters from Icon's pictures (What Women Want, Maverick). As I announced myself to a young woman at the reception desk, the telephone rang. It was the producer Harvey Weinstein. He'll get back to you, the receptionist said, and I was escorted down a winding corridor to the editing room, where Gibson sat on the far end of a sofa, facing an Avid digital editing console. A white legal pad rested on his lap, containing notes for possible editing changes he'd jotted down during his last screening of the film. Gibson's editor, John Wright, was manipulating the images of Pontius Pilate with a mouse and a keyboard as Pilate pronounced judgment upon Jesus.
Gibson's story line reflects the basic Christian narrative of Christ's Passion, as it is laid out collectively in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Jesus of Nazareth is a Jewish carpenter in Roman-controlled Palestine, who preaches a message of love and forgiveness, with an increasingly messianic subtext. During the Passover season, he enters the Holy City of Jerusalem, where he is welcomed by adoring crowds who hail him as the long-promised Messiah, bringing deliverance and a new kingdom. But Jesus is considered dangerous by the Jewish high priests, who conspire to arrest and try him, and then deliver him to the Roman prefect Pilate for execution, on the ground of treason against Rome. Jesus knows that his fate is the Cross, and briefly wishes to avoid it (Oh, my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me); but he also knows that God, his father, sent him into the world for the very purpose of dying, as a sacrifice for the redemption of all mankind.
Gibson has said that his script for The Passion was the New Testament, and that the film was directed by the Holy Ghost. Movie audiences, though, will doubtless see in it the hand of the man who directed Braveheart. On one level, Gibson, who has been working on the film for more than a year, perceives the Passion as a heroic action story, and the principal quality he hoped to instill in it was the power of realism. I wanted to bring you there, he says, and I wanted to be true to the Gospels. That has never been done.
In that regard, Gibson made two key decisions. He cast the film without brand-name movie stars, in order to avoid the illusion-puncturing celebrity recognition that afflicted the old epics. Jesus is played by James Caviezel, whose biggest prior role was in The Count of Monte Cristo, and Monica Bellucci, of The Matrix Reloaded (and rapidly becoming better known), is Mary Magdalene. Gibson also had the actors' lines translated into Aramaic (the vernacular of ancient Palestine), Hebrew, and Latin. His purpose, he says, was not only to achieve authenticity but also to avoid the audience disconnect that might result from hearing two-thousand-year-old Biblical characters speaking perfect modern (or even King James') English. He initially didn't intend to have subtitles, either. I've always wanted to make a Viking movie, Gibson, who is forty-seven, explains. You've got Alfred the Great in Wessex, this English king, saying, 'All the Danes are coming up the river here, we've got to defend ourselves.' And these guys hop off the boats and they're all hairy and they're scary and they've got axes, and some of them are berserkers and they're doing flips and twirls and they just wanna rape and kill, you know? But if they start coming out with 'I want to die with a sword in my hand' and 'Oh, fair maiden,' that would be like-you know, you don't believe them. If they come out with low, guttural German, they are frightening. They are terrifying. They're like demons from the sea. So that's what the language thing did for me. It took something away from you -- you had to depend upon the image.
It is not surprising, perhaps, that in the service of realism the signal trait of The Passion is its relentless violence. When Gibson directed the Oscar-winning 1995 film Braveheart, about the folkloric Scots hero William Wallace, he reshot only one scene -- and that was in order to more graphically depict the image of enemy horses impaling themselves upon sharpened wooden stakes. Violence is Gibson's natural film language, and his Jesus is unsparingly pummelled, flayed, kicked, and otherwise smitten from first to last. After his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane by Jewish temple guards, Jesus is dragged in shackles to the high priests. By the time he arrives, he has been beaten, knocked down, and thrown off a bridge. His right eye is swollen shut. (I didn't want to see Jesus looking really pretty, Gibson said. I wanted to mess up one of his eyes, destroy it.)
