A comparison of the imagery in Russell Holt’s Lamb of God (1993) and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004).
“I do not look forward to the feelings that will grip my heart when The Passion suspends me in time and space and brings me to the feet of the suffering Christ. But it is a feeling I want to experience. We speak and preach so casually about the sacrifice of Christ, the “price he paid for us,” the blood he shed and the agony he suffered. Such phrases have become so familiar to us it is more prosaic than real.”
So concluded LDS filmmaker Kieth Merrill in an article published in Meridian Magazine prior to the release of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, a controversial visual narrative of the final twelve hours of the life of Christ. That Merrill – the director of church-sponsored favorites such as Legacy and The Testaments: Of One Fold and One Shepherd – should anticipate the viewing of such a charged film is not so unusual when considered in a vacuum. However, when one considers that Latter-day Saints have their own film chronicling the Easter story, one begins to wonder what the “feeling” is to which Merrill is referring.
But the focus of this piece is not simply to point out that Mel Gibson’s film is a more graphic representation of the Easter story than Holt’s. Not only does that go without saying, but it would be equally foolish to stand these two films side by side in light of their vast differences on grounds ranging from production budgets to the purpose behind their production. Lamb of God is a church-sponsored film with a proselyting simplicity packed into its lean twenty-seven minute running time while Passion of the Christ is commercial entertainment designed for consumption by the paying masses. Certainly, Gibson’s staunch Catholicism indicates a goal that was loftier than mere dollars and cents, but it seems erroneous to assume that he was ignorant of the financial risk/reward scenarios presented by his film. Conversely, Lamb of God never had a commercial theatrical run and video and DVD sales are, like most church-produced media, zero sum at best.
Nevertheless, here are two films claiming to tell the same story but which do so in vastly different ways. Therefore, the cost summaries and intended audience aside, one must examine the visual text and question not only what the differences are, but what they mean and whether or not they are significant, both to the films themselves and to the audiences that watch them.
A casual observation may lead one to assume that the only significant difference between the two films is one of voyeurism. But even in that apparent separation, there is synthesis. Both filmmakers focus on the suffering of Christ during his final hours, Gibson by showing it, Holt by shielding it. And yet, the seeming artistic goal of both films is arguably the same: catharsis. An examination of the films shows some remarkable instances where the graphic differences produce startling similarities. But in that same vein, some of the films most obvious commonalities are, in fact, starkly different from one another. The following analysis, therefore, sifts through both the comparisons and the contrasts of the films in order to appreciate something of their individual – and potentially combined – meaningfulness.
The similarities within the film extend far beyond the adaptation of the same source material. Both films choose to use Latin and Hewbrew dialogue, Gibson to the exclusion of English. Both films are sympathetic to Pilate and milk the visual significance of him washing his hands of Christ’s innocent blood with slow motion and heightened sound cues. Both films flash back to significant scenes from Christ’s life. Both films are considerably minimalistic (visually speaking) in their approach to the resurrection (see note 1). For the purpose of this piece, we will only examine a few such scenes in detail.
One of the starkest differences between the two films visually is the portrayal of the scourging of Jesus. Under Holt’s direction, every crack of the scourge is rendered in dramatic slow-motion by a soldier whose appearance suggests that every blow is backed not only by cruelty, but utter muscularity. But Holt spares the rod in that not one blow to Christ’s (Mark Deakins) back is seen by the audience. Instead, the viewer is treated to the reaction of those present, a pair of flinching horses and two soldiers somewhere between disinterested and disgusted stoicism. As with the rest of the film, the singular insertion of specific sound cues is not to be ignored. First, the leather-on-leather sound of the scourge being readied, followed by the tearing of Christ’s robe from his back, followed by the rattle of the chains binding him, followed the the neighing of the horses, etc. All that is seen of Christ is his back as his robe is torn off of him and his hands as they grip his chains in agony. Holts’s intention, regardless of whoever influenced it (see note 2), is to use the environment to show Christ’s suffering; to see it through the eyes of the world around him.
