Search SBL
 









SBL Forum Archive
<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Gibson's "Passion" in the Light of Pasolini's "Gospel"

At the time of the release of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ in 2004, I had just completed my dissertation on Pier Paolo Pasolini's film Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel according to St. Matthew, 1964).[1] Given the circumstances, I became intrigued by the many ways in which The Passion and Il Vangelo were intertwined with one another in their productions and in their receptions by critics. I was also surprised that within the swirling melee of criticism and analysis of The Passion, few critics noticed the similarities between the two films.[2]

Indeed, both films were initiated and directed by persons around whom controversy swirled. Initially, these controversies made financing the films difficult. Both films were shot in the hillsides of southern Italy, with Gibson filming in the very same locations that Pasolini had used in Il Vangelo. During their productions, both directors professed fidelity to the Gospels. Finally, both films elicited passionate responses from diverse constituencies: They were well received by officials within the Catholic Church, and they have been accused of perpetutating anti-Jewish stereotypes.

The novelty of these similarities sets the stage for the main argument of this essay, that Pasolini's film, called "the greatest of all Jesus movies,"[3] provides an important guide through many of the contentious issues that surround The Passion of the Christ. In order to undertake this task, I want to provide a brief survey of the tensions that surrounded Pasolini's film and the critical evaluations of its relationship to history. Later, I will look at the charge that Il Vangelo perpetuates anti-Jewish stereotypes.

Il Vangelo, Pasolini's fourth full-length theatrical film, was an unexpected film for several reasons. First, his first two films (Accatone [1961] and Mama Roma [1962]) had featured as main characters pimps and prostitutes who lived unredeemed lives in the slums of Rome. Pasolini compounded the scandal of these films by deliberately framing his disreputable characters in ways that evoked sacred iconographic traditions. However, even the disturbances caused by these films pale when compared to the reaction that greeted Pasolini's next fiction film, the short film "La ricotta."

"La ricotta" is the third episode in the feature anthology RoGoPaG (1963). Among the many controversies that the film provoked was its depiction of the main character, a poor man who works as an extra on the set of a film about the crucifixion of Jesus, as dying of indigestion (the source of which is a block of ricotta cheese; hence the film's title) at the end of the film while hanging from a cross as one of the two thieves. As a result of the furor caused by the film, Pasolini was tried and found guilty of violating a law that allowed Italian authorities to apprehend films that were an "offense to good manners." (Pasolini's conviction was later overturned.) It should come as no surprise that when Pasolini decided to make a film version of the First Gospel, few believed that he would treat the material with the the respect expected by most Christians.

The reaction to the film in Europe was widely mixed, with right-wing groups protesting its premiere in Venice and left-wing critics declaring that it "is not sacred art, nor art. It is only a fantasy. It is nothing."[4] Others argued that it was "incomparably the most effective picture ever made on a scriptural theme."[5] American critics were more consistent in their praise. Life Magazine called the film "probably the finest religious film ever made."[6] The Catholic Film Newsletter praised the film, saying that it "constantly makes the viewer feel that what he sees is the way it must have been."[7]

A common element of most early reviews that praised the film was Pasolini's fidelity to the First Gospel. However, critical analysis of the film reveals that its relationship to its source and to history is far more complex. Pasolini's work falls within the spectrum of Italian modernist cinema. Rather than use all the elements of cinema—text, image, and sound—to develop a coherent and consistent plot, modernist filmmakers foregrounded the construction of time, the construction of cinema, and the construction of the spectator as he or she engaged the cinema. Like many of his modernist contemporaries, Pasolini confronts the spectator with cinema as a process and in so doing forces the spectator to confront his or her own subjectivity as a part of the process.

I have elsewhere examined in greater detail the manner in which Il Vangelo functions as a critical visual interpretation of the First Gospel rather than a retelling of it.[8] Through absences, disruptions, and contaminations, Il Vangelo does not replicate the First Gospel. Rather, it complicates the literary text by positioning the spectator at the intersection of a plentitude of visual, aural, textual, and historical discourses. The spectator encounters this plentitude at the very beginning of the film.

