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 Gibson and His Psyche 

February 24, 2004

For weeks, Mortimer Zuckerman’s tabloid the New York Daily News has been trashing, in advance, Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of Christ. In “news” articles, opinion pieces, and editorials, it has published predictions that the move “will” (not “might”) incite violence against Jews and maybe ruin Gibson’s Hollywood career.

The paper is shocked — shocked! — at Gibson’s “cynicism” in marketing the film, in contrast, one supposes, to the usual lofty ethics of Hollywood hype. And on the film’s release, its reviewer, Jami Barnard, called it — surprise! — “the most virulently anti-Semitic” movie since the Third Reich. (Can’t they ever find another adverb than virulently?)

Jonathan Foreman, a reviewer in New York’s other tabloid, the Post, calls the film “sadistic,” “pornographic,” and “the product of a distinctly perverted sensibility.”

Newsweek’s reviewer, David Ansen, concedes generously that “I don’t think Gibson is anti-Semitic,” but has plenty of opinions about the director’s motives: “I have no doubt that Mel Gibson loves Jesus.” But “what he seems to love as much is the cinematic depiction of flayed, severed, swollen, scarred flesh and rivulets of spilled blood,” et cetera. Got that? Yes, Mel loves Jesus, but no more than he loves gore.

The film, Ansen explains, “plays like the Gospel according to the Marquis de Sade.” It’s marked by “sadism.” It “gives rise to the suspicion that on some unconscious level, [it] is, for Gibson, autobiography.” Ansen too manages to work the word pornographic into his review.

When I studied literature in college, we were taught that the meaning of a work of art shouldn’t be sought in the artist’s supposed intents and motives: that was “the intentional fallacy.” This quaint idea seems to elude a lot of today’s film reviewers. For the past year Gibson’s motives for making the film have obsessed his critics — “enemies” would be more like it — long before they saw the film itself.

[Breaker quote: Criticism and the unconscious]Now that they’ve actually seen the film, some of them — we can disregard Miss Barnard’s directed verdict — are changing their tune a bit. Gibson may not be “anti-Semitic” (aw, shucks!), but he’s “sadistic.”

I used to think all literate people understood that sadism means taking sexual pleasure in inflicting pain. So how is Gibson sadistic? Because he shows violence graphically?

I can’t imagine anyone finding pleasure, sexual or otherwise, in Gibson’s depiction of Christ’s agony any more than I can imagine being inspired by it to commit violence. It’s just horrifying. It’s meant to be. Offering a mere “suspicion” about Gibson’s “unconscious” motive is one more kind of pseudocriticism.

But not only have the hostile critics damned Gibson’s suspected reasons for filming the Gospels; they’ve even attacked his father as well. As a rule, even negative movie reviews leave the directors’ parents (and unconscious minds) out of it, but all sorts of exceptions are being made this time. The Anti- Defamation League has actually called on the Pope to condemn the film! Surely we must thank the ADL for rushing to the defense of Catholic orthodoxy, but the Holy Father’s health is failing and he may not feel up to doing movie reviews. Maybe Miss Barnard could ghostwrite one for him.

One reviewer, Richard Corliss of Time, is far closer to the truth when he notes that Gibson is “inspired as much by Renaissance iconography, the Stations of the Cross, and the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary as by the Gospels’ terse narratives.” Anyone familiar with Catholic culture will recognize this, especially in the tender portrayal of the Virgin Mary, which relieves the viewer’s pain at watching her son’s suffering. A “sadistic” film would hardly make use of such alleviating touches.

If we’re looking for Gibson’s motives, we should start with the role of Mary in the story, which has received little attention. She is shown, with the utmost compassion, witnessing and sharing Jesus’ torment. We see a flashback of her consoling him as a boy when he falls down, just as she consoles him when he carries the Cross. All this adds emotional depth and spiritual meaning to what some of the reviewers see only as a gruesome spectacle of physical pain.

While others try to project their own hostility onto Gibson, Corliss makes an eloquent effort to see the film on its own terms. And the film he sees is “serious, handsome, excruciating.”

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2004 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
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