In The Passion of the Christ, Jesus (James Caviezel) is first striped the requisite forty-stripes-minus-one with a cane, and then scourged the same when he perpetrates the seemingly too-defiant act of standing up. Gibson’s scourging is relentless, carried out by a pair of sadist soldiers in real time. The very first blow strikes Jesus in the back and blood issues forth. Christ goes quickly to the ground where he stays while he is flogged back and front. At one point, the scourge lodges in Christ’s side and the soldier is forced to yank out chunks of flesh in order to continue. In the end, when a merciful centurion reprimands the soldiers, the Christ is literally dragged away, unable to stand on his own power. There is no slow motion to intensify the experience – indeed, for Gibson, to do so would frustrate his goal of recreating reality – until the very end when Christ views Lucifer in the crowd, mocking him in essence with an aberration of the Madonna with Child (see note 3). It must be noted, however, that Gibson does heighten the macabre spectacle by doing exactly what Holt does. He leaves it. Only instead of seeing the reaction of horses and soldiers, Gibson goes to mother Mary (Maia Morgenstern), who, unable to bear the sight of her son’s suffering, turns away. “My son,” she weeps to herself, “when, where, how will you choose to be delivered of this?” In this choice, Gibson raises the stakes for the viewer. In watching Christ’s suffering, we sympathize. But in watching Mary’s suffering, we empathize. Both filmmakers step away from the violence to heighten the experience of the viewer.
At this point, however, comes the foray into the first significant difference between the films by comparing two very similar scenes that produce markedly different results. First of all, consider the emphasis both films place on the relationship between Christ and Pilate. In The Lamb of God, Christ towers over Pilate (Michael Flynn) when he states that his kingdom is not of this world. When Pilate asks him if he is therefore a king, Christ responds according to scripture: “To this end was I born. For this cause came I into the world.” Although Pilate is the secular authority figure in the scene, the framing makes Christ the true king. Further indication of his godliness comes in his very voice, which resonates with a post-production enhanced quality that exceeds the scope of mere mortality. Following his scourging, Christ is returned to the square where he is unceremoniously thrown to the ground. But in short order he rises to his feet under his own power, unbowed and unbroken, dignified in impending death. When Pilate relents to the will of the masses, he once again recalls Christ’s sonorous words as he is herded toward Golgotha under the weight of his cross beam: “To this end was I born. For this cause came I into the world.”
The Passion of the Christ, though relying on the NIV rendering of scripture in the subtitles, is not sensationally different from The Lamb of God in adapting the scriptural account. The language is essentially identical and both plot lines follow the account given in holy writ. But the subtle differences alter the outcome. Gibson’s Christ is brought before Pilate hobbled by his chains and a beating at the hands of his accusers. It is literally impossible for him to stand up straight. As the Sanhedrin plead the case for capital punishment to Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov), the battered Christ gazes heavenward and sees a dove, traditionally a symbol of the Holy Ghost. Unlike Holt’s Christ, who stands alone, this one needs strength, comfort, courage – whatever it is that this visitation by the Holy Ghost provides. Note that when Christ is questioned by Pilate, they are of equal height and equal voice. In fact, Christ concedes to Pilate by speaking in Latin, rather than his native Hebrew. And when Pilate hears Christ’s testimony in this scenario, he’s hearing it from a man who seems not only human, but decidedly mortal given his bruised appearance. However, the irony comes to bear after the scourging in which a flogged Christ is brought once again to the square. Pilate and his centurion are clearly shocked at the severity (and perhaps that Christ is still alive) and helps him stand before the crowd, whereupon even the crowd gasps in collective surprise at the sight. This Christ stands shakily, head bowed, gasping in unabated agony, bleeding from grotesque lacerations which cover him from head to foot. “Speak to me,” whispers Pilate to Jesus as the mob grows restless. “I have the power to crucify you or else to set you free.” Christ’s tremulous response – “You have no power over me except what is given you from above” – borders on the absurd as it comes from a man hovering at the gates of death. While both films take great care in presenting the relationship, justifying Pilate and exploring his dilemma, Holt’s Christ remains regal while Gibson’s does not. On the one hand, the depiction of Holt’s Christ claims, “I am the Christ because I am not broken.” Gibson’s Christ, on the other hand, contends, “I am the Christ because I am not dead.” Additionally, Pilate’s recollection of Christ’s testimony of his divine mission highlight one of the central themes of Holt’s film: This man is a God. Gibson’s film, with its depiction of Christ’s unimaginable suffering, seems rather to say: This God is a man.
