The International Writers Magazine James Campion's REALITY
DEBATE OF "PASSION" - PART II
Art Imitates Religion
Film Art, Anti Semitism and Gospel Lore
Editors Note: The following is part two of a two-part series
on the social impact of Mel Gibsons "The Passion of The
Plus Readers Letters March 22nd 2004
Gibsons "The Passion of the Christ" is not a film
about Jesus. It is also not a film about history or figures that
move through history affecting humanity and the events of history.
is a film about Christianity. More to the point, it is a clumsily packaged
Hollywood depiction of 1,500 years of Catholicism. It is religious propaganda.
And I do not use the term pejoratively. Every piece of art with a point
of view is more or less propaganda, but lets call a spade a spade:
If Gibson, a devout traditionalist Catholic set forth to espouse his
faith and depict the center of his own passion; mission accomplished.
But this movie, like Christianity, has nothing to do with any Jesus
Let me put it this way; "Passion" is not unlike Oliver Stones
"JFK". Not too much JFK in there, unless we see his head coming
apart on his wifes lap. No PT-109, no Harvard, no senator, no
president, or Bay of Pigs, or Cuban Missile Crisis or Marilyn Monroe.
His head coming apart. Over and over and over. "JFK" is about
"Passion" is about the Christian obsession with sacrificial
Watching this film took me back to the days of sitting in church as
a kid and expecting to see or hear anything about Jesus underneath all
the ritualistic dogma. Its damned frustrating, and hard to argue
that the context of which has inspired horror shows like the Crusades,
the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust. But it also doesnt
mean it cannot be revisited as art either. Although, for me, it would
have been more compelling had it not been more of the same damn thing.
Beyond the ultra-Hollywood violence - jacked up a notch for the video
game generation - we get the usual stuff here. Christ dying for our
sins. He comes. He dies. End of story. No back-story. No politics. No
spirituality. No philosophy. No revolution. No mission. No life affirming
usably enlightened theories about embracing empathy and discovering
divinity. Suffering. Death. Good drama. Big box office, but no Jesus.
Once again, we get lifeless puppet characters playing their parts in
a suicide pact with God, sufficiently answering the question, "Who
killed Jesus Christ?" Because when viewed through the lens of Biblical
faith - replete with the Lord killing innocents all over the place -
and all the evidence in Gibsons film, the verdict is clear: God
killed Christ. Or, more to the point of Gibsons way of thinking,
we forced God to kill him. Kind of like the Jewish authorities forcing
Pontius Pilate to kill Christ. (place plaintive sigh here)
Admittedly, the thing is aptly named. After all it is "The Passion
of the Christ", although I would have preferred, "Jesus Gets
it for Opening His Big Mouth", or "This is What Happens When
One Loves Ones Enemies". But its hard to argue
that the very essence of the gospels enlightened Nazarene, a charismatic
healer exalted by an inspiring philosophy leading a penetratingly gorgeous
spiritual movement is sucked right out. In its stead we have a pawn
for sadomasochistic mayhem; what I like to call the Euro-Christ.
But even two millennium of Christian rhetoric has yet to erase the impact
of the historical Yeshua of Nazareth, from the Council of Nicea to "Godspell".
Yet this movie manages to do it. I didnt think it was possible,
but Mel Gibson actually succeeds in portraying a completely empty depiction
of Jesus Christ.
Not that actor, James Caviezel doesnt capture the Catholic Christ
pretty well; a vessel for torture and death set up as humanitys
sacrificial lamb by the sadistic Lord God of the Israelites. He portrays
a great punching dummy and the make-up people did a bang-up job. Lots
of pain, but again, no Jesus. Lots of blood and suffering and reams
of Catechism, but no Jesus.
So, in a sense, "Passion" is the perfect Christian art, an
animated version of Renaissance paintings, (Gibson claims he endeavored
to recreate Caravaggios gruesome images) but not particularly
good art at that; effective, in that it has caused a stir like most
viable art, but poor in the literal sense. The way smearing a painting
of the Virgin Mary in elephant dung is a sensationalistic artistic statement,
but as a gripping, meaningful rendering, its lousy.
