(Far Away)
by J. R. Stokes

In the cinema’s half light, about 15 minutes before the film was due to start, I began to take an interest in the audience who would be sharing the evening’s entertainment with me. It was the Wednesday after Easter Monday and the film we were all about to see, ‘The Passion of the Christ’, had been released in the UK a couple of weeks before in order to coincide with this apparently important festival in the Church calendar: the festival of Easter – a time for, in the Stokes household if nowhere else: chocolate eggs, garden centres, some very important football fixtures and, quite honestly, not much else.

I was quite aware that ‘The Passion of the Christ’ was a block buster, a record breaker in the States where it had grossed over 3 million dollars and had thus made its creator and Director, Mel Gibson, rich beyond his wildest dreams. The same thing was due to happen in the UK and it was expected that sooner or later ‘The Passion’ was about to overtake ‘Titanic’ as the highest grossing film of all time. The fact that the film was about to make cinematic history was probably the main reason why I had ventured mid-week to my local multi-screen complex: I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. But who would be joining me in the darkness? In view of the nature and content of the film would I be surrounded by a flock of vicars or a flurry of nuns or a herd of bishops or a gaggle of priests? And would I, in such company, feel ever so holy? Would I become born again? Would we all have to stand up and say Grace before the film started? Or, at the least, shout ‘Alleluia’!

Actually, as it turned out, there wasn’t a dog collar or a cassock in sight. Indeed I remember thinking that this audience had a similar make up to the audience that you often get at Dylan concerts: a considerable range of ages, from teenagers (although of course you had to be 18 to get past security) to 60 year olds who really do look their age. Perhaps slightly more male than female but really no obvious gender split. I did become a little concerned when the entire row a few steps down was taken up with a group of 20 something lads of the jeering kind but Warners don’t allow alcohol in these places so a fracas wasn’t going to happen. Presumably the lads had come for the well publicized blood and guts that would be splattered before our very eyes. Others had no doubt come because of the story being told; others perhaps, like me, out of intrigue, and others just to be entertained. A night out at the pictures. Mid-week and nothing else to do. Simple as that. Whatever the reason for all of us being present before the big screen on a night like this, there was nothing in the faces or the dress of the audience which gave any indication as to why this particular film was such a record breaking block buster. It remains a mystery to me.

So, on to the film, and first of all to the part that has created the most controversy and indeed the very reason why my dear wife would not join me at the cinema to see this particular film and, further, the very reason why the dear wife of the person who accompanied me fled the cinema in tears when they both went to see the film the week before. I am talking here about the scenes depicting extreme hard core violence and bloodshed. Clearly these scenes are not for the faint hearted but it is because of these scenes that I consider the film to be fundamentally flawed.

Now I may have the whole thing wrong but as I understand it, Christ, who is probably the second most important person in the film, is thought to be God incarnate and by that I mean that, although He was born of woman just like you and me, He is the spiritual entity known as God in human form; the idea is that He was conceived through a union of God and woman and thus He is thought of as the Son of God. Despite his exalted spiritual state I don’t think that it has ever been suggested that Christ was super human and so He was flesh and bone again just like you and me. If He was in fact super human then we would probably enter the realms of science fiction where, for instance, creatures lose their limbs and immediately grow new ones to replace those lost. All very Doctor Who!

The importance of my point about Christ being of human form is that no human being could ever have withstood the degree of violence perpetrated upon them as demonstrated in the film. An example of this extreme violence comes in an early scene of the film when Christ is arrested by a squadron of heavyweight Roman soldiers who proceed to whack Him about the head and the legs with a hefty metal chain. In reality, the force of the whack would have rendered any poor victim unconscious and would have also broken both his legs. Not so for this poor victim who struggles along with a limp and just one eye closed. Thereafter, in a long 20 minute ‘scourging’ scene, which brought gasps from some members of the cinema audience, Christ is subjected to a sustained violent assault by half a dozen of the said Roman heavyweights who start out with rods and move on to various other instruments of torture that tear into the victim’s flesh causing massive blood loss. Yet the victim again comes through this overwhelming onslaught of physical force to stand on the steps of a holy temple and to subsequently drag a giant cross down Jerusalem’s high street. In my view, it is just not possible for any human being to survive such an attack as depicted in the film: he would have died of shock and blood loss about 10 minutes into the ‘scourging’ scene.

Now if it is suggested that Christ was indeed super human and consequently He was able to withstand the ferocious violent attacks upon him as shown in the film then we are back to the scenario of science fiction where bones do not break, pain is not felt and massive blood loss is irrelevant. In that event Christ would not have suffered like you and me would have suffered under the weight of such an attack and He wouldn’t have felt the pain like you and me would. And if He didn’t feel the pain then why does He cry out so loud in obvious pain when there is no pain to feel? On this fundamental point alone the film is entirely unrealistic and is a sham.

