Passion pruned.

Author:Pizzato, Mark
Position:Responses

Mel Gibson's 2004 film, The Passion of the Christ, has been hugely popular and very controversial. Steven Gardiner provides significant insights about the appeal of "heroic masochism" in this movie, with its horror-film scenes of Jesus being tortured by ancient Romans at the urging of his fellow Jews. Gardiner finds this symptomatic of a current American ethos of "militarized masculinity," arguing that the traditional Christ narrative "does not require Gibson's relentless masculinization of Jesus." Yet in order to make this claim, Gardiner prunes Gibson's film, with its many potential viewpoints and audience identifications, into a narrow narrative lens.

Gardiner finds "a blind spot" at the film's center: "the presumptive necessity, one might even say goodness, of embodied male suffering." He argues that the "post-9/11 audience" would not accept a woman in the role of a tortured hero, Jesus here, because her body would then be victimized as a "pornographic object." But Gibson's objectifying of the body of the actor, Jim Caviezel in this film and his own in other heroic action movies, is both pornographic and transcendent depending on how it is viewed by non-believers and believers in the audience. Male and female viewers might be drawn to the eroticism of a "pretty actor ... covered in prosthetic and/or digitally conjured wounds," as Gardiner aptly describes him, or repulsed when flesh is ripped from that body or nails pierce its limbs. Yet Gardiner does not consider the variety of other characters onscreen, male and female, observing the objectified body of Jesus--as identification points for different movie viewers with numerous associations in their brain's "inner theatres" (Pizzato 2011).

As I have argued before, while comparing this film to medieval biblical plays through current neuroscience, along with Artaudian and Brechtian theories of the sacrificial actor, there is at least anecdotal evidence of viewers identifying with the tortured Jesus as a subject across gender, with mirror-neurons and emotional contagion evoking physical suffering in the audience (2011: 218-25). A woman in Wichita, Kansas (Peggy Scott) reportedly died from a heart attack she suffered while watching the movie. Perhaps she not only identified with the pain of Jesus, but also mimicked in her body the agony of his mother and Mary Magdalene onscreen: wiping his blood from the cobblestones after his scourging, watching him die on the cross, and cradling his...

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