Il Vangelo begins with no words of introduction, not even a standard establishing shot to give the audience a sense of the scenery.[9] Instead, the opening shot is an extreme close-up of a young woman who looks off in silence. It is not clear who the woman is or where she is located. The spectator does not even know that she is pregnant until the fifth shot. In fact, no one is identified and no character says anything for the first two-and-a-half minutes of the film. Pasolini further layers the spectator's first visual encounter with Il Vangelo by positioning Mary in a manner that evokes Piero della Francesca's Madonna del Parto (1460-65).

Rather than the temporal anchor of the First Gospel, the first shot of Il Vangelo thrusts the spectator into temporal disorder.[10] This opening scene is a striking contrast with the grand historical sweep of Matthew's genealogy. The startling nature of the first shot places the spectator at a distance to the story world rather than transporting him into this world.

Through absences and structural disruptions, Il Vangelo foregrounds itself before the spectator as a construct to be negotiated rather than as an enclosed narrative to be absorbed. Il Vangelo does not recreate the time of Jesus "the way it must have been," but rather employs history as an analogy through which the spectator is confronted not only by Matthew's Jesus but also by a Jesus filtered through two thousand years of Christian storytelling about Jesus. It is this notion of history that provides a framework to evaluate The Passion of the Christ's portrayal of first century Judaism and the heritage of Christian anti-Semitism.

An attention to the narrative distinction between story and discourse provides a useful heuristic guide to evaluate the fidelity of Il Vangelo to its source. Borrowing from Seymour Chatman, we define as "the content or chain of events (actions, happenings), plus what may be called the existents (characters, items of setting)," while discourse is "the means by which the content is communicated."[11] What one discovers is that critical praise of the film's fidelity to the First Gospel operates at the level of story while ignoring Il Vangelo's cinematic expression of that story, its discourse, which fractures the authority of its source.

Critical responses to The Passion of the Christ were as divergent as they were for Il Vangelo. Among the negative evaluations of the film are well-supported arguments by many biblical scholars that the film is not an accurate portrayal of first-century Judaism. For example, the film presents Jewish characters as overwhelmingly calling for the death of Jesus. Other inaccuracies include the sympathetic portrayal of Pilate and the use of Latin as the language of the Roman Empire in the Holy Land.

All of these criticisms are true. However, the question is whether or not they have an important bearing on the merit or success of the film as a work of cinema. In a balanced assessment of the myriad criticisms of the film, Mark Goodacre argues that they do not. He writes, "While discussions of [The Passion's] historical accuracy can be educational and interesting . to use such discussions as the basis of a vociferous critique of the film is to look at the film as something other than it is, to misunderstand it, to view it against the grain."[12] The case of Il Vangelo lends credence to this argument, for, contrary to some reviews, it does not portray Second Temple Judaism "the way it must have been" in the time of the Jesus, nor does it necessarily seek to do so. If Pasolini's film is to be regarded as the "masterpiece" of Jesus cinema, then it has not attained this status on the basis of its historical accuracy. Similarly, the fact that it uses only the First Gospel as its source, while Gibson clearly harmonizes from the Gospels (when he uses them), is not a sufficient criterion by which we should evaluate The Passion as some have done, for an analysis of the discursive level of Il Vangelo reveals that it is far less faithful to its source than many believed at the time.

My purpose is not to offer an apology for The Passion's portrayal of history or its use of sources, but to argue that a more precise cinematic measure is necessary to critique the film. This measure arises when we turn to the controversry surrounding the film's portrayal of the Jews, which is often intertwined with the other criticisms previously mentioned. It is in the disparity between The Passion's story and its discourse that troubling concerns surface about the role of the Jews in the film. Again, an assessment of the accusations that Il Vangelo perpetuates anti-Jewish stereotypes provides a helpful gauge to examine similar claims against The Passion. What emerges is ambivalence at the level of story. However, Pasolini's own concept of what he called "stylistic contamination" provides the visual means to argue that at the discursive level The Passion evokes Christianity's troubled and tragic relationship with Judaism in an uncritical and disconcerting manner.

