Dave Quinn on The Passion of St Mel
“Jesus Christ.” That’s what I found myself murmuring as I emerged, violated, from a screening of The Passion of the Christ when it began its run in Liverpool last month.
The movie, also known as The Gospel According to St Mel, is Mel Gibson’s interpretation of the Son of God’s final earthly hours and steals the record for largest volume of fake blood used in a movie, hitherto held by Reservoir Dogs.
Unsurprisingly, given St Mel’s penchant for base and abject violence in movies such as Braveheart, it contains a large dollop of bone-crunching, skin-stripping savagery. It’s a battering ram of bad taste that has created more high-level debate than it justifiably deserves.
But were movies about Christianity always like this? Well, yes and no. Certainly, the scenes of violence in The Passionare an unusual feature. But the controversy the film has generated is nothing new. It seems most attempts to bring the Messiah to the multiplex generate a unique kind of hysteria.
Take The Life of Brian. The Monty Python team’s take on religion is a national institution and one of the funniest films ever made. But back in 1979, when it was released, that seemed impossible to imagine.
When the film opened in the US, it was met with a barrage of complaint. Rabbi Abraham Hecht, president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America, said The Life of Brian was “a foul, disgusting, blasphemous film,” claiming it was “produced in hell”. Catholic authorities also condemned it, while, flying the flag for Protestantism, Robert EA Lea of the Lutherian Council said the movie was a “profane parody” and a “disgraceful assault on religious sensitivity”.
When Brian eventually opened in Britain, just one London cinema agreed to screen it. It was banned across much of the country and, in Swansea, until 1997. All this, and the film isn’t even about Christ, but some random fool called Brian Cohen.
Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) is another religious flick that had the church and other peaceable groupings baying for blood. Based on the 1955 novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, the main criticism levelled at it from the likes of the American Family Association (AFA) and the Campus Crusade for Christ (CCCI) is the supposedly blasphemous depiction of Christ (Willem Defoe) as a mortal human being. They were particularly disgusted by the closing scene in which Mary Magdelane appears to tempt the Son of God into a spot of hide the sausage.
Universal, the studio behind the movie, didn’t exactly help matters. It allowed the AFA and others advance screenings the film, giving them the perfect opportunity to promote boycotts before the film even went on release. Bill Bright, founder ofthe CCCI offered to reimburse Universal the entire cost of the movie in exchange for all existing prints, which he promised to destroy. The studio didn’t acquiesce.
But it wasn’t just a bunch of crackpot Yanks who were annoyed about Scorsese’s film. When the movie was televised on Channel Four in the UK in 1995, it attracted 1,554 complaints – most of which were received before the film was screened. The film still holds the record for the most complained about British television broadcast of all time.
Although controversy is commonplace when Jesus hits the big screen, there are some religious epics that inspire much less mud-slinging.
One is the immodestly-titled The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), George Stevens’ stab at the God genre, starring Max von Sydow as the Messiah and a veritable who’s who of Hollywood superstars in sometimes ridiculously minor supporting roles. At 260 minutes the film is over-long, but that’s nothing compared with Franco Zeffirelli’s six-hour TV special Jesus of Nazareth (1977).
Robert Powell (best known as Jasper Carrot’s bumbling mate in 1990s sitcom The Detectives) is miscast as the adult Jesus in Zeffirelli’s opus. You can’t get over the fact that this bloke is a posh Englishman wearing late 1970s fake tan. You half expect to see him sporting a gold medallion under his robes. It’s silly.
And so, back to The Passion of the Christ. As I’ve said, too much has already been written about this film, but I want to add a little bit more.
It’s bollocks. Why does Satan resemble Richard O’Brien? And in which Gospel does (s)he appear brandishing an Austin Powers-style Mini Me? Furthermore, the scene in which Jesus 'invents' the dining room table is one of the most cack-handed slices of balderdash ever committed to celluloid.
Gibson himself is clearly bonkers (this is a man who believes his Protestant wife is going to hell because she’s not a Catholic), which explains the weirdness of his movie.
I ask you: do we really need St Mel’s fifth Gospel? The answer is surely no. Give me Robert Powell in a medallion any day.