I saw The Passion of the Christ this weekend.
I was bored.
I wasn't expecting that. The movie is ponderous, stagy, and static; my mind wandered. The violence is an attention-grabber, but the reviews led me to expect worse -- it's extreme, but not off the charts. After a while, it's annoyingly predictable: They hit him, then they hit him again. Then it's the day of the crucifixion, and they force him to carry the cross, and ... they hit him! Again! And again!
The problem is that Jesus has virtually no identity as a character other than as a victim of violence. He's a velvet painting that bleeds. There are a few flashbacks to Jesus preaching (his words come off as aphorisms), and there's a silly scene involving Jesus as a young carpenter, but apart from that he's a cipher. The mellow-philosopher-dude Jesus of the recent TV movie Judas was more vivid than Gibson's Christ. It's hard to be unsettled by violence when it happens to someone you know next to nothing about -- that's why the victim in a "cozy" Agatha Christie-style mystery usually gets killed off in the first few pages. The viewer of The Passion doesn't know much about its Jesus.
I mean, of course, that I didn't. Gibson's ideal viewer, of course, does all the work, filling in the backstory with his or her own deep feelings about Jesus. Me, I'm a snotty liberal aesthete -- I paid my $10.25, Mel; you make the damn movie. Gibson seems to think it was my job to dredge his movie up from my own childhood memories of catechism class.
OK -- you want to know about anti-Semitism. The fans of this movie say they don't see it. I don't think they're being willfully blind. But that doesn't mean they're right.
Let me explain: As a Catholic kid at the dawn of the Vatican II era, I was raised to believe not that Jews killed Christ, but that I killed Christ -- that I was continuing to kill him every time I sinned, along with everyone else on earth. As for the literal killing, it was the work of a lot of people, Romans and Jews, all of whom did wrong. I think most American Christians, Protestant and Catholic, are taught something like this, and if this is what you're taught, everyone in the Passion story, except Jesus and his followers, is deeply guilty of moral failings.
If, on the other hand, you're taught that the Jews did kill Christ, Gibson's movie gives you the sinister Jewish high priest and the bloodthirsty Jewish rabble and the Jewish bribe-taker Judas. They don't really match contemporary anti-Semitic stereotypes, but I can see that they match anti-Semitic images from history. Many hardcore present-day anti-Semites know the old codes, of course, and I'm sure the imagery confirms their prejudices -- but I'm not sure it's going to create new anti-Semites (at least in America; I can't say how it will play in Europe or, say, Russia).
Gibson reminds me of a few rap artists from about fifteen years ago -- Public Enemy being the most famous -- who seemed to be trying to educate themselves before our eyes, even as their rap careers developed. They wanted to say something serious in their songs, so they read books -- but they didn't have fancy educations, which meant they weren't quite sure what to read, and some of the people who gave them reading lists were anti-Semites and conspiracy-mongers. As a result, their songs, for a while, included with Jew-baiting and talk of internationalist plots. Gibson, I think, gravitated to anti-Semitic writers like Anne Catherine Emmerich much the same way -- they were recommended (by his father?) and he didn't know good from bad. It's OK to read books like these on someone's recommendation -- what's not OK is ignoring the people who quite correctly criticize the books for their bigotry and ignorance. Public Enemy did eventually acknowledge the anger of critics as valid, if fitfully; I don't know if Gibson ever will.
The aspect of the movie that seems most blatantly anti-Semitic isn't the depiction of any of the Jews -- it's the revisionist portrayal of a guilt-ridden Pontius Pilate. I think this does tip the scale (although the savagery of the Roman floggers, to some extent, tips it back) -- but I think Gibson has something else in mind besides exonerating Gentiles: I think he's saying that he, Mel Gibson is Pilate. Gibson talks about a dissolute past and about having found salvation -- I think he thinks he (by his sins) killed Christ (even though he, like Pilate, didn't want to), but he was a truth-seeker (like Pilate) and Christ's death redeemed him (like Pilate?).
(Yes, I think he also thinks he's Jesus.)
A couple of other stray thoughts:
* The baby with the old person's face isn't scary. And the child's face that morphs into a demon's face is a special effect that worked much better in The Devil's Advocate, which is really good religious schlock.
* What a cliched dumb lug Barabbas is. He's basically Mongo from Blazing Saddles.
* Besides the fact that she looks like a 35-year-old mother of a 33-year-old son, Maia Morgenstern, as Mary, looked in every shot just like that Afghan girl from the cover of National Geographic.
* When Jesus died and the earthquake started, I laughed. It was like the ending of the movie-within-the-movie in The Player. I actually would have preferred more dumb directness like this.
* The animated teardrop that follows the earthquake looked like the ejector-seat scene in Michael Jackson's "Black or White" video.