Just as with The Passion, there is disagreement over whether Il Vangelo enforces anti-Jewish stereotypes or rejects them. The arguments are usually premised upon redactional analyses of the film against its source. One argument is that the film recycles anti-Jewish stereotypes by including Matt 27:25 in the dialogue of the Jewish leaders with Pilate.[13] A contrasting argument proposes that Il Vangelo does not disseminate anti-Jewish stereotypes because it eliminates the scene of Pilate washing his hands in Matt 27:24 and redirects the subjects of the statement in verse 25 from the Jewish crowds to the Jewish leaders.[14]

The Passion has been submitted to similar redactional approaches to produce similar results. In this instance, the redactional source is not a gospel but The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ by Sr. Ann Emmerich. Some have argued that because Gibson's draws so much from Sr. Emmerich, he has uncritically adapted her anti-semitic visions into The Passion;[15] on the other hand, others have noted that Gibson has made changes to Emmerich that emphasize the Jewishness of characters such as Simon of Cyrene.[16]

What are we to make of this disagreement and by what means might we better assess the relationship of the The Passion to Christian anti-Semitism? Neither of the redactional arguments that I have described are sufficient because they rely on an analysis of the film at the level of its story. A more detailed examination of its discourse provides a clearer focus on the matter, and it is Pasolini's theory of stylistic contamination that provides the method for this examination.

For Pasolini, stylistic contamination allows for the insertion of linguistic, visual, and aural citations that draw attention to an artistic work as structure and construct. The result is that the audience is positioned at the intersection of the past and the present in a way that foregrounds the relationship between structure and social history. In his cinema, Pasolini, the art historian, most often contaminated his cinema with painting traditions that varied from the Renaissance to seventeenth century Rajput miniature illustrations.

The most striking visual citation in Il Vangelo is the clothing of the Jewish leaders, which is drawn from Piero della Francesca's Legend of the True Cross fresco cycle in the church of San Francesco in Arezzo, Italy. The spectator is immediately struck by the disorienting appearance of their wardrobe. In particular, their large and exotic headwear nearly exceeds all other elements of the mise-en-scène. The disproportionate size of the headwear abducts the spectator's vision, producing a signifier that elicits contemplation and conjecture about its form. In this manner, Pasolini, working within a durative medium, manages to create a sense, through the contemplation elicited by the appearance of the Jewish leaders, that time has stopped.

In the large headwear of the Jewish leaders, Pasolini cites the panel of Piero's cycle titled "Heraclius' Return of the Cross to Jerusalem." What is of particular interest in this visual citation is that the figures in this panel are not Jewish leaders, but Christians who process with the Emperor Heraclius as he returns the True Cross to Jerusalem. By means of this disparity, Pasolini positions stylistic contamination as an act of quotation that not only cites its source but also constitutes that source as a recycled object rather than as a source of influence. This opens Il Vangelo to meaning that not only includes the citations's original context but also to meaning that exceeds it. Patrick Rumble writes that this new recycled text forces us "to share our viewpoint with another consciousness."[17] This consciousness is the voice of the text calling forth its historical memory into a dialogue with our present.

In the specific quotation of "Heraclius' Return of the Cross to Jerusalem," the spectators encounter an embroiling of several traces of historical memory that come to them not only as the past, but also as a sedimentary present that reconstitutes the meaning of the Jewish leaders in Il Vangelo. Piero's fresco is a visual rendering of the Catholic Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. This last panel of the fresco is the capstone to a cycle designed to celebrate the triumph and spread of Christianity throughout the world, even back to the homeland of Jesus. In the prostrate position of the Jerusalemites who receive Heraclius with the cross, Piero renders Paul's exhortation in Phil 2:10-11, one of the readings of the feast, with renewed visual vigor for the spectator. However, as subjects called into dialogue with Il Vangelo, our current cultural position is contaminated by these Christian leaders of the past to resign the Jewish leaders of Il Vangelo as bearers of a cultural memory of otherness.

Subsumed, but not extirpated, by the memories of triumph that inform "Heraclius' Return of the Cross to Jerusalem" are the memories of those whose bent knees to Jesus were obtained by force-the Jews. Contaminated by the static figures of Piero's fresco, the Jewish leaders in Il Vangelo become a site where the audience is confronted by two thousand years of Christian readings of the Gospel of Matthew that have frozen one moment in the past (Matt. 27:25) as defining all Jews for all time. The phrase "his blood be upon us and our children" folds back upon Matthew's text as the repressed memory of the other, whose silenced voice condemns the adversus Judaeos theology that emboldened the Christian church until very recently.

