The film by Mel Gibson is moving because of its central contention, namely that an innocent man of high moral purpose was tortured and killed. It happens that the man in question, Jesus of Nazareth, is an object of worship, and that harm done unto him, in the perspective of those (myself included) who regard him as divine, is especially keen because it is not only inhuman, it is blasphemous.
But suppose that a similar travail had been filmed centered upon not a Nazarene carpenter who taught the duty of love for others, but, say, an attempted regicide. In 1757 Robert-François Damiens set out to assassinate Louis XV. The failed assassin was apprehended, and the king quickly restored from his minor wound. The court resolved to make an enduring public record of what awaits attempted regicides, to which end were gathered together in Paris the half-dozen most renowned torturers of Europe, who in the presence of many spectators, including Casanova, managed to keep Damiens alive for six hours of pain so artfully inflicted, before he was finally drawn and quartered. What kind of an audience could Mel Gibson get for a depiction of the last hours of Robert-François Damiens?
The film depends, then, on the objectification of the victim as–Jesus of Nazareth; but even then, the story it tells is a gross elaboration of what the Bible yields.
Consider Matthew: “And when [Pilate] had scourged Jesus, he delivered Him to be crucified.” “Then they spat on Him and took the reed and struck Him on the head.” Luke: “I will therefore chastise Him and release Him”-Luke records that the soldiers “mocked” him. And John: “So then Pilate took Jesus and scourged Him.” “And they [the soldiers] struck him with their hands.”
What Gibson gave us in his Passion is the most prolonged human torture ever seen on the screen. It is without reason, and by no means necessarily derivative from the grand hypothesis that, after all, the crucifixion was without reason, as Pontius Pilate kept on observing. One sees for dozens of minutes soldiers apparently determined to flog to death the man the irresolute procurator had consented merely to “chastise.” There are records of British mariners who were literally flogged to death, receiving four hundred strokes of the cat-o’-nine-tails delivered on separate vessels, lest any sailor in the fleet be deprived of the informative exercise.
It isn’t only the interminable scourging, which is done with endless inventories of instruments. The Bible has Christ suffering the weight of the cross as he climbs to Golgotha, but that is not enough for Gibson. He has stray soldiers impeding Christ every step of the way, bringing down their clubs and whips and scourges in something that cannot be understood as less than sadistic frenzy.
I write as author of a book (Nearer, My God) in which I included a vision of the Crucifixion by an Italian mystic, Maria Valtorta. A learned priest cautioned against taking this liberty. “Valtorta seems to have solved the Synoptic problem that’s been plaguing scholars for centuries, viz., the contradictions between Matthew, Mark, and Luke. She has St. Dismas, the good thief, blessing Christ; Matthew (xxvii.44) has him reviling Him (Luke and Mark do not); she has Our Lord drinking gall mixed with vinegar (Mark xv.36 has Him drinking just vinegar). I was amused to see Joseph of Arimathea boldly traversing the line of 50 soldiers and the angry Jews in order to get near the Cross, since in Mark (xv.43) we’re told he ‘took courage’ to go to Pilate to retrieve the body.”
This kind of improvisation is headlong in Gibson’s Passion. Still, the film cannot help moving the viewer, shaking the viewer, even as he’d be moved and shaken by seeing a recreation of the end of Robert-François Damiens or one of those British sailors flogged to death. The suffering of Jesus isn’t intensified by inflicting the one-thousandth blow: that is the Gibson/Braveheart contribution to an agony which was overwhelmingly spiritual in character and perfectly and definitively caught by Johann Sebastian Bach in his aptly named Passion of Christ According to St. Matthew. There beauty and genius sublimate a passion which Gibson celebrates by raw bloodshed. The only serious question left in the viewer’s mind is: Should God have exempted this gang from His comprehensive mercy? But that is because we are human, Christ otherwise.