Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ reaches UK TV screens this Easter. And celluloid-loving Christians raised on a cocktail of sugary Robert Powell soured with a dash of Scorsese's Temptation are in for a surprise .... Mel's movie, a brutal depiction of the last 12 hours of Jesus' life this side of hell, is two unrelenting hours of floggings, flayings, scourgings and bloody crucifixion; a drawn out epiphany via S&M. Perverts should dump a cushion over their laps in anticipation.
The (UK) 18 certificate puts The Passion in the good company of, say, Last Tango In Paris and Emmanuelle — both in their time stretchers of mainstream taste boundaries in movie entertainment. And without the antecedent likes of Tarantino's stylishly vicious Pulp Fiction (1994), or even Spielberg's blood-soaked opening scenes in Saving Private Ryan (1998), to soften up our moral tolerance thresholds, Gibson would never have got away with the unbelievable depictions of violence on display here.
Gibson purports to tell the literal story of Christ's suffering — skin and blood fly forth as hooks on lashes do their worst — yet can only do so on the back of many distinctly heathen and un-Christian movies that have already paved the way with their own freshly-minted iconography of psyche-shattering, violent images. The Passion should carry a big thank you to the movies that once turned our stomachs but now warm our hearts as we look back on these (already) quaint golden oldies.
This is not the only irony of Gibson's movie. It's soon apparent that The Passion is a very "painterly" movie: there are stunning tableaux redolent of Caravaggio's realistic works of Christ's Passion — Gibson admitted as much in interviews. Of Caravaggio's style, Gibson said: "It's violent, it's dark, it's spiritual."
It's also an accepted view that a great deal of rascally Caravaggio's work is homo-erotic. As the painter and novelist John Berger once wrote: "Almost every act of touching which Caravaggio painted has a sexual charge." Gibson has taken from Caravaggio what he wants to see — the pious suffering, the "realism" — and ignored (or is oblivious of) the sensual, gay subtext (which doubtless Mel would deprecate as a fervent Roman Catholic).
This blindness to the sexual inspiration of Caravaggio is doubly fascinating when you consider the one true success in Gibson's film — his modern take on Satan. Satan appears to be a pretty man, cowled in black like the model in the Scottish Widows TV ads, spectating at Christ's interminable abuse, sometimes morphing into a snake or parody Madonna, manly voiced. Then you read the credits and see that Satan is played by Italian actress Rosalinda Celantano. Satan is a he/she/it. The voice is a dub.
How very clever and intriguing. The incarnation of evil is an androgyne, a blurrer of sexual identity. "Evil is alluring, attractive," said Gibson. "That's what evil is about: taking something good and twisting it a little."
This tells us a lot about what Gibson regards as evil — the "twisting" of sexual identity, among other things. When you consider that many of the film's images, originally, were frankly gay you have to wonder whether Mel's got his moral head screwed on.
But no matter, it's only a movie. And what a movie. Not since Pasolini's Nazi porn film Salo (an endless parade of pederastic physical abuse and coprophilia) has a film so ruthlessly hammered the eye and shattered the soul.
People will take many different things away from it, but personally I was left depressed, disheartened. What laid me low was the sheer contradictory stupidity underpinning this movie — the exploitative violence, the sexual naivety, the moral hypocrisy. Is it anti-Semitic? I would say not. The Jewish people are seen at odds with each other over Christ's fate — this film is not about a race against its own; even the priestly pharisees bicker over the legality of Christ's arrest. A Jewish man carries Christ's cross.
Is there humour? Yes, on one occasion, when Mel credits the carpenter Christ with inventing the modern dinner table. "It will never take off," remarks the woman now known as the Virgin Mary, refashioned in Linda Barker's image.
But see the movie this Easter, have your moral innards bashed about. The decent will shut their eyes, the wise will channel hop after five minutes. The truly saintly will watch American Idol for tortured passions of a different order.