As a movie, "Passion" is bad. The acting is predictably stiff,
the set-design sub par for a Biblical epic, the music surprisingly non-descript
and the directing ham-fisted. I usually dont like religiously
themed films, but most give me at least a moment of chills or reflection,
an uplifting of heart or a distinct feeling of something. This thing
drones from the opening frame and settles into two-dimensional drudgery.
However, I cannot engage in hypocritical blather about "too much
violence" here. You want to concentrate compulsively on first century
Roman scourging and crucifixion as a means for redemption, fine; but
its not going to be pretty. This kind of thing went on all the time
in first century Jerusalem. Hundreds upon thousands slaughtered by Roman
governors. Take a trip to Golgotha now and see if you dont feel
it. Not unlike, Im sure, sitting in Auschwitz or Dachau today.
But I would forget theological debate and historical content when judging
"Passion". It is poor storytelling packaged as a religious
tool. Period. This might be great for some, namely fanatical Christians,
but as forceful narrative, it is disappointing. And it is certainly
no "true depiction" of historical events in any way, shape
or form. Gibson picks and chooses his gospel versions like mad scientist
forcing a solution. He might have been better off from a theological
stand-point to stick with, say, the Gospel of John, which dominates
most of the storyline, instead of jumping all over the Biblical map
to suit an agenda.
Although, once again, a good framework for religious theory, but hardly
accurate. When I heard about this project some two years ago, I was
finishing up the manuscript to my last book, a story based on my trip
to Israel in search of the historical Jesus. I was excited about the
prospect of hearing the gospel characters speak in their original dialect,
and the promised "realistic depiction" of the ordinarily sanitized
crucifixion scenes of earlier Hollywood efforts. But even I was left
feeling Id just seen the last ten minutes of "Scarface"
for two hours. Finally, Gibson nor the actors, or anyone connected to
the making of this thing should feel badly. Based on concepts like "Jesus
Christ was born to suffer and die for the sins of humankind" and
"in suffering there is cleansing" all the participants can
be nothing if not merely chess pieces in a fixed game. And that is how
the characters in this film go about their business, like marionettes
marching in step to a mystical slaying. (place despondent wail here)
It is my fault for expecting to see anything else. The films popularity
(beyond pure curiosity and pack mentality) speaks to the human condition
to be drawn to signature moments that usurp the entirety of an event,
or to miss it completely.
We read about a warrior for peace slain in his prime and choose to remember
him with a gory effigy of torture and death.
© James Campion March 1st 2004
Part One here
& Gay Marriage
James Campion gives a reality check
RESPONSES March 22nd
Due to the overwhelming response to last months two part columns
on "The Passion of the Christ" (a record for this space - and
thats saying something) we provide ample equal time for as much
as we can over the next two weeks to allow for various viewpoints.
I haven't seen Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" yet.
However, I enjoyed your book, "Trailing Jesus" very much. I
also enjoyed your column-Part 1- on the Gibson film.
I don't get the anti-Semitism angle, even when I read about it over and
over again in the New York Times and the New York Daily News.
I find the discussion of Mel Gibson's father a side show (he's a Billy
Carter figure in this story and Gibson is right not to take that piece
of bait that the media keep tossing at him), and I believe that the depiction
of Gibson's traditional Catholicism as a sect or a cult seems is another
ruse. The Latin mass has the approval of Rome, and Mel Gibson and friends
are not its only adherents. On Sunday mornings at St. Agnes' Church near
Grand Central Station there is standing room only at the Latin Mass. I
don't see any other Roman Catholic Churches (except perhaps Minority Churches)
in which all the pews are full.
Not too long ago, I saw Al Pacino play King Herod on stage in Oscar Wilde's
Salome. He chewed up the scenery with his take on Herod's degeneracy.
The New York Times and the anti-defamation groups said nothing. The
production was something of a mess, but the press were goo-goo eyed. Richard
Strauss put Wilde's words to music and his opera has been staged by the
Metropolitan Opera many times. I remember one interesting Met production
in which the Herod family wore feathery vulture -like costumes designed
by Cecil Beaton and walked amongst iron bars --it had a real S&M look.
