Passion and Counter-Passion: A Film Review

by Michael Slate

Revolutionary Worker #1236, April 11, 2004, posted at

I didn't want to see The Passion of the Christ . I'm really happy as an atheist and the last thing in the world I wanted to do was sit through two hours of Catholic/ Christian fundamentalist preaching. I was raised Catholic, back before the social upheaval of the 1960s forced them to loosen up a little bit. And even though I really stopped formal belief by the time I was 11, I went through 16 years of Catholic education--undeniably the best education the 12th century had to offer.

In those years my life was full of mysticism, magic, and ritual. I was told early on not to question things, to accept my faith blindly. I knew the wacky side of Catholicism well. I also knew the dark side--the terrible, harmful impact that this world outlook has on people. How many horrendous crimes against humanity have been facilitated and justified in the name of Christianity. And how many people have been screwed over by this religion and the whole concept of sin.

Luckily, somewhere in the midst of the Augustinian cave where I went to college, I discovered dialectical and historical materialism, the science of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, and I was liberated from this enslaving ideology.

One night before I left for my first trip to cover the upsurges rocking South Africa, I stopped by to visit my mother. Late at night I found her crying in the kitchen. She told me a story. Early in my parents' marriage a parish priest waited outside our building for my father to head off to work at the steel mill. It was very early in the morning and my mother, a recently wed and pregnant teenager raised as a pious Irish Catholic girl, didn't hesitate to let the priest in. The priest immediately started yelling at her--see, she married my father even though he was divorced. The priest tried to force my mother to come with him, and when she refused he started yelling at her in Latin. He screamed and spit for about 10 minutes before he grabbed my mother and roared that he had put a curse on her because she had abandoned god, and any child born of this marriage would eventually die a very slow and horrible death. My mother stopped going to church and has lived all her life petrified that every disease or late night phone call would spell an unspeakable death for one of her children. When my sister got breast cancer as a young girl my mother took on a horrible burden of blame. When my brother became a dope fiend and nearly died, my mother believed it was because she had abandoned god.

It's hard to retell this story--it calls to mind the lives of millions of women that have been destroyed by religion and superstition. And I challenge any thinking person to tell me why humanity needs a work of art that reinforces this oppression and so much more.

All of which brings us right into the heart of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. It explains why I didn't want to see it and why I really had to see it.


The Passion focuses on the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus as told in the gospels of the New Testament of the Bible. This is the time between Jesus' agony and arrest in the Garden of Geth- semane through his trial, torture and death sentence to his crucifixion, death and resurrection. This is the central story in Christian mythology: It is here that Christ supposedly took on all the sins of humanity--past, present and future--redeeming humanity by giving up his life to pay the price for those sins.

Passion is much more than a heartfelt profession of faith by Mel Gibson. This is a dangerous and reactionary film. Part of what makes it so dangerous is that it is a rather high quality work of art. Gibson brought his money, his celebrity and his considerable artistic skills to bear in order to tell this story in line with his fundamentalist Catholic beliefs.

Central to Gibson's artistic mission is the desire to put the audience right there in the middle of what supposedly happened to Jesus. He hired an accomplished cinematographer, four-time Oscar nominee Caleb Deschanel, to help create a visceral and powerful visual poem. Gibson modeled the film after the paintings of Caravaggio, a late Renaissance/Baroque Italian religious painter whose work has been described as "ardently Catholic." Caravaggio is credited with bringing about a rebirth in religious art through his use of ordinary people as models and his insistence on showing all the rough edges in his paintings as part of fighting against the idealization of religion and expanding its embrace. The revitalization of religious art helped the church facilitate and justify the dramatic expansion of the European colonial powers around the world in those times. Caravaggio himself became a member of the Knights of Malta--a Catholic militia-type group originally formed in the First Crusades and in Caravaggio's days known for some intense battles with Islamic forces of the Ottoman Empire.

