THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004): MEL’S LETHAL JESUS AND THE MOST REPREHENSIBLE ANTI-CHRISTIAN FILM EVER MADE

This Thanksgiving, we here at 366 Weird Movies are thankful that we were able to recover content lost in the Great Crash of 2010, even if we do have to re-enter much of it by hand. We’re also thankful to have Alfred Eaker writing for us: love him or hate him, he provokes the audience and incites debate. We’ll mix those two things we’re grateful for with today’s posting: a recovered article (originally published on October 7) from Alfred, which provoked a typical love/hate reaction from the readers.

I tend to avoid writing about films I don’t like, partially because I realize that, regardless of my objective efforts, a certain amount of subjectivity is going to seep its way in. Too, often one may not be in total sync with the filmmaker’s vision.

With that said, I am breaking my standard rule here because Mel Gibson’s 2004 “Lethal Jesus” seems an even more vivid symbol today of what exactly is wrong with the direction “spirituality in film” has taken, what is wrong with certain popular contemporary views of what Christianity means, and what is wrong in the current state of film as an art form.

Oh, and I do get this film’s vision, all too well. Hell, I saw it first in a Jack T. Chick fundamentalist comic tract from the 1970′s which depicted the Passion with a suffering Christ who looked like Hamburger Helper as hooked nosed Jews screamed for his death. The same company produced numerous blatantly antisemitic tracts, including one in which a Rabbi was fried in the fires of hell by a faceless God, sitting on a large white throne. I saw it next in a protestant passion play that I was forced to sit through in which a muscle bound Jesus got involved in a barroom type brawl (in his descent to Hell) with demons who looked suspiciously like caricatured Jews, dressed in black with false noses. Gibson’s Passion of the Christ is a 21st century promotion for the medieval lynch mob.
Scene from The Passion of the Christ (2004)
The Passion of the Christ is not only blatantly anti-Semitic, it is also the most blatantly anti-Christian film ever made. Two-dimensional thinkers will point to films like Bunuel‘s Milky Way (1969), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), The Rapture (1991), Dogma (1999) or Religulous (2008), as anti-Christian. Yet, all of these edify the spiritual Christian movement.

Gibson’s frighteningly pedestrian take on the passion is a far cry from the spirituality in cinema espoused by master Andrei Tarkovsky. Passion of the Christ also sits on the polar opposite end of films such as The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), City Lights(1931), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Song of Bernadette (1943), I Confess (1953), The Gospel According toSt. Matthew (1966), Andrei Rublev (1973), The Scarlet and the Black (1983), The Mission (1986), and Dead
Man Walking
(1995).

Independent cinema, at one time, did not actually mimic the formulaic Hollywood recipe. Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St.
Matthew and Michael Tolkin’s The Rapture are remarkable examples of highly original, spiritually enriched films. When the former was released in 1966, Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton was moved by its originality and its refusal to cater to pre-conceived notions. Of course, the era of Paolo Pasolini and Merton was also the era of John XXIII, the Second Vatican Council, and Flannery O’Connor, who may very well be the most poignant Catholic writer who ever lived. Much has changed since then, and certainly not for the better. Indeed, Gibson’s  “independent” sadistic porno, wrapped in 25 million dollar market-savvy linen, is the cinematic result of multiple misguided directions.

When this was released in 2004, churches took their congregations by the busload to see it. Corporate giants like Walmart stocked their shelves by the hundreds of thousands with the DVD. Yes, you could purchase your Passion to take home and enjoy for family viewing, along with Passion merchandised plastic spikes and your buckshot, all in one trip. Amazingly, there were no fast food tie-in deals but, then, who needs them when you have the almighty Walmart behind you?  The movie as a marketing event has seen never seen such a shameful moment as with this movie.

Even the Vatican got involved, giving the film a wink and an official thumbs up. This is not the Vatican of John XXIII, who, as a cardinal, issued false baptismal certificates to Jewish children, in an effort to keep them out of Nazi ovens. It is also not the church of sweet Bernadette or the Little Flower, Saint Theresa. No, this is a post Second Vatican Council papacy which has desperately sought to reverse the reforms of the 60′s and return to the middle ages. It is often a Vatican of extremes that revels in sadistic, racist tripe like The Passion of the Christ and permits bishops like Thomas Olmstead to excommunicate a nun for allowing doctors to save a mother of four over her eleven week old fetus. This is the same Vatican whose current pope actively covered up for predatory pedophile priests, refused to defrock them, rejected the resignation of Bishops who covered up for these priests, and, instead, tries to shift and place the blame on homosexuality and promotion of women in the priesthood. It is a Passion of the Christ-styled Vatican which continues to promote misogyny well into the 21st century, has a Crusade-inspired pope who has uttered racist epitaphs towards Muslims and pooh poohs his own past in Hitler’s Nazi youth. Sounds like Gibson’s version of Christendom after all, even if it is well known now that he and his Holocaust denying pappy actually belong to a splinter Catholic group which, among other things, still insists on women covering their heads during mass and ignores Vatican II’s rejection of referring to Jews as “Christ killers.”

