Saturday, May 5, 2012

Snuff Film

Film: The Passion of the Christ
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop

So it occurs to me that Mel Gibson has a torture fetish. We get some torture in Braveheart, of course, and there’s plenty of head chopping and ritual sacrifice in Apocalypto, but never do we see continuous and unceasing torture like we do in The Passion of the Christ. With the exception of a few flashback scenes, the vast bulk of this film is nothing but brutality of a level that a director like Eli Roth can only pee his pants thinking about.

Before I get into talking about this too much, I should make a few things clear. First, I am an agnostic by personal definition, atheist by technicality in that there is no god I worship. I prefer the term agnostic, though, since it is my contention that no one can or does know of the existence of anything beyond this mortal coil. I’m also of the opinion that any religion in existence or that has existed simply hasn’t gotten it right. All of this is really neither here nor there, but I also understand that my beliefs, or more accurately my lack of same, could well color the following paragraphs. It’s only fair to get that out in the open.

I’m also going to avoid history here, even biblical history. There are plenty of true believers who will claim that this is an accurate representation of the scourging and crucifixion of Christ, but this simply doesn’t hold. There’s nothing in any of the gospels, for instance, claiming that Christ frequently and repeatedly saw Satan as he underwent his various trials. Even the carrying of the cross differs dramatically from the traditional Stations of the Cross. We’re going to let this go for the remainder, though. There’s simply too much to try to pick out, and it’s an argument I don’t want to have. (And yes, Gibson got the Stations wrong. Here, Christ falls twice before meeting his mother, when traditionally, this happens after the first fall. Simon of Cyrene helps before the second fall as well in the Stations. The Stations of the Cross include three falls, while Gibson’s version of Christ falls constantly. And then there’s the whole nails-through-the-hand thing. And the fact that the actor playing Christ is about as Arabic as I am.)

Instead, let’s talk about what’s here. What’s here is a shit-ton of blood. Seriously, I like horror movies, but The Passion of the Christ is bloodier than most. Christians, by and large, seem to like the bloody Jesus, too, since you won’t find too many films more passionately defended by the faithful.

Anyway, this story is pretty well known. Christ (Jim Caviezel) prays to be delivered from what is to come, but gets dragged before the Pharisees anyway after being betrayed by Judas (Luca Lionello). He’s beaten senseless (accompanied by huge swashes of blood and bloody chunks), further tortured, and then forced to drag a cross to the point of his crucifixion. He’s nailed to the cross, put up, and then dies. Gibson decides to focus almost entirely on the suffering here, giving us a few spare moments of the resurrection. Again, it’s evident that this film is all about the bloody version of Jesus, and not the raised one.

Really, that’s the whole film. It’s a two hour extended torture session. Caviezel is a veritable font of gore; who would’ve thought he had so much blood in him. The majority of the Jews and the vast bulk of the Romans are depicted as savages and sadists. Of course, that’s also entirely the point here.

So let’s get to it. No, I did not like this film. I was disturbed by it, certainly, because I was supposed to be. This isn’t a film that allows anyone to watch and not react to it. But my reaction was not one of spiritual uplift; instead I was simply grossed out by it. The intent here is obviously to cause a real visceral reaction in viewers, to create a sense of outrage as well as spiritual closeness with Christ. I’m sorry to say that didn’t happen. It’s simply too much. There’s only so many times you can see the whip hit and watch Caviezel’s head rock back before it simply stops having any meaning.

I’ve been spiritually moved by film before. When I think of films that have contained a true spiritual element that has touched something in me, I immediately go to one like The Passion of Joan of Arc. That film has stayed with me since I watched it, and I still feel a true sense of honest spirituality from it. This film strays too far from something honest and instead tries at every moment to be manipulative. It’s overkill, and it’s ugly, and ultimately, it’s an unending scene of torture and mutilation. Done, and never again. After watching this, I highly recommend watching The God Who Wasn’t There, particularly if you’re a skeptic.