Each scene is like a Renaissance-era Catholic holy card. Deschanel filmed at night half the time and indoors at other times. He harnessed light and dark in the same way Caravaggio did--with lightness always fighting to poke through the darkness--until, in Gibson's words, he created a "living Caravaggio."

Gibson insisted on using only Latin and Aramaic dialogue in the film. But the dialogue is really incidental to the film--at most only 50 lines of dialogue are translated into subtitles. This is linked to Gibson's traditional religious views that the mass should be said in Latin, but it is also part of his goal to put the audience through a religious experience.


To understand why and how The Passion poses such a danger, we have to understand the role that art plays in shaping public opinion and promoting one kind of outlook and values or another.

Art plays an important role in people's lives, connected with our "need to be amazed." It is a distinct mode of communication and experience--one way that people understand the world. Art is drawn from life but is "higher than life." It can tap deep feelings and aspirations, unleashing the imagination and giving people a deeper understanding of reality and how to change it.*

In "Materialism and Romanticism: Can We Do Without Myth?" Bob Avakian asks: "Can we do without myth? Yes--and no. We can and must do without myth which presents itself as reality, which is another way of saying religion. This relates to what is said at the end of Preaching From a Pulpit of Bones** on what there is in common and what is different between science and religion and art, and in particular the difference between art and religion. Art presents things which are not true, and it tries to draw the audience in to respond to them as if they are true, but at the same time on a more fundamental and larger level, both the people who are making the art and the audience know that what's being presented is not true.. Most art, particularly art which presents itself as fictional, even if it draws from real events, on the one hand tries to draw the audience into a certain level of accepting it or responding to it as if it is true, while at the same time, on a deeper level and stepping back from it, knowing it's not true. So art presents many fantastic things, and should present many fantastic things, or else it really wouldn't be art. Art couldn't be art if it didn't do that. But, in an ultimate sense, it doesn't pretend that these fantastic things are true. It doesn't try to get its audience to believe, in most cases at least, that these fantastic things are actually real things or events.

"On the other hand, as Preaching points out, religion presents all kinds of fantastic things but insists that these things are not only true but the essence of truth, and the operative and defining and determining principles of reality. So, in response to the question, `can we do without myth?' the answer is that we have to do without myth in the religious sense, or myth that presents itself as true, myth that presents itself as embodying the defining and organizing principles of reality.

"But we can't do without--humanity never could do without and we don't want to do without--myth in another sense. To put it another way, we can't and don't want to do without metaphor --in art, and in life more broadly."

Which brings us back to The Passion -- because Mel Gibson is not just dealing in the realm of metaphor. He is using the power of metaphor to create a work of art that does not give people a deeper understanding of reality. He is consciously using the power of metaphor to reinforce superstition and religious myth--to make people believe more deeply in things that are not true. And as many progressive religious people have also pointed out, the myths he is reinforcing represent the most traditional,fundamentalist, backward and enslaving Catholic interpretation of the Jesus story.

Gibson believes in a literal reading of the Bible and he believes that he has created a work of non-fiction , claiming that the gospels provided him with an historically accurate screenplay. Of course, these four stories have nothing to do with historical accuracy--they were written anywhere from 40 to 100 years after the alleged execution of Jesus and they each tell it in a different way. As Bob Avakian points out in Liberation Without Gods,the gospels, like the rest of the bible, are not divine truth, not the words of god revealed, but stories told by men to serve very human ends. And, as the RCP's statement on The Passion notes, these stories "were all told and then set down in writing to reinforce first a patriarchal desert agricultural society several thousand years ago, then a slave empire in Rome, and then an oppressive feudal society in Europe."

Gibson wove bits and pieces from all the gospels together but overall, the Gospel of John--the latest of the gospels--is the skeleton upon which the bulk of the story is hung. This gospel was written at a time when the early Christians were seeking better relations with the Roman Empire. Accordingly, the Gospel of John is the most anti-Semitic of the four gospels. While the gospels are myth, Pontius Pilate and the Roman occupation of the region are historical fact. And it is significant that Gibson treats Pilate, the Roman governor, as a sympathetic character pushed into condemning Jesus by the relentlessly murderous Jews. In fact, Pilate was a ruthless and bloody-jawed monster with a reputation for regularly crucifying hundreds of Jewish rebels against Roman rule. Pilate was so bad that ten years after Jesus' alleged crucifixion he was recalled to Rome for being too blood-crazed and cruel.

