The Moral of the Tale
Andrew Tudor on how cinema bears the Cross
When The Exorcist was first screened in York in 1973 the city's archbishop was quick to condemn it, whereupon his godfearing flock hastened to the cinema in such numbers as to make the film into York's single longest running movie. There's a lesson for meddlesome clerics here, just as much as there is one about people's willingness to resist selfappointed moral arbiters: bad publicity from the right quarter makes for good commerce. Perhaps that lesson has been learned for, as I write, another Catholic horror movie is running in two local cinemas without any crashing condemnation from the pulpit of York Minster. Though lacking the attraction of revolving heads, flowing green bile, and masturbation with a crucifix, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ certainly shares The Exorcist's visceral desire to shock, if to rather different effect and with considerably less skill. Where The Exorcist carries its religious credentials relatively lightly even though Billy Friedkin, its agnostic director, has described it as 'about the mystery of faith' and the novel's more spiritually inclined author, William Peter Blatty, has often rued the film's interpretive ambivalence Gibson's movie evinces the kind of religious literalism which makes The Exorcist seem like an exercise in sophisticated radical theology. Gibson, it would seem, is determined simply to shock us into sharing his faith.
It's a curious strategy. While audiences are indeed willing to pay good money to be shocked and even repelled horror movie history is ample testament to that they are not often inclined to be converted, least of all by portentous overstatement. It's difficult to imagine anyone emerging from The Passion of the Christ brimming with newfound faith, for the whole thing is so onedimensional and stylistically ponderous. Of course, we are accustomed to ponderousness in movie adaptations of the central Christian myth.
Gibson's ponderousness, however, is different, born not from the traditional Hollywood fear of offending religious sensibilities, but rather from the distinctive character of his own commitment. It's as if the naïve literalism of fundamentalist belief has been translated directly into a naïve literalism of representation. Thus, the crucifixion story loses its metaphorical status, its power as an allegory about selfsacrifice and humane love. It becomes instead a direct embodiment of the belief in redemption through agony. Utilising all the now familiar techniques of modern body horror, the film insists on the central significance of pain: the crown of thorns is violently forced down on to Jesus' head, tearing into the skin; the nails are hammered in with graphic sound effects and spurts of blood; the scourge is plucked from flesh in detailed closeup. And to match this insistent physicality the film's style also hammers and scourges: shriekingly intrusive music; constant resort to monumental slow motion as if that somehow enhanced the seriousness of what is shown; longheld closeups of anguished faces as they contemplate the horror of it all.
In this respect a comparison of Gibson's film with Pasolini's version of the story is revealing. The Gospel According to St Matthew (1964) is also characterised by much use of closeup and prominent music (and was, coincidentally or not, shot in the same location in Southern Italy as Gibson's farrago). But Pasolini's closeups slow the pace, invite reflection rather than shared agony, the weatherworn faces of his mostly nonprofessional players capturing the splendid richness of human physiognomy. And his music Bach, Mozart, Prokofiev, Webern, African Mass, American Gospel equally reflects the diversity of inspiration that these beliefs can occasion. As with all his films derived from myths and old tales, for Pasolini this is a deeply human story, and, given that he was a marxist and an atheist, one whose protagonist is more the revolutionary than the sacrificial masochist. In one marvellous moment he has Jesus look around with evident satisfaction at the civil unrest that he has provoked in Jerusalem and murmur to his companions: "There will not be a stone left on another. It will all be thrown down." Such a radical observation would be inconceivable in Gibson's film, which is brutally physical where Pasolini's is cerebral, ugly where Pasolini's is beautiful, and empty of humanity where Pasolini's is filled with generosity of spirit.
It is deeply depressing that such a crass piece of fundamentalist propaganda can be filling cinemas so consistently in the USA, not because it will convert people, but because, presumably, a significant proportion of that audience already share the film's views. The only comfort is that The Passion of the Christ does not appear to be doing the same magnificent business in York (or, indeed, in Britain) that The Exorcist deservedly achieved all those years ago. Just as long as the Archbishop remains silent.