Again, nothing said about anti-Semitism. Scorcese's Judas (played by Harvey
Keitel) in "Last Temptaion of Christ" --sloppy and tattoo-covered--was
the type of Jew you'd expect to see in a Spike Lee film. The press adored
that movie, and so did Hollywood, nominating Scorcese for a Best Director
I know. I'm nit picking here. But I'm not holding a candle to Gibson's
critics when it comes to fine combing a person's ideas, beliefs, lifestyle
John's gospel does seem to blame the Jews for a lot. But John says in
the same book that salvation is from the Jews. Even Caiphas, always a
controversial figure, is credited with having the high priest's gift of
prophecy. I'm not a Biblical scholar, but I just don't buy the idea that
the gospels are anti-Semitic or give license to anti-Semitism, and I don't
believe Gibson had that in mind when he adapted them to the screen. I
do believe that the NY Times and the Daily News have an
axe to grind, and have convenient, self-serving attitudes about what constitutes
freedom of expression and censorship.
I will say that I was looking forward to this latest version of the supposed
life of Jesus. We're cut from a very similar cloth when it comes to deciphering
the reality of the honest interpretation of the life of Jesus despite
dogma, folklore and popular, conventional wisdom. This is surely the result
of being brought up to believe in stain glass depictions and Catholic
We toiled over whether to go a see this film. Being lovers of movies we
thought for certain that we would attend a screening but last night our
opinion changed. There is a reason: Mel Gibson, less his fame, fortune
and previous lifestyle, is very similar to us in so that he is a recovering
Catholic. This is a term we have spoke about and one that is accurate
for us as I'm sure it is for many.
I believe this film demonstrates one man's journey that brought him back
to square one, which is exactly what he was brought up to believe. However,
this parable is off base. He obviously enjoyed the booze, the drugs, the
girls and the parties that made him act, in reflection for millions to
see, as a clearly insane person on Diane Sawyer. But in the end he didnt,
in my opinion, have enough resolve to see Jesus for what he is, or as
I think that Christians by-and-large takes the life of Jesus for granted.
But beyond that they miss the point because they try and own his suffering.
This is in large part because it is impossible for many to actual identify
with his mission and his life all of which has never been properly conveyed
in any form of Christianity because they all have developed rules and
laws around a man who fought to change rules and laws. Mel Gibson has
learned that he can't control his own life so in stead he has cloaked
his shortcomings into a film that will certainly set back the spiritual
movement. I believe he is trying to set it back to the years before Vatican
This is propaganda and a piece of art we may visit one day only to study.
I understand why you saw this film and to be honest I'm glad it was you
not me. Thanks for your thoughts.
Having already read your book, "Trailing Jesus", it is easy
to see why you would have a negative viewpoint on Mel Gibsons depiction
of the death of Jesus of Nazareth as an icon of the church and not an
historical figure. His first century movement aside, I think the overt
political and social rebelliousness of a character so full of life and
struggle to engender peace in the world would be antithetical to The Christ
as sacrificial lamb theory espoused by modern religious sensibilities.
This is well portrayed in your book, and I applaud the bravery of your
work and agree that the time to honor this side of "the story"
must take a back seat to the teachings and manner with which the historic
teacher of ancient times conducted himself for the betterment of his people
and whomever chose to be enlightened.
Some day I would like to sit in the summer, debt-free, carefree, and discuss
such Catholic issues as transubstantiation, the 'trinity' concept, the
Omnipotent vs. 'why then evil in the world', and my particular vein of
discomfort with Jesus' philosophy: Cozy, comfy, warm and fuzzy, but, "Who
pays for all the altruism?" Certainly not the man in the sheet and
worn sandals. Look at one of the subtitles on one of the movie posters:
"Dying was his reason for living."
