The anniversary of The Passion has arrived, and with it comes the alternate “awards” universe of Christian conservatives determined to right the wrong they believe was visited upon them by the Academy’s apparent indifference to Gibson’s masterpiece. You got that? It was a masterpiece. What’s unfortunate, and revealing, about such responses is that in many regards The Passion was a very good movie. It certainly made my top 10 for the year, which Million Dollar Baby did not. But, leaving aside all the political and theological arguments swirling around its reception, it was flawed in such obvious ways that the commitment of Christian conservative intellectuals to declaring its near-perfection reveals, I think, an uneasiness, an awareness that the masterpiece of Christian pop culture cinema is yet to come. (The Matrix doesn’t count.)
Debra Murphy, on Godspy, writes that “Mad Mel’s religious vision is so shocking, like a slap in the face, so original, and so strange that the moviegoer is not in his seat for five minutes before he realizes that he’s not in Kansas anymore.” Indeed; the first five minutes were so hamfisted, so poor at the level of production values and cliche (remember the devil without eyebrows? Now there’s an original scare, right? EvenConstantine features a scarier, eyebrowless Satan), that I not only knew I wasn’t in Kansas, I feared I hadn’t ventured far enough away from the NYU compound, and that I was watching a student film. A bad student film.
But The Passion got better. Hell, I cried. I didn’t even mind the tear-from-heaven that offended so many sensibilities, because I’d already made my peace with Lars Von Trier’s bells from heaven, in his masterpiece, Breaking the Waves, which is not only a better movie, but also, as a Christ story, a more compelling gospel in that it challenges piety as much as it dismisses doubt. Breaking the Wave suggests that any notion of the divine worth calling such probably won’t fit into our intellectual categories; The Passion might have done as much, but its marketing campaign — sneak previews for politically conservative Christians only? — did whatever art the film possesses a disservice by making the movie, as an event, all about categories, or worse, sides, as in, Which one are you on?
Even so, The Passion did nearly as much with its head-on charge against secularism as did Von Trier’s more skillful film. And then again, it wasn’t lacking in subtleties; or, at least, the response of the public was subtle. Perhaps most puzzling is the disconnect between film and reception. Gibson, in his sources and his adaptation, went out of his way to name the Jews the villains of this drama. You might argue that there was nothing more particular about “the Jews” in this film than there was about the British in Braveheart — every Gibson movie, like any number of Hollywood films, positions a virile rebel-hero against a staid, effeminate authority collective — but that doesn’t change the fact that there were many ways to tell this story, and Gibson chose a tortuous path — literally — that connected the killing of Christ with ancient Jews.
But that’s not what admirers of the film — myself included — saw. The fears that The Passion would provoke anti-Semitism proved unfounded. A year out, very little has changed. Did anyone really think that a movie could overcome the eschatological commitment of Christian conservatives to Israel, a foreign nation which all too many Christian conservatives (and all too many American Jews) mistake for Judaism itself? If anything, the film firmed up Christian conservatives’ solidarity with their imaginary chosen people.
But how viewers square the anti-Jewishness of The Passion with their continuing love for “the Jewish people” remains a mystery. The fact that they do so is perhaps a clue to the movie’s more valuable qualities. Murphy, on Godspy, names the film’s most salient effect thus: “after twelve months and a number of viewings, the sense of Passion’s uncanny power lingers. I find myself using the word ‘strange’ about it more and more often; ‘strange’ as in the ‘arresting strangeness’ Tolkien mentioned, in his landmark ‘On Faery Stories,’ as the hallmark of good fantasy; and ‘strange’ as Harold Bloom uses the word in his magisterial survey of western literature, The Western Canon. Treating the question of what makes a work of literature ‘canonical,’ Bloom claims that, ‘The answer, more often than not, has turned out to be strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.'”
The Passion was strange, which is to say that it was weird, not so much art as a document, far more unclassifiable than Gibson’s bellicose marketing campaign — or Christian conservatives’ tribalistic embrace of the film, warts and all — could ever suggest. As it ages, it will grow stranger still. If the core of the movie is as good as I think it is, it will remain difficult to digest. If, however, its weirdness is really just the hunger of Christian conservatives for a big budget Hollywood biopic to call their own, it’ll soon fade.
That might be the better outcome for all concerned. For as long as Christian conservatives feel the need to rally ’round this movie as genius, they’ll be prevented from building upon its strengths and weaknesses to create even better art. And as long as they hold the line at The Passion, they’ll be defining their canon not by strangeness or by the gospel, but by a work that trumpets is most reductionist impulses in those first five minutes and revives them with marching band music in the final frames.