When numerous critics pointed out the overwhelming antisemitism of the film, they were pounced on by apostles of James Caviezel’s “take it like a man” Americanized, superhero, macho Jesus, who is completely alien to the Christ of the Beatitudes. No apologies were issued to those spoil sport critics when Gibson’s antisemitism became common public knowledge. because the religious right arrogantly presumes it is the sole owner of the faith and Church, with nothing to apologize for. Gibson’s Passion is as twisted, ugly and spewing as the hook nosed “Jews” he grossly misrepresents in the film.


Blame shifts entirely from Roman procurator Pontius Pilate to the Jews, despite historical documentation of Pilate’s ruthless lack of mercy.  In this, the film echoes Christendom in elevating to Pilate to near saint. After all, it was Rome who gave the official stamp of approval to Christ’s execution. Echoing Christendom’s big wrong turn, yet again, the film entirely shifts a 2000 year old blame and, through caricaturization, the door is swung wide open for the much bullied upon high school geeks (Christianity) to become the new, improved and officially licensed bullies. Gibson targets the Jews, of course.  The Jews are in league with a very femme looking Satan who, later, actually morphs into a woman and produces a reptilian sidekick, both of who come off as hackneyed rejects from George Lucas’ execrable second Star Wars trilogy. Of course, effeminacy is certainly the root of all evils and, quite obviously, a Jewish trait. Gibson expressed those views previously in a scene depicting Prince Edward from the Academy Award winning Braveheart (1995). The Jews in Passion of the Christ are also in league with the excruciatingly Jewish Judas Iscariot, who is the sole apostle here that tactlessly refers to Jesus as his “Rabbi.”

In this version of the Passion, Christ and his apostles did not evolve from Judaism; they were, with the exception of Judas, never Jewish to begin with. Gibson even manages to outdo Richard Wagner in re-writing history in order to suit his hate-inspired agenda; but at least Wagner could produce great art. Gibson’s film takes a sublime, existential, metaphoric icon, the Stations of the Cross, and transforms it into race bating pornography for fundamentalists. Even Peter is transformed from a very human apostle who, through immense struggles and missteps, became the rock of the Church, into a pre-made rock who comes across more like a Sylvester Stallone-styled first century cop. One keeps expecting to see Our Lady, She-Devil of the SS. Like much the post-Vatican II Church which aspires, in part, to “progressively” morph back into the pre-Vatican II Church, Gibson avoids a real emphasis on Our Lady and drops her organic, spiritual presence like a hot potato.  He-man misogyny and antisemitism are the bows on Gibson’s “gift to the world.”

Ironically, this “Wrath of Jesus” with a medieval Roman Catholic agenda connected most with fundamentalist Protestants; or perhaps, it’s not so ironic after all. In choosing to bypass the whole of Christ’s startling, diaphanous, radical and uncompromising, charismatic message of love and forgiveness, Gibson takes his dirty magnifying glass and homes in on the bloodshed detail, expanding it far beyond what Gospel writers ever fathomed.

Gibson’s passion play is a grimy, ultra violent video game (complete with a Garden of Gethsemane straight out of a George Romero Dead movie), packaged by a brand of corporate Christendom and sold as a bill of goods that takes us to a “new level in realism” because “this is what Jesus went through for you, Johnny”, all the while fanning the medieval and fascist flames in stylized post-Matrix Christian propaganda.

Passion of the Christ is mockingly titled because there isn’t an ounce of passion in this film. It is a dumbed-down, two hour scourging completely removing us from Christ, the compassionate revolutionary. Here, the historical flesh and blood Jesus of Nazareth is reduced to a one dimensional cardboard deity who can take whatever is physically dished out because, unlike you and I, he is a god. What’s missing is the human soul and tragedy of the Nazarene. If Christ were simply a divine figure who endured suffering, we would not be discussing him two millennium later, nor we would still be grappling to come to terms with the meaning of his life and death.

The complex Christ of the Gospels is, at times, paradoxically irritable, empathetically patient of human folly, aloof, accessible, matriarchal, patriarchal, an inspiring leader, servile, the quintessential outcast, communal, philosophical, emotionally charged, ambiguous, crystal clear, fearful, bravely determined, devoted to his mother, and impatient with her. The Christ of the four Gospels is divine because he is the most human of humans.