Final note: feel free to comment on my take on the film. Start commenting on my lack of religion, though, and I’ll delete your comment as soon as I see it. Fair warning, folks.

Why to watch The Passion of the Christ: If your religion swings this way, you’ll find it very moving.
Why not to watch: It’s a snuff film with a budget.


  1. It's like you wrote my bio as well.

    Since I am not a believer, I was forced to take the film for what it was to me. Pure fiction, from a story that I had heard before. You can't get much bloodier than this, and I agree, it couldn't have been more accepted by the Christian community if it was directed by the Messiah himself. I found the film itself to be quite an accomplishment especially for the use of the different languages, especially from a director that speaks none of the languages used, until I asked myself, how do I know that this is really Aramaic, Latin or Hebrew, it all sounds great but they could really be butchering the languages (I am chuckling to myself as I remember "The Life OF Brian" as he is being taught by the Centurion how to conjugate the verb in his Latin graffiti). For all I know, they were speaking Swahili and Pig Latin. I exaggerate here, because I am positive that they did not speak Pig Latin.

    Oddly enough, last week I had viewed "The God Who Wasn't There" and found the audit of blood, to be quite astonishing.

    I suggest "Religulous".

    On a final note, when this movie was first released, there was a lot of talk in the offices of people going to see it. One particular person informed me that she would be going to see it and when I asked what theater she would be attending she said, she would be seeing it at her daughter's house, because her son-in-law had a bootleg copy. I replied, since video piracy wasn't covered in the Scriptures, I guess it was OK, but What Would Jesus Do?

  2. Yeah, I was completely appalled when this became such a big hit with Christians and horrified that these people were subjecting their children to this snuff film. It really demonstrated the desensitizing influence of religion that these people were so convinced it was a positive Christian experience, they couldn't step back and see how violent and odious the film is.

  3. "a snuff film with a budget"

    Nailed it (if you'll pardon the choice of words) exactly. Unlike me, my mum is still a Christian. She and I went to see it on opening day, and she was as appalled by it as I was. My own Christian period was very shortlived and lapsed many years ago, so I was viewing the film from that admitted angle, and I still can't work out how any professing believer could look at the film as anything but a perversion. I'd actually be quite worried by anyone who did take it as a reinforcement of their faith.

  4. Well, evidently that final note worked. Anyway...

    @Ken--I've seen Religulous. Bill Maher is (to me) the atheist version of Pat Robertson. He's too smarmy and self-important for me to really enjoy a lot of his work.

    @Ipecac and James--It's a positive experience because it's a justification of their beliefs. "See what He went through? See how ungrateful you are! He went through that FOR YOU and you mock Him?" Still, I'm with you. If you want spiritual uplift, watch The Passion of Joan of Arc. Even as a non-believer, I found that a deeply spiritual experience.

  5. Watching it, I couldn't help but think about Stanley Milgram's experiment about torturing people. I found it very credible that it was like that. That the Romans were glorified beasts that swung away at Jesus for twelve hours like he was a soccer ball. I also consider myself agnostic, but this is really not what will tip the scales for me. There is nothing to THE PASSION but blood and death and thousands of films do it better.

    1. I don't find it that credible. It's too designed a martyrdom for me to see it as anything but what it is--staged, in this case, by Mel Gibson.

  6. I completely agree that this is a film first and foremost about torture. A few years later someone would coin the term "torture porn" for films like Roth's. I consider Passion of the Christ to be the first torture porn movie that was released to wide audiences.

    I'm not religious either, but people who were said, "Where is Christ's message in this movie?", which is what was important to them in their belief system. Exactly how much he was beaten before he died was not important to them and they didn't appreciate seeing that take precedence.

    1. See, that's really my objection to this film. I don't have a problem with the Christ story--I'm agnostic, but not aggressively so. What I have a problem with here is what seems to be a glorification of torture. There's no uplift here, and the 30 seconds at the end don't really serve to negate the endless brutality that we've witnessed.

