The dust of reviews has settled on this film and so: the time has come, perhaps, for a more dispassionate, a more considered, a more reflective, little review. Perhaps review is not quite the right word; perhaps what I have written here is just a comment, but it is no less provocative than the most provocative youve read thusfar and I hope you will find here some refreshing and intelligent insight into the way the film was made and perceived.
This film is not intended to be a masterful historical documentary as, say, Ken Burns’ work on the Civil War or one of many others done in the first century of the existence of the cinema. Gibson’s work is far from possessing what some might call an intellectual poverty in its pretensions at historical documentary. Shawn Rosenheim says all TV documentaries possess an intellectual poverty. If Rosenheim is right the visual media are simply incapable of producing historical documentary.1 And if Rosenheim is wrong, as I tend to think he is, historical documentary of an event 2000 years ago is not impossible. It is, rather, a recreation. We simply do not know enough about the event Gibson is recreating to claim that what we are seeing is a documentary.
We all know that Gibson did not take his camera crew to downtown Jerusalem or into the little hamlet of Nazereth in some kind of time-warp to produce an anti-Jewish, anti Roman clip for the evening news. Even if he had and he then produced for us all an evening two hour special, spectacle, called “the crucifixion,” there would still be questions about visual manipulation and the program’s service in the name of directing popular thought toward a new religious movement. New religious movements have always had trouble getting popular exposure unless they can be associated with conflict and violence, eccentricity and the bizarre, indeed, anything visually stimulating and distracting.
No one would claim that Gibson’s is a neutral recording of objective events. It is a construct operating from a certain point of view. It is a rhetorical argument achieved through the selection and combination of elements that both reflect and project a world, a world view, a cosmology if you like. It is achieved by certain cinematic conventions that try to erase any signs of cinematic artificiality. An ideology is promoted by linking the effect of reality to social values and institutions in such a way that these values seem natural and self-evident. In the case of Mel Gibson’s work, a work that I found quite stimulating in its own way, the ideology is simply and strongly: fundamentalist Christianity.
I’ve never been attracted to Christianity in any of its fundamentalist forms. But I liked this film. Film can often get to people in ways that words, ideas and simple beliefs cannot. It was not because of its historical accuracy that I liked it. I liked All the Presidents Men and a number of other films based on and rooted in some historical theme. Rarely are historical films accurate; the main reason they seem so is that the people watching them know so little about the theme, the event, that it seems plausible to them. Sadly, but truly, we know so little about the events of the life of Jesus of Nazereth that a good script writer, a good cinematographer and a big band of men and women can bring something to life that may never have happened at all.
Bertrand Russell wrote in his Why I’m Not a Christian that, in a court of law, there is little evidence for even the existence of Jesus let alone his manner of death. Historicity simply does not exist when it comes to the events in the life of a man who has had a profound affect, I believe, on history. Of course, Russell says he does believe Jesus existed; he just wanted to make a point about the paucity of historical evidence. What we believe in life and what we know usually exist in two separate worlds, although hopefully their assumptions are not totally blind. What people who are believers and what they are as knowers, so to speak, about Jesus are radically separate. The distance between the pulpit and the academic chair of religion has been widening for at least two centuries. In fact for millions of men and women these days historicity is irrelevant to their beliefs. History has become, for those millions, what it was for Henry Ford: bunk or was it bunkum? My optimistic muse gives you 4/5, Mel and my pessimistic muse a 2/5.
As a sort of epilogue to this brief comment on the film: one of the main reasons many people are turning to Movements like the Baha’i Faith is that historicity is important to them. Religions that have grown up in the modern age face different problems of historicity, often too much rather than too little information and distortion by opponents and critics whose prime aim is to create dissention.
The Baha’i Faith, to stay with this example, confined as it is to only 6 million adherents, has grown slowly since the mid-nineteenth century. The originating impulse for each of the major religions of history, an impulse that led to the phenomenon of revelation or some defining religious experience has receded so far into history as to be accessible to us in only a very limited and unsatisfactory degree. Far otherwise with the work of the Founder of the Baha’i Faith. The details of His life are massively documented. And one could choose other claimants in modern history as well but that would lead to prolixity here.
History has a thousand faces, a thousand forms, and Mel Gibson has given us some very stimulating ones, perhaps a little too visually acute, in his film, The Passion of the Christ. They will serve for some of the millions who watched it to bring them closer to One whom Baha’u'llah, the Baha’i Faith’s founder, said “when Christ was crucified the world wept with a great weaping.” Bill Graham wept; many stayed home; millions viewed the film as it went into the top ten money spinners in cinema history.