Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is essentially, not just incidentally, a moment in the life of George W. Bush’s America.
The film is brutal and pornographic. I can think of nothing like it since Marlon Brando’s beating in The Chase (1966), which seemed endless, but lasted about 10 minutes in a film more than two hours long. No other film compares remotely. Sam Peckinpah’s bursts of killing were, by contrast, distant and aestheticized, interspersed with elements of character, action, camaraderie and plot. The notorious ending of Bonnie and Clyde is two minutes, max — distanced — and we don’t see bullets rip out flesh or organs. Even the unforgettable shower scene in Psycho shows blood, knife, water, but no lacerated skin; Hollywood was often gruesomest by indirection.
This film starts with five minutes of overdrawn angst, and from there on is nothing but a man battered into a hunk of flesh from which strips are flayed, an eye nearly knocked out, a mouth bloody and gashed — for two hours. This Christ has no character and almost no dialogue, certainly none that reveals anything of his life or ours. If you did not know the back-story, as it were — the nativity, sermon on the mount, Resurrection — you would see only ceaseless infliction of pain on an unresisting body, a suppurating mass with a name, full stop, and you’d wonder why anyone would sit through it. It was as depressing an experience as I can recall having — outside of real life, that is — in the precincts of art and representation.
Note that the film’s stress is not on inflicting relentless pain; it is on passive, unresisting endurance of it. That is the sense in which I think the film is also a moment in the life of Bush’s America. It is the companion film to Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, in which he captures the deep tension, fear and anxiety in the lives of many Americans, especially since 9/11, but also before: their endless expectation of danger and the lash about to fall.
You see it in myriad small ways: when people are on family holidays at theme parks, looking warily around for terrorists, or drawing too frequently on the hose from the water bottle strapped to mom’s waist, lest they all dehydrate. Then it happened — 9/11 — everything they anticipated and more. It swiftly became The Passion of America. It had meaning. It was not a disaster akin to other disasters that strike humans all the time, and always will. Rather, as the authorities constantly intoned: The world has changed forever. Not just the United States, the world. You could say exactly that about the passion Ã la Gibson. In his film, one of the few things Jesus says, in contrast to the endless abuse he suffers, is, “I make all things new.”
These are generalizations about America, and subject to the usual qualifications. But the people most likely to make such links, in a conscious or instinctual way, happen to also be the crucial nucleus of the Bush constituency: born-again, fundamentalist Christians. What many of us forget, whether we admire or abhor that regime, is its deep anchorage in fundamentalism. They are the voters he must keep onside, as shown in his proposal this week of a constitutional amendment on marriage. Their support is what he brings to the table. All the rest — policies, strategy, money — comes from others. But he brings those believers as the core of his vote, and they recognize him as one of them. Three days after 9/11, speaking basically to them, he said, “Our responsibility before history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”
Christian fundamentalists are also the core audience for this movie. They focus on the rewards of the Rapture and Second Coming, which will only occur due to the awful grimness of the passion of Christ. Since, in this world view, Christ took on the burden of your sin, i.e. your essence, by his death, there is little to do but wait, in unbearable tension, for his return, while gratefully recalling his sacrifice. A passion play embodies this state, and this film is a cinematic passion play.
Grief and rage mount during such a performance until they seek an outlet, which often, in the past, meant pogroms against Jews, villains of the drama. Similarly the passion of 9/11 was endlessly retold, and urgently needed an outlet. If you are the global superpower, outlets are many and prodigious. The deeper the sense as victim, the more justified and excessive the reaction. “God led me to strike at Saddam, which I did,” George Bush told Palestinian premier Mahmoud Abbas.
Is the film anti-Semitic? I’d say so, based on the portrayals. But the question is moot unless you accept the preposterous notion of collective historical guilt (leaving aside the small matter of original sin). What Jews did or did not do back then should not be laid on Jews today, any more than Mel Gibson needs to apologize for the Holocaust-querying comments of his dad.