The above assertion – that The Lamb of God focuses on Christ’s divinity while The Passion of the Christ focuses on his humanity – can be traced to each film’s respective treatment of Christ’s family. While The Lamb of God features a brief flashback which acknowledges the Nativity, earlier versions of the film contained the voice of God the Father rumbling across the cosmos as found in the book of Abraham. Christ’s voice answers “Here am I. Send me.” After Lucifer replies the same, Heavenly Father responds, “I will send the first.” This focus on Christ’s celestial family is contrasted with The Passion of the Christ’s emphasis on the Savior’s relationship with Mary. Two scenes within the film depart entirely from recorded scripture. In the first, Mary tells her carpenter son to wash his hands so he can come in and eat. In the second, a very small Christ child falls and mother Mary runs to pick him up and comfort him. “Even in the film when you see Jesus with the mother, it’s there to show the human side,” said the actor portraying Christ, Jim Caviezel. “This is a human Christ as well as God.” Again, the The Lamb of God and the Passion of the Christ underscore Jesus’ celestial and mortal parentage, respectively, in light of the themes of divinity and humanity.
On paper, the thematic differences between the two films seem simple enough. But the films aren’t viewed on paper, and while most people understand the intent, it is the method that has been brought into question, at least for Gibson’s film. “I want people to understand the reality of the story,” said Gibson. “I want them to be taken through an experience. I want them to feel. This is the ultimate love story for all mankind. He suffered. He died. And he still won.” Mark Royden Winchell, in his book God, Man, & Hollywood: Politically Incorrect Cinema from ‘The Birth of a Nation’ to ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ defended Gibon’s choice as “both aesthetically and theologically justified… he is shouting for the hard of hearing and drawing big pictures for the half-blind.” But many were appalled at the horrific violence in the film. The New Yorker’s David Denby called The Passion “a sickening death trip” while the New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier said of the film that it is “a repulsive masochistic fantasy, a sacred snuff film.” “Passion affords exactly the moviegoing experience Gibson intended,” argued the Orlando Weekly’s Steve Schneider, “an appreciation of Christ’s sacrifice via an explicit rendering of his suffering.” The New York Observer’s Andrew Sarris criticized the adaptation itself by concluding that “whereas the words say love, love, love, the sounds and images say hate, hate, hate.” Yet Tony Toscano of Talking Pictures backed those images by arguing “If Gibson’s use of blood and violence makes his audience squirm in their seats and allows the audience to question his film – then he’s done his job as a filmmaker.” “If I were a Christian,” said Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader, “I’d be appalled to have this primitive and pornographic bloodbath presume to speak for me.” The Anti-Defamation League went to so far as to accuse the film of engaging in and promoting Antisemitism before the film had even been previewed. Yet Conservative Jewish radio talk-show host Michael Medved helped Gibson cut the film specifically to avoid those types of claims. Danny Minton, a reviewer for NBC affiliate KBTV in Beaumont, Texas probably issued the most trustworthy review by concluding simply, “One cannot rely on any critic for this film because a biased opinion lies behind every review.”
But whether in spite of the controversy or because of it, The Passion became a box-office sensation. It almost recuperated its $30 million production cost in the first day of release (over $26 million). It’s opening weekend haul ($84 million) would have been impressive in July, but coming in the month of February (Hollywood’s typically slow season) made it incredible. Even then, it’s opening weekend barely represented twenty percent of its total box office (most pictures make well over half of their theatrical money in the first weekend). In only twenty-two weeks of exhibition, It collected over six hundred million dollars in combined domestic and international box office. It is the highest grossing independently released film of all time. It is the highest grossing Christian film of all-time. It is the highest grossing “controversial” film of all time. It is the highest grossing R-rated film of all-time.
This is why Minton’s sentiment is all-too accurate. In all of Western Civilization, no story is more provocative than that of Christ and the crucifixion, even to non-Christians. As a collective conscience, an audience will never see a more contextualized work. Regardless of whether one is shocked by the story or the method in telling it, the visual recreation of the Christ story has never courted ambivalence. One is not merely watching the life of an admired person, but a worshiped God (or, in the case of a non-believer, someone else’s worshiped God). For the atheist, one is watching one of history’s great frauds, perhaps the greatest. These sorts of realizations do not tend toward apathetic viewing.
Latter-day saints are not impervious to the dilemma. In a culture that eschews R-rated cinema, what do you do when the highest grossing R-rated film of all-time is about Christ? In such a movie-going experience, there is a price to be paid, and it’s not only Christ who pays it. Does the benefit outweigh the cost? Are the images of the tortured Christ beneficial to the testimony of the triumphant Christ? Or has Gibson merely bled the Savior dry of his victory.
