By Marcus Nicholls
Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ is a strange cinematic chimera. Greeted in turn by derision, reverence and disgust, it is not a film of subtleties and hammers home its points with all the mercy of the Roman executioners. It is most certainly and unapologetically born from the iron faith of the proselyte, first and foremost, with directorial ambition much lower on the list of contributing factors. The man behind the celluloid myth is an even trickier subject to tackle than his magnum opus, and would require a far more psychologically adept reviewer than I to unravel. The reason I have decided to return to this film lies not in the man behind the holy gore, but in the chiming of an interesting intertextual tessellation.
Joris-Karl Huysmans, French author of A rebours, La Bas and many other works, trod the fascinating arc from atheist aesthete to monastic convert in both his fiction and his life. Once his Catholicism had flowered again in middle-age, after lying dormant since childhood, Huysmans became a vocal standard bearer (or perhaps pall-bearer) for the concept of expiatory suffering. This ‘mystical substitution’ is a cornerstone of the Catholic faith and provided Huysmans with a key to the riddle of suffering which had possessed him for his whole life. It can be seen as the very structure and meaning for Gibson’s Passion, evoked at the film’s genesis in the quote from Isaiah: “By his wounds are we healed”.
The idea begins with the sacrifice of Christ, who suffered tortures and death to expiate the sins or others; a cleansing martyrdom, paying the ransom for the world’s sins. Huysmans held that this concept stretched beyond the godhead, and that all were to an extent responsible for the sins of others. That to suffer was to expiate both your own sin, and that of others who had no knowledge of your mystical substitution. In this sense he saw all as martyred sinners, and through this explains the sufferings undergone by the religious orders; the ascetics and self-scourgers, the stigmatics and saints. Jesus gave the example of suffering so that his virtue may be substituted into the sinners, and that their sins be expiated by Him in the fire of suffering. Huysmans posits that from this example stem the saints and the orders such as the Trappists, who continue as His mystical body the substitution and expiation that cleanses humanity.
From these lofty but necessary ideas, Huysmans wished to create a writing style that would express holiness of suffering; a style he never fully realized, but which we may perhaps see as being embodied in the torn body of Gibson’s Christ. The French writer wished to depict St. Lydwine in the ultimate hagiography, where through his inimitable manipulation of image and syntax (see Leon Bloy’s description), he might write a realism of the soul. He called this ‘spiritual naturalism’, aiming to access the ethereal sanctity of expiation through “blood and pus” depictions of earthly suffering. He perhaps did not quite succeed in his ambition, but I feel that over a hundred years later, we can see his conception realized in the unlikely hands of Mel Gibson.
When watching The Passion, I always begin in the same state of removed amusement, a wry smile at the theatricality of the opening and its almost desperate grasping for profundity. It can feel grandiloquent in its dialogue and belaboured in its symbolism. There is far too much slow-motion, it loses all effect in the profligacy of its use and stylistically, all seems overwrought at this juncture. Only through the medium of physical suffering does the film rouse itself from the mire of its stagey preaching: as soon as the pain begins, the film becomes impossible to view with the same arrogant irreverence I feel at its opening. In the realism of its depiction, it imbues its matter with the spiritual significance intended for the whole; in this way, I believe it stands as a seeping, bleeding modern example of Huysmans’ ‘spiritual naturalism’.
The wheels are set in motion by Judas’ suicide, the most striking composition of the film thus far. The focus of the sequence is the rotting corpse of a donkey, as much as the fate of the man. Its flesh is rhythmic with maggots; it lies with its teeth bared, carrion in closeup paving the way for the infinite distress of matter that is to follow. Now in bright sunlight, the tortures begin. These are not the ridiculous gore of a horror film; they feel real, the god in the details connecting us to the pain. Colours are muted, earthy, not heightened but close to faithful, and Caviezel’s performance is majestically restrained, communicating so much in a sharp exhalation and the uncontrollable twitching of the gnarled hands. Closeups drag us into the abattoir of the scourging. Even in the most cynical of viewers, this sequence must engender a feeling of the sacredness of that individual, the sublimation through suffering that Huysmans obsessed over. The silence during much of the tortures adds to the naturalism, where the only sounds are the incessant ripping of flesh.
Even when aware of the manipulation of the filmmakers, the latticed scarlet of the human body against the dusty palette remains infinitely shocking no matter how many Saw films have been endured. The depth and colouring of the prosthetics feels accurate, never exaggerated. The suffering is made sacred through the unflinching depiction, elevated above the feral crowds; the majestic acceptance of this archetype of pain immediately evokes the ideas of expiation. He is suffering in some of these images, transcending one body to become all, so visceral is the portrayal, where humanity is glimpsed between thick crusts of blood, knotted muscles and strings of saliva. From the first scourging until the final moments upon Calvary, Caviezel is incredible, reminding us that the walking carrion is human; the moments where he opens his mouth or bares his teeth are horrifying, seeing the white enamel amidst all the scarlet draws us back to reality, recalling the donkey at Judas’ death.
This film then, is a depiction of the suffering of matter, and the elevation of this suffering to something important and sacred. After its shaky beginnings and minimal directorial flair, it is the mere witnessing of slow martyrdom, making us martyrs (witnesses) in the small suffering that watching this pain engenders, that is the achievement of this film. In its depiction of the glistening putrescence of Christ’s pale, lacerated flesh in the sunlight, I feel that Gibson’s film, against expectations, provides the perfect illustration of Huysmans’ concept of spiritual naturalism.
Short but not so sweet: Huysmans’ description of Grunewald’s Crucifixion was the genesis of his ‘spiritual naturalism’, and can be read as an almost perfect summation of The Passion of the Christ. It can be found in Chapter 1 of La Bas.
Film Critic Marcus Nicholls is a member of The Missing Slate’s Film Team.