There can really be no serious argument over whether The Passion is anti-Semitic. It draws on a long tradition of stories and dramatic plays that often have been the spark used to set off brutal attacks on Jewish people. Every stereotype ever conjured up about Jewish people has found a home in this film. In the Aramaic dialogue, the film includes the infamous "blood libel" against the Jewish people. This was a curse rooted in the story that when the Roman governor Pontius Pilate allegedly announced he was washing his hands of the blood of Jesus and would bear no responsibility for his execution, the Jewish mob supposedly yelled out, "Let his blood be on us and our children." Gibson says he caved in to pressure and reluctantly took that phrase out of the English subtitles of the film. But it is impossible to take Gibson's protests that his film is not anti-Semitic serious when the historic impact of this "blood libel" is well known. It is also significant that Gibson includes the ecstatic visions of Christ's suffering that were invented by a notoriously anti-Semitic 19th-century Catholic nun, and that Gibson invents the physical presence of Satan drifting among the Jews at key moments in The Passion .

And, in a more general sense, this is a religious interpretation that reinforces the connection between unthinking obedience to god and obedience to empire.


The Passion is one of the most misanthropic films I've ever seen. For the most part the people in the film are repulsive in their behavior, individually and collectively.

This is by design; it's part of Gibson's traditional Catholic theology. He is obsessed with human culpability in the death of Jesus. He believes that when Eve ate the apple in the Garden of Eden and gave birth to the "original sin" that doomed humanity, humans proved their worthlessness in the world. The portrayal of humans in The Passion allows Gibson to explore the idea that his god has a bottomless well of unconditional love for humans, so much so that he was willing to sacrifice his son to redeem them. But it's also an opportunity to drive home to his audience the enormous debt Gibson believes humans owe to his god.

From beginning to end there is a relentless assault on Jesus' body. It is a visceral and deeply personal violence. Gibson agues that this is necessary to take the audience over the edge here so they can deeply understand "the enormity of the blood sacrifice" [Gibson's words] Jesus supposedly made for humanity. Blood is a sacred symbol of atonement for Gibson: "In the Old Covenant, blood was required. In the New Covenant, blood was required. Jesus could have pricked his finger, but he didn't; he went all the way." And Gibson wants the audience to go all the way with him. Gibson hopes that portraying Jesus as accepting all this unquestioningly in order to atone for the sins of humanity will solicit a similar unquestioning devotion to god by humanity.

There is a purpose to this sadism. Everything in the film puts the viewer there with Jesus--to put the viewer through this hell, to intensify the bond between the viewer and Jesus. It's not unlike the way the imperialist military talks about combat soldiers having a special link with one another forged through the experience of war.

In this way, Gibson creates within the audience a shared experience designed to accentuate the irrational, to overcome reason with emotion, and promote blind obedience to religious authority.


In a recent article in the internet edition of the journal Counterpunch Gary Leupp, a professor of History and Comparative Religion at Tufts University, questioned the danger posed by The Passion, saying that it really doesn't encourage people to take up a right-wing agenda, become anti-Semites, support Bush and the war in Iraq or convince people to plunder and rape the world in Jesus' name. But this misses the point.

With regard to any work of art, it's always important to look at both the intention of the artist and the effect of the art. Ardea Skybreak pointed out in "Some Ideas on the Social Role of Art"that art primarily plays an ideological role in human society, and a very important part of that is the role it plays in systematizing and promoting a social outlook and worldview. A friend I saw the film with commented afterwards that this is not a film for nonbelievers. He felt that if you didn't read the book you wouldn't get the movie. But if you did read the book and believe in it--which millions and millions of people on the planet do--it's a whole different story. The Passion concentrates and raises its subject matter to a place higher than life, and in doing so it strikes a deep chord in its audience--both hard rock Christians as well as everyday ordinary churchgoers.