Even in solely focusing on the passion of the Christ, which Gibson’s film purports to do, these qualities are still vividly present in the Gospel accounts and in the countless artistic depictions of the Stations of the Cross. A visit to a random half dozen parishes will reveal an illuminating, rich diversity in the Stations iconography, ranging from the traditional to modern and post-modern representations. The beauty of the Catholic tradition can be found in its expansive egalitarianism. This egalitarianism is metaphorically expressed in the journeyed stations, which confirm and celebrate the humanity of Christ for the laity.

Carl Theodore Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc homed in on the passion of its subject without dehumanizing her; quite the contrary. Unfortunately, Gibson did not follow Dreyer’s example. Instead, Christ’s life and ministry are substantially missing meat in a film superficially charged with the odor of divine, flayed flesh. Gibson’s film is so lost in its hierarchical simple-mindedness that the egalitarian celebration of humanity, found in the
Stations, eludes him.

Gibson’s recent tirades and outbursts are not surprising at all when viewing this film. Indeed, this is an instance where one cannot separate the creator from his work, because Gibson’s militant misogyny and antisemitism underpin every single frame of this “Passion” as much as Carl Orff’s fascist leanings underpin the bawdy, militaristic “Carmina Burana.”

By comparison, Picasso’s “Guernica” is a work of art that inspiringly captures the sense of startlement towards the horrors inflicted in this world; the kind of startlement that Christ must have felt when he realized he had gone too far and was doomed to be murdered by his frightened, confused, beloved brethren. Gibson’s film is the equivalent of an anti-Guernica. Instead of inspiring empathy or a sense of human identity, which is what it should do, Gibson’s film retroactively harks back to “us vs. them.”

The Gospels report that Christ “learned” from the Samaritan woman. Gibson’s Christ is incapable of learning, especially from a weak and sinful woman. According to Gibson, Christ’s death is not the consequence for bravely espousing a world-changing message. Gibson’s Jesus undergoes two hours of torture to “teach” us a lesson about what it takes to be a god, and this is depicted as penance for our human wretchedness. Gibson even counts himself among the wretched, undeserving of Christ’s sacrifice, by utilizing his own hand to hammer a nail into the flesh of Christ. Of course, Gibson widely publicized that fact, along with the fact that he financed the film himself. The middle-aged multi-millionaire artist as humble saint has rarely rang so arrogant or so phony. Gibson serves as his own elitist pope.

Gibson’s carefully placed and publicized hand is a masturbatory symbol in this exercise in titillation. Titillation equals pornography, and Passion of the Christ is pornography reprehensibly promoted and sold as an artistic vision. I have yet to see a pornographic film which can actually qualify as art. Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ certainly does not qualify as art and, like most pornography, it reduces itself to a series of unimaginative vignettes, climaxing with one repetitious, dull money shot after another, appeasing an audience of Christian thugs.

However, contrary to what Gibson and his like-minded supporters think, the “money shot” is not in the orgasmic, titillating climax, it is in the loving, intimate embrace afterward, which pornography always (and predictably) fails to show. The money shot is in that moment when two people in love, after having made love, fall asleep, one’s head resting on the others’ chest, entwined in their bed together. Oh, Gibson does, all too briefly, depict the fifteenth station—the Resurrection—but, after two plus hours of grinding, one had better give more than a three second embrace in the loving comfort of the ascension. Passion of the Christ, naturally, fails to do that and it is, ultimately, an immature, mud and tractor pull styled adolescent fantasy aimed at attention span challenged moviegoers, fundie porn hounds, and their boxes of Kleenexes.

7 thoughts on “THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004): MEL’S LETHAL JESUS AND THE MOST REPREHENSIBLE ANTI-CHRISTIAN FILM EVER MADE”

  1. Here are the original comments on this post:

    Kat says
    Thank you for a great review Alfred, you said everything I ever wanted to say about this film, much, much more articulately than I ever could. This is one of the few films I have ever seen that has made me feel dirty for watching it.

    Venkatesan Iyengar says

    Not just Gibson’s version of “Passion”, a good number of movies on the life and times of Jesus Christ take one extreme position or another, totally missing the human element. Gibson must have had just one word on his mind while making his version of the Passion: ‘suffering’, i.e., presenting and highlighting the sufferings that Jesus underwent at the hands of his opponents, perhaps to highlight the ‘price’ paid for the ‘message’. Instead, he ends up creating a product that is sadistically violent, or as you have rightly put it, “pornography reprehensibly promoted and sold as an artistic vision.”