When the Romans take over, things get worse. Gibson studied the details of Roman crucifixion, reading, among other sources, a famous clinical investigation of the practice, On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ, published in the Journal if the American Medical Association in 1986. That study explained why crucifixion inspired the word excruciating: Scourging produced deep stripe-like lacerations and appreciable blood loss, and it probably set the stage for hypovolemic shock. . . . The major pathophysiologic effect of crucifixion was an interference with normal respiration. Gibson seems to have relied heavily upon this study, which describes the Roman tools of punishment (The usual instrument was a short whip . . . with several single or braided leather thongs of variable lengths, in which small iron balls or sharp pieces of sheep bones were tied at intervals), the choreography of the infliction (The man was stripped of his clothing, and his hands were tied to an upright post [and] the back, buttocks, and legs were flogged either by two soldiers . . . or by one who alternated positions), and its severity (scourging was intended to weaken the victim to a state just short of collapse or death). All these elements are directly reflected in Gibson's film.
Gibson has been told by friendly audiences that The Passion is several measures too violent, that seeing Jesus subjected to such protracted scenes of brutality will have a numbing effect upon audiences, detaching them from Christ's pain. Gibson acknowledges that possibility, but then adds that the event in question was pretty nasty. As I watched Gibson work on his film in the editing room, I noticed that the picture had changed since I'd seen it .in New York. He said that it was shorter, partly because he had trimmed some of the violent scenes (but not by much). He called the editing process the final rewrite of the picture, but he seemed not altogether pleased by some of the cuts he tad made, including one he made before the New York screening. The antagonist in Gibson's vision is plainly the Jewish high priest Caiaphas, played by an Italian actor who can seem a bit of a ham as he cajoles the ambivalent Pilate into executing Jesus. Finally, an exasperated Pilate relents and condemns the prisoner, but, according to the Gospel of Matthew, he first makes a show of his own guiltlessness by publicly washing his hands. In Matthew, that gesture is followed by a shout from the crowd: His blood be on us, and on our children. This passage, which is depicted only in Matthew, is one of the sources of the notion of collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus. Gibson shot the scene, but with Caiaphas alone calling the curse down. Wright, Gibsons editor, strongly objected to including even that version. I just think you're asking for trouble if you leave it in, he said. For people who are undecided about the film, that would be the thing that turned them against it.
Gibson yielded, but he has had some regrets. I wanted it in, he says. My brother said I was wimping out if I didn't include it. It happened; it was said. But, man, if I included that in there, they'd be coming after me at my house, they'd come kill me.
He was referring to his critics, activists at such organizations as the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, as well as some academics, who worry that Gibson will draw too much upon a literal reading of the Gospels, and not enough upon contemporary scholarship that seeks to distance Jews from culpability in the Crucifixion. Gibson says that some of his friends asked him whether he's making an anti-Jewish movie; he's heard that someone from one of his hangouts, the Grand Havana Room, a Beverly Hills smoking club, said that he'd spit on him if he ever came in again. When he has shown the film to associates in the industry, he feels that they are looking for anti-Semitism. He says that is one of the reasons he finally decided to include subtitles in the picture, to make it clear that some of the Jews portrayed in the film are sympathetic figures. You've just got to have them, he says. I mean, I didn't think so, but so many people say things to me like 'Why aren't there more sympathetic Jews in the crowd?' Well, they're there! But you've got to really point it out to them, and subtitles can do that. He goes on, It's just amazing to me how one-eyed some people are about this thing. I mean, it's like a veil comes down and they just can't see it. For instance, did you know that one of the priests helps take his body down from the Cross? It's there! Nobody sees it. They can only view it from one eye.
It frustrates Gibson that others don't see The Passion as he does, but it does not surprise him. It is not an accident that Gibson set the terms of The Passion the way he did, from the first scene, where Jesus stomps a snake to death, to the last, where the risen warrior is called to battle. Gibson's fiercest detractors see in him a medieval sensibility, an accusation that he would not necessarily find objectionable. He has a Manichaean view of the world, in which all of human history is the product of great warring realms, the unseen powers of absolute good and total evil. He believes in the Devil as fully as he believes in God; that is why his career has evolved to The Passion, and it is how he accounts for the opposition that the film has aroused.
The editing session was interrupted late in the afternoon by an urgent summons from a colleague in an office down the hall, where a television monitor was tuned to CNN. The anchor Paula Zahn was interviewing two gue