      I mentioned The God Who Wasn't There above. As Ken mentions in the first comment, there is an "audit" of blood in the film, describing what happens minute-by-minute. It's quite astonishing just how much there is up to and just past the arterial spray after the poke from the Spear of Longinus.

  7. We will have to disagree. The Passion of Christ was brutal--being scourged and crucified is not a walk in the park.

  8. I think it would have been more effective for me if Mr. Gibson had emphasized the life of Christ instead of just the final days.

    Has anyone on this thread seen The Gospel According to St. Matthew? I haven't gotten around to that one yet.

    1. My guess is that the reason Gibson didn't emphasize the life of Christ is that there are already tons of films that do, and none that really focused on the scourging and crucifixion. I'm not sure it would have been any more effective. At the very least, it wouldn't have affected my belief at all.

      I haven't seen The Gospel According to St. Matthew yet. It's one I've come close to more than once, but I just haven't gotten around to it.

  9. To be subjective, I am a devout Christian that has strayed from the path of righteousness more than once. Yet, I am not a religious fanatic that forces my religion down your throat to prove that I am right. It is everyone's right - even given by God himself - to have free will. With that said, here goes.

    The horrible part of this film is that as Mr. Honeywell mentioned "there is no uplift". The events that led up to the arrest and crucifixion of Christ are what should of had focus while leading into the gore that ensued. I saw this in the theater and was appalled, yes appalled, but the emotional outbursts that ensued with those leaving the theater. It was horrifying to watch children being led out of the theater by their parents and church groups.

    Gibson did exactly what he had set out to do - to gain profit by stirring religious emotion. I say to gain profit because this movie did not glorify Jesus in the light that he needed to be. Yes, what he endured in life was horrible, but the overall point of Christianity is to be good to each and every person and perform good deeds unto one another to be Christ like in your own life. All this movie stirred as an emotion was a hate and contempt for those that tortured a man that stood for his own belief and goodness. Feeling fuzzy and warm from doing good deeds doesn't sell as well as shock and awe though.

    Gibson's quest for profit from religion couldn't be more evident from the casting of well known actors and actresses from various countries.

    from IMDB - "Gibson Cashes In on Controversial Movie
    29 November 2004 | WENN | See recent WENN news »

    Mel Gibson has earned a staggering $414 million from his controversial pet project The Passion Of The Christ. Gibson's earnings are likely to increase with DVD and pay-per-view television sales of the film, which was only released in American cinemas nine months ago, before going on to be screened around the world. Movie analyst Tim Briody says, "It's the all-time highest grosser of a film not released in the summer or holidays." The movie, which documents Jesus Christ's final hours on earth, profited from a publicity storm whipped up before its release - some critics criticized its graphic violence, while others branded it anti-Semitic."

    IMDB also reported that $5 million was donated to various hospitals to help Children.

    Mr. Fanatic Gibson was using the most popular world-wide religion in order to gain a large profit through raising emotional religious fanaticism. It worked. Bravo Mr. Gibson for accomplishing your goal.

    What any good Christian sees in this movie as a tool for inspiring others to embrace Christianity as a religion is beyond me. It's overall message is that Christianity is messy and dramatic - don't bother, find something else.

    1. I'm reminded of an interview with Guillermo del Toro where he references his Catholicism and its impact on his films. He cites a lot of the reason for the bloodiness of his films coming from that, saying at one point something like, "Mexicans like their religion gory." He's got nothing on Gibson. I was actually surprised at how firmly this film was embraced by the wider Christian community. I said earlier in the comments, my guess is that it serves as a thing to point at, a "look at what he went through for you!" to those heathen apostates like myself.

      I'll leave off debating the religious points here, because there's a very long distance between where you are and where I am. I'll say this--scourging and crucifixion were nasty. Yes, I agree. But many a crucifixion victim was scourged. And many had their legs broken, which forced all of their body weight on their shoulders, making for a much more painful death. I'm not saying what happened wasn't bad enough, but more could have happened, and often did.

      As for being anti-Semitic, knowing what we know now, is anyone really surprised?