    Certainly, in Jesus Christ’s life-story, the last few days of his life (starting from the last supper to his crucifixion) contain elements that offer great scope for cinematic interpretation. However, the ‘Passion’ is like a climax, towards which Jesus Christ’s earlier experiences as a child and later as a teacher-reformer gradually and inexorably lead. In fact, the sufferings of Christ start much early, maybe from his eighth year. He was a precocious child, a man in a hurry with ideas whose time had not come—often misunderstood and, worse still, respected for superficial things (miracles and all that), surrounded by a group of disciples who can’t hold a candle to the kind of disciples that, say, a Socrates or a Plato was lucky to have had. “He who has ears let him hear,” he said. And his disciples took the chaff and left the seeds to rot (“seeds that fell among thorns”), and then Paul added to the confusion. A god was born and a teacher was lost.

    Andy says
    This site is great apart from Alfred Eaker, an utter mediocrity who can’t keep his extremist politics out of any of his posts.

    Alfred Eaker says
    Actually, I do not see how this post, on a blatantly anti-Semitic film, can be labeled political, except perhaps in more traditional, sensitive conservative evaluations.

    Btw, I am hardly alone in this assessment of Gibson’s “Lethal Jesus”, so, I would not agree with the extremist assessment of yours. When this type of propaganda is espoused (and abused) through an artistic medium, those of us, in disagreement are, in many way, obligated to offer a counter perspective.

    Hew says
    I understand why every person believes that every single story of Jesus’ death looks anti-semitic, but the story of Jesus’ death happened in Jerusalem. So what? You want Jesus to die in Rome? It’s like having George Washington fight aliens instead of the British. It’s not saying that the Hebrews are evil, it’s just saying “This is how it happened”.

    Alfred Eaker says
    Hew,
    being a practicing Catholic I agree, in part, to your statement. Too often, that label is attached to any narrative regarding the story of Christ. However, as stated in the article, it is not the location or even the depiction of Christ’ prosecutors, but rather the diminished Jewishness of Christ himself and the caricature depiction of the Jews, (and Judas who is the only apostle who comes across as Jewish) contained within the film, that renders it anti-Semitic.

    I certainly would not apply that accusation towards Zefferelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, even if Powell is a rather Aryan Christ, but the Jews in the film are not rendered two-dimensional as they are in Gibson’s film. I think it telling that when Zefferelli’s film, or even when Scorsese’s brilliant Last Temptation of Christ was released, accusations of an anti-Semitic tone were not leveled at those films.

    Of course, as I stated in the article, the effeminate portrayal of Lucifer adds to a telling agenda on the part of Gibson and these criticisms were made by a plethora of critics upon the film’s release, including Dennis Schwartz, who wrote a review I empathize with. Revelations of Gibson’s character, since the film, have backed up those initial critics of Passion.

    I recall reading one critic who stated that he had seen every film ever made on the life of Christ and, although he had liked some better than others, he had never seen a celluloid treatment of the story that he had hated, until he saw Gibson’s Passion. I concur and feel it is contrary to the advancements made by Vatican II. Of course, Gibson does belong to an off-shoot church that has rejected the reforms of Vatican II and, IMO, it shows.

  2. There was another comment today that was accidentally marked as spam. I can’t recall the exact wording, but the gist of the poster’s sentiment was that he felt it was unfortunate that Gibson’s movie had given opponents more ammunition to use against conservative Christians. My apologies to the poster for losing his comment.

  3. gad you’re hostile to this flick! Gibson’s ambition was obviously to show Jesus being executed and the elements (and tortures) that preceeded it. He can do that, you know! And as far as it showing Jewish leaders as the pendulum that set it in motion…I’ve looked real hard on this site’s collection and haven’t see Jesus Christ Superstar, which did virtually the same thing. Its reward, I assume, for being an absurdist interpretation written by musicians?

    1. Musicals are rather scarce on The List, primarily because there is a certain inherent weirdness in people spontaneously bursting into song. Like children’s movies, musicals need to go that extra few yards into ‘weird’ territory beyond simply having random song numbers. Somehow, I don’t think that even the ‘fringe and lingerie’ gospel number at the end quite makes that particular movie cross the line.

      I’ve actually seen JCSS several times – the film with Ted Nealy, as well as the stage play, and I have the newer production on DVD that I need to get to sometime (sometimes a classic doesn’t need remaking). The overwhelming impetus I saw in the acts of Caiaphas, Annas, and Judas himself was fear: fear of what the Romans would do about this upstart suddenly calling himself the King and Messiah. As Judas put it, ‘We are occupied / have you forgotten how put down we are? / I am frightened by the crowd / for we are getting much too loud / and they’ll crush us if we go too far.’

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