While Gibson, like Pasolini, drew upon art traditions for the visual style of The Passion, he rarely provides explicit visual citations of his influences, as does Pasolini. As Diane Apostolos-Cappadona notes, "The movie does not attempt to re-present specific artistic images; rather Gibson and Deschanel have so fully assimilated the spiritual and aesthetic energies present in the works of their selected group of artists that they have made them their own."[18] The problem is that those spiritual and aesthetic energies are not entirely benign.

If there is any work that contaminates The Passion, it is Emmerich's Dolorous Passion, and it does so far more than by just adding story elements to Gibson's film. In addition to recording Emmerich's visions, the Dolorous Passion also crystallizes in narrative form spiritual and aesthetic energies that developed during the Middle Ages. In a forthcoming essay, James Marrow examines how both high and popular art during the Middle Ages adapted images from the Hebrew Bible, which were previously used in a figurative way to refer to Christ, in a more literal manner to embellish the Gospel accounts of the Passion with increasingly graphic displays of Christ's sufferings.[19] For example, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Ps 110:7 ("He will drink from the stream by the path") is used as the basis for an interpolation into Passion narratives that describes Christ as being cast into the Kidron brook by Roman soldiers.[20] Thus, in presenting the shackled Jesus being cast over a bridge while on his way to interrogation, The Passion gives visual expression to Emmerich's adaptation of the medieval reading of Ps 110:7.

Through its contamination of The Passion, Emmerich's vision introduces this literalizing tradition into the film. With reference to this tradition, Marrow asks an important question, "Do these visual images—with their excruciating details of mortal suffering and violence—control, alter, or even overwhelm the actual story?"[21] Furthermore, we might ask whether these images have the same effect when they are set to motion. That 76.5% of Christians viewing The Passion believed that it was biblically accurate suggests that the answer to both sets of questions is yes.[22]

What is troubling about this contaminating tradition is its relationship to medieval Christian anti-Semitism. Marrow notes that at every stage of this tradition's development, Jews were singled out for individual and collective responsibility for the death of Jesus, thus assigning to them a status of "otherness."[23] So, while persons may form redactional arguments for or against the presence of anti-Jewish stereotypes in The Passion at the level of its story, the film's discourse strongly suggests that it cannot escape the anti-Semitic history that is given voice through the contaminating influence of Emmerich and her vision.

The case of Il Vangelo suggests that employing stylistic contamination to evoke anti-Jewish discourses and the "otherness" that they impart need not be problematic. Yet, it is in the discursive differences between Il Vangelo and The Passion that a clearer distinction emerges. Pasolini's modernist impulses fashion a cinematic text where a multitude of discourses intersect with one another to actively engage the spectator and his or her relationship with these discourses. Pasolini's Jewish leaders, by way of Piero della Francesca, invoke the present as a cultural memory that reconstitutes the assumptions and intentions of the past. They operate as the site where the conflicting cultural memories of Matthew's pre-textual history, Matthew's text, and the traces of Jewish otherness invoked by Pasolini's Jewish leaders all converge in a dialogue of contesting claims.

The Passion operates at a different and more disquieting discursive level. Apostolos-Cappadona unintentionally identifies this cinematic plane by noting that Gibson's use of art evokes a feeling of authenticity, so that "when what we see on the screen looks so much like what we have been looking at in our illustrated Bibles . then we know it must be 'true.'"[24] Susan Thistlethwaite also argues that we should examine The Passion through the lens of the Hollywood war film.[25] This effect of authenticity and the use of generic cinematic patterns identify The Passion as a film that fits within the tradition of the classical Hollywood cinema. One of the hallmarks of this tradition is a style that emphasizes the absorption of the audience by the film through its camera work, editing, narrative structure, and the use of sound. Thus, the spectator who emerges from the The Passion is not one who must actively contest with overlapping discourses, but one who is passively captivated by the film's contaminating influence and the anti-Jewish heritage to which it gives expression.

Is The Passion itself anti-Semitic as some have suggested? To be honest, I am not sure. What is clear is that a redactional comparison of The Passion with The Dolorous Passion does not adequately account for the problem of anti-Jewish discourses and their presence in the film. While Il Vangelo clearly does not represent Judaism in the way that it must have been in the time of Jesus and it is apparent that it was not designed to do so, one cannot make the same argument for The Passion. Rather, through familiar Hollywood devices, it desires to hold the spectator within the thrall of historical authenticity. In so doing, it validates, intentionally or not, the disturbing anti-Semitic heritage that informs its primary non-biblical source.