Gibson has fashioned a sort of ideological boot camp for believers; he is hoping to weld together a solid core of Christian soldiers to ride with god.

This is not a movie about the Jesus of liberation theology, the Jesus of "love and peace" or the "self-doubting, half-man" Jesus. This is a stoic, silent Jesus, without a message or ideas, whose principal characteristic is that he sucks up the suffering of a vicious humanity.

Gibson actually believes that there is a cosmic warfare going on between good and evil, between god and the devil: "That's the big picture. The big realms are slugging it out. We're just meat in the sandwich. And for some reason, we're worth it. I don't know why, but we are." From beginning to end, from Jesus crushing the evil serpent sent by Satan in the Garden of Gethsemane (a backhanded slap at humanity, especially women, for capitulating to a similar snake in Eden) to the last scene of Jesus rising from the dead, looking out of the grave with eyes full of noble passion and steel determination, Gibson is preparing to ride against evil and he wants "the faithful" (especially traditional Catholics) to be riding alongside him.

In his recent article "Pyramid of Power"(Revolutionary Worker , #1231) Chairman Avakian explains the relation between mobilizing mindless storm-troopers and the promotion of religious fundamentalism. "This is an effort to deliberatively build up a base of people, millions and millions and millions of people, who are frightened by the idea of thinking--I'm serious--people who cannot deal with all the `complicatedness,' all the complexity of modern society, who want simple absolute answers to the complexities of this society. This whole religious fundamentalist thing is based on mindless absolutism--like that bumper sticker: `god said it, I believe it, and that settles it.' And of course, as I spoke to earlier, what `god said' is what these reactionary human authorities tell them god said--not simply what's in the Bible, which after all was written by people, but also what these people alive today say the Bible means."

In this light, it is worth noting that Gibson has mobilized massive support from two very important allies. The Protestants of the religious right buried their differences with Gibson's traditional Catholicism because they are keenly aware of the overall positive impact this film will have on their own overall agenda, especially as it coincides with the interests of the forces in the U.S. ruling class they are aligned with and promote. Gibson could never have received the kind of distribution he got for the film without the massive religious/political grassroots network the Christian Fascists have spend decades building.

And Gibson has also pulled in unprecedented support from the U.S. rulers. He has held special screenings for all of the most conservative critics, commentators and politicians--including people like David Horowitz and David Kuo, Deputy Director of Bush's "faith-based initiative." Meanwhile the most ridiculous religious assertions and talk of miracles have been treated with the utmost respect in the imperialist press. Both Gibson and Caviezel actually believe that they were sent signs from god telling them to make this film. More than that, Gibson believes that god actually helped him make the film. As he told Primetime 's Diane Sawyer, "The Holy Ghost [one of the three-in one forms of god that make up the Holy Trinity] was working through me. I was just directing traffic." Sawyer never challenged this or even batted an eyelash.

Progressive and liberal journalists were kept out of pre-release screenings, as were Jewish critics and commentators. When New York Times arts columnist Frank Rich spoke badly of the film, Gibson announced on TV that he wanted to kill Rich, that he wanted to have Rich's intestines on a stick. Again, no one batted an eye.

Given the role that fundamentalist religious thinking is playing in reinforcing oppressive social relations in every sphere of life--and the pressing necessity for humanity to throw off enslaving ideologies-- all thinking people need to seriously ask themselves: what is the effect of a film that reinforces submission to religious authority, mythical concepts of good and evil, and a sense that the masses are incapable of changing the world? And what impact does this have in the current world situation?

I think we need to meet The Passion with counter-passion, and most especially, with a revolutionary ideology that can actually free humanity from all relations of exploitation and oppression, social antagonism and class division.


*See Draft Programme of the RCP, USA, "Art and Culture."

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** Bob Avakian, Preaching From a Pulpit of Bones (New York: Banner Press, 1999).

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