But if The Passion of the Christ is to endure criticism for its depiction of violence, then perhaps The Lamb of God is due antithetical criticism of its lack thereof. If The Passion of the Christ is too realistic, what then is The Lamb of God? When one watches The Lamb of God, is one seeing what really happened (or at least a viable interpretation)? If The Lamb of God is not realistic, per se, then what is one watching? An interpretation of actual events artfully dramatized? Or is this a sanitized version of reality meant to remove the horror from the Lord’s sacrifice?
The deeper one probes the criticism, the more troubling it becomes. While the violence is not glorified, it is in essence beautified. Perhaps because the atonement itself is so conceptually beautiful, one fears sullying it with graphic representations of its climactic sacrifice.
Perhaps it is a work meant to celestially transcend the sum of its telestial parts. Again, it is to be noted that these two films were made for different reasons, but can one really argue that, children notwithstanding, they were made for different audiences? “I wanted to accentuate the reality and have it not be a fairy tale, but have it be real as I believe it is and was,” said Gibson. If Gibson’s film is “real,” then is Holt’s a fairy tale? Or is Holt presenting the reality while Gibson’s offering is mere pornography? Or can two interpretations of “reality” be so divergent from one another? (see note 4)
“The illusion of reality must be built up within the reader’s own mind. And those readers who lack the desire or the ability to join in the creative act cannot receive what the author is trying to give.” Orson Scott Card, The Problem of Evil in Fiction
Card’s words, spoken in 1980, would show up almost a quarter of a century later after a viewing of The Passion of the Christ. Following a special screening, Kieth Merrill offered the following, once again to Meridian Magazine:
“People experience films differently. Some are enveloped and engaged. Some are entertained. Some are objective observers. Some are consumed by the subjective power and vicariously experience feelings and emotions otherwise impossible. You must know thyself in facing the decision.”
A fascinating response from the director of a film in which the actor portraying Christ was chosen for the role, in part, because he had never seen an R-rated film. Thus it is that the advice to “know thyself” should probably apply to the viewing of either The Passion of the Christ or The Lamb of God.
1. This last is somewhat interesting in that Mormon audiences have been heard to complain about Gibson’s lack of emphasis on the resurrection when The Lamb of God doesn’t even show a resurrected Christ so much as an absent one, the idea being of course that, “he is not here, but is risen.” (Luke 24:6). Still, it can hardly be said that The Lamb of God focuses on the resurrection.
Additionally, to say that The Passion of the Christ doesn’t focus enough on the triumph of Christ over the grave is to misunderstand the project of the film. The final frame of the crucifixion restates the film’s thesis when the Christ’s lifeless body is finally taken down from the cross. Inspired by paintings of the Italian Renaissance (particularly Caravaggio), John the Beloved, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, and a Roman soldier gather around the body. in only one moment throughout the entirety of the film does Gibson break the fourth wall and this is it, as Mary the mother of Jesus looks up at the audience with the blood of her perfect son on her hands and face as if to say, “look what our sins have cost. This is the price.” Gibson’s film is about the power of the sacrifice, not the resurrection.
2. To some degree, one might argue that Holt’s artistic palette was limited by the fact that he was directing a film for the church and would never have been allowed the freedom Gibson’s own money allowed him. Yet, it must also be considered, that it’s because of Holt’s experience with such a palette that he was offered the job in the first place.
3. Another criticism sometimes heard among Mormon viewers concerns the inclusion of Catholic mythologies in the Gospel texts such as the one shown here. While it certainly has its moments (Christ carrying his whole cross while the thieves merely carry the cross beams is another example of satisfying the Catholic iconography), the film is far more universal in its portrayal of Christ and the crucifixion than many of the Hollywood incarnations from yesteryear such as The Greatest Story Ever Told (George Stevens, 1965), Jesus of Nazareth (Franco Zeffireli, 1977), and even The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988).
4. In all fairness, reaction to Gibson’s film are available at the click of a button whereas Holt’s film has never really been reviewed, at least not in a way that is readily accessible. Thus one asks this barrage of questions simply because one does not have access to the behind-the-scenes interviews and “making of” documentaries that would help clarify Holt’s intent without having to guess at it.