You are my hero.
to February Articles
Mr. Campion, Your points on Pete Roses mia culpa were unique. ("By
Any Other Name" - 1/14) Although he has taken a beating in the press
since his gratuitous "coming out" to merely sell books, well
documented in your column among others, there is an element of sadness
to the whole thing. It is as if he, like so many star athletes, has no
sense of real life or the rules therein. It is not dissimilar to your
piece awhile back on Kobe Bryant. ("Two-Dimensional Kobe" -
7/30/03). It is this free-ride atmosphere that has lead to the Jason Williams
shooting mishap and O.J. Simpson and the like. Things have not changed
with the "Big Man On Campus" syndrome. I see it too much in
my own community right now. Have talent, will travel outside the bounds
of the law.
You are the only columnist I ever read who could find a use for the word
"jackaknapes" in your writing.
Reading your stuff is like watching Olivier in some old Shakespeare play.
3: JC -
You're just pissed you can't vote on whether Rose gets in or not. You'd
vote him in if you could, then write about the balls it takes for a "sports
columnist" to ignore the facts and focus on the game.
Get real Campion. Take a stand. Stop riding the fence.
"Shoeless" Joe Jackson
4: Reality Check,
Please tell me the difference between compromising the integrity of the
game in Pete Roses case and what Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire, Sammy
Sosa, Jason Giambi or others have done with steroids? Does Bonds and McGuires
achievements get tossed like Roses integrity as a manager? In other
words, if Rose cant manage because - who could trust him to play
within the rules again (not something I disagree with) then how can fans
or the league trust a Barry Bonds anymore, or, more to my point, trust
5: Mr. Campion,
I enjoyed "Last Word on WMDs". You are at your best when
you call it down the middle. There are certainly circumstances that led
to Bushs decision on invading Iraq which follow form - Daddys
Revenge, Oil Money-Pit, Excuse for 9/11 - but not many actually thought
this guy had NOTHING in the desert. I mean, even the Clinton administration
thought that. It is revisionist history to believe otherwise.
I did not support the war, but I also did not waver on it and would not
consider it a success or a total failure. It is unfinished business, when
considered in a vacuum, but we will all pay for it in blood and money
for a long time, as you pointed out over a year ago. Stay on that wall,
Your column was real inspirational. I'd shoot myself but I have to wait
three days to buy a gun.
7: Hey You Liberal Bastard,
Why are you ignoring the fact that the rest of the world for years thought
there were WMDs. Why are you ignoring the fact that they used WMDs? Ask
the Kurds. Do you think that these WMDs have a half-life of a few minutes
and they miraculously broke down after such a short time frame? Considering
they hid their entire air force under the sand, don't you think a large
possibility exists that they may have hidden the WMDs? Remember they did
have it, so where are they now? Also since Saddam was known to hate the
US, and an Al Qeada training camp existed in north Iraq, don't you think
that the possibility existed that in the next few years they would work
together against the US? Well if it doesn't scare you it scares me.
The policy during the Clinton years was pathetic. The world put an embargo
on Iraq for 8 years and allowed Iraq to supposedly trade oil for food.
All the money went to Saddam however and 10s of thousands of people died
every year because of this. It took Bush to end this ridiculous policy.
I guess you prefer 10s of thousands of people dying every year and with
the risk of having Al Qaeda having a new country to base all of its training.
Remember it took Bush to go and liberate Afghanistan. Clinton would only
send a few cruise missiles because he was afraid to make a decision.
Would you prefer your nephew to grow up in a world where Al Qaeda could
operate freely in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq? Well I don't
and thats what it sounds like to me.
If you have a problem with the intelligence, well why don't you give Torricelli
and Kerry a call? Didn't they rip apart the intelligence community? Wanting
to give all the money to more welfare programs, that don't work. Weren't
they the ones that said only intelligence can be gathered from Harvard
graduates working in the US and coaching little league? I guess your solution
is to kill capitalism, promote socialism and kill the prosperity of this
country such that Al Qaeda and crew will no longer envy the US and will
no longer go after us.
8: Hey, Every thing is a big waste of time; a billion years from now we
will all be particles of dust in space
Intellectualizing madness is a tough game. But youre good at it.
Im not sure this is a positive trait in humans, but a necessary
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