Christopher C. Fuller, Ph.D., Carroll College

Endnotes
[1] Christopher C. Fuller, "'Udiste che fu detto..., ma io dico che...': Pasolini as Interpreter of the Gospel of Matthew," Ph. D. Diss. (Graduate Theological Union, 2004), 228.

[2] Lloyd Baugh also provides a brief survey of the similarities between the two films in "Palestinian Braveheart," America 190/6 (February 23, 2004), available at http://www.americamagazine.org accessed November 3, 2005.

[3] Lloyd Baugh, Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ-Firgures in Film (Kansas City: Sheed & Ward, 1997), 94-106.

[4] Quoted in Barth David Schwartz, Pasolini Requiem (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 457.

[5] Maryvonne Butcher, "Greatest Story Ever Told ... by a Communist," Film Comment 3/4 (1965) 23.

[6] Richard Schickel, "A Stark, Astonishing Life of Christ," Life (11 March 1966) 10.

[7] "Best of the New Films," Catholic Film Newsletter (26 February 1966) 1.

[8] Fuller, Pasolini as Interpreter, 30-58. See, also, Christopher C. Fuller, "Not to Abolish the Text, but Displace It: The Repositioning of the Authorial Audience in Pasolini's Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo," SBL 1997 Seminar Papers (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997), 1-19.

[9] An establishing shot, usually the first shot in a scene, uses a wide-angle lens to provide the spectator with a sense of the characters' position within space.

[10] This feeling of disorientation has been echoed by students in my classes, who express that they are not sure who the woman is in this sequence until the third or fourth shot.

[11] Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978), 19. The emphases are mine.

[12] Mark Goodacre, "The Power of The Passion: Reacting and Over-Reacting to Gibson's Artistic Vision," in Jesus and Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ": The Film, the Gospels, and the Claims of History (ed. Kathleen Corley and Robert L. Webb; New York: Continuum, 2004), 33.

[13] Richard C. Stern, Clayton N. Jefford, and Guerric Debona, Savior on the Silver Screen (New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1999), 105-8.

[14] W. Barnes Tatum, Jesus at the Movies (Santa Rosa: Polebridge, 1997), 111.

[15] For a representative criticism, see John Dominic Crossan, "Hymn to a Savage God," in Jesus and Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," 17.

[16] Goodacre, "The Power of The Passion," 36-41.

[17] Patrick Rumble, Allegories of Contamination: Pier Paolo Pasolini's Trilogy of Life (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), 17.

[18] Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, "On Seeing The Passion: Is There a Painting in This Film? Or Is This Film a Painting?" in Re-Viewing "The Passion": Mel Gibson's Film and Its Critics (ed. Brent S. Plate; New York: Palgrave, 2004), 101.

[19] James H. Marrow, "Inventing the Passion in the Late Middle Ages, " in The Passion Story: From Visual Representation to Social Drama (ed. Marcia Kupfer; Pennsylvania State Press, forthcoming).

[20] My thanks to Paula Fredriksen for directing me to Marrow's work.

[21] Marrow, "Inventing the Passion," 14.

[22] Robert L. Woods, Michael C. Jindra, and Jason D. Baker, "The Audience Responds to The Passion of the Christ," in Re-Viewing "The Passion," 176.

[23] Marrow, "Inventing the Passion," 15-16.

[24] Apostolos-Cappadona, "On Seeing The Passion," 100-101.

[25] Susan Thistlethwaite, "Mel Makes a War Movie," Perspectives on "The Passion of the Christ": Religious Thinkers and Writers Explore Issues Raised by the Controversial Movie (New York: Miramax Books, 2004), 127-45.

Comments on this article? email: forum@sbl-site.org

Citation: , " Gibson's "Passion" in the Light of Pasolini's "Gospel"," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited March 2006]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=508

 
JOIN SBL   |  DONATE TO SBL   |  CONTACT SBL   |  BIBLE ODYSSEY   |  REVIEW OF BIBLICAL LITERATURE   |  SBL TWITTER   |  BIBLE ODYSSEY TWITTER   |  PRIVACY POLICY

© 2019, Society of Biblical Literature. All Rights Reserved.