There are however some redeeming features, one being that the use of subtitles to interpret the Arabic and Latin language of the film is very clever because it stops you from taking your eyes off the screen. There are also some interesting moments of movie influences that are introduced into the film like the appearance of the black cloaked figure who has a conversation with Christ at the start of the film and who turns up again when Judas hangs himself and when Christ is ultimately crucified. It has been suggested that this figure is the Devil but I rather think it is the figure of Death who appears in a like manner in Bergman’s ‘The Seventh Seal’. In that film Death has a conversation with the main character at the start of the film and they play a game of chess. In ‘The Passion’ the conversation is between Death and Christ when a snake appears and the game is thus snakes and ladders! There is another cinema technique used throughout the film by the constant focus on ‘the eye’; whether it is Christ’s one eye (because the other one was closed after a clout) or the close ups on the eyes of others throughout the film. Once I had spotted this focus though, I found that it became overused and far too obvious to be clever.

Although the movie is supposedly mainly about Christ, as the film’s title suggests, I found that the shocking violence directed towards Him actually masked what the film may have really been about and that is the story of Christ’s mother, Mary. There were flashbacks to when Christ was a carpenter in Nazareth to display the close bond, and indeed the superiority of the mother in a mother and son relationship, and, for me, the most poignant scene in the film showed Christ as a small child falling over in the road whereupon his mother, like any mother would, rushed to pick him up and cuddle him just to make things better. Mary was a constant throughout the film, and when there was pain to be felt, she was there to take it away. But then, of course Mel Gibson is a staunch Catholic and thus may be a little confused about the grading of importance of characters in this particular passion play.

Another redeeming factor is the scenery in film, which is quite is stunning, although Calvary wasn’t a green hill far away, but rather a mountain of rocks with the city in the background. But who wants to admire the scenery when you can witness the hardcore violence of someone being nailed, with bone crushing and blood squirting (is there any blood left in this individual you may ask?) effects, to a wooden cross?

One of the main criticisms that I have read about this film is that is that it does not reflect the true biblical story of these events which has more to do with what happens next: the importance is the matter of rebirth rather than the death. It is true that the film contains no future promise and it thus remains on one singular level of suffering without the hope of any kind of happiness, but then, as a vehicle for a display of hardcore violence, the film doesn’t have to offer anything else. But is it just that hardcore violence that has caused the film to break all box office records? I am really not sure.

Dylan has of course at least one connection to the film in that his song ‘Not Dark Yet’ is included in the soundtrack. When I think however about the story that gave rise to ‘The Passion of The Christ’ it is another Dylan song that haunts me. A song that illustrates that, in art, you can show both the agony and the ecstasy of human suffering. A song that depicts violence, bloodshed and death but also offers the promise of rebirth. A song that is also part of a film’s soundtrack and that is the tricky part because this particular song will always be tied to the particular film for which it is believed to have been written. But does it really have to be manacled in such a way? Do we always think about the human contest between Pat Garret and Billy the Kid when we hear ‘Knockin’ On Heavens Door’. Of course we don’t, that would be far too narrow minded.

The song I am referring to here is ‘Cross The Green Mountain’ from the soundtrack of the film ‘Gods and Generals’. If you divorce this song from the confines of the film to which it is attached then this could represent a more accurate picture of what has been told about the last days of Christ and also concerning his message of better times to come. But Gibson and Dylan look at the story in vastly different ways: for a start Gibson closes his film with a cross on what is meant to be a green hill whereas Dylan opens his song with one:

‘I cross the green mountain’

Obviously a different use of the word ‘cross’ you say but if, just if, you were given three words and asked to say what event in history they represent; and if the three words were… ‘green’ …. ‘hill’ …. ‘cross’, what would you say? The Crucifixion or the American Civil War? But that is a word game rather than a war game and has no place here does it?

I can’t help sometimes thinking pictorially about certain lines in Dylan’s songs and it is that opening of the second line that has some wonderful blues and reds:

‘Heaven blazing in my head’

They are almost opposites aren’t they: ‘heaven’ and ‘blazing’ ? You would normally associate ‘blazing’ with the fires of hell rather than with the peace and tranquility of ‘heaven’ but here they are together in the narrators head, thus enjoining the suffering of hell with the prospect of an afterlife – in heaven.

But enough of this word play, let me cut to the chase. I was talking about the last days of Christ as depicted by Mel Gibson’s film and I was saying that there was no promise of any kind redemption following the violence of the cross. Compare this to what Dylan looks forward to after the last days:

‘It’s the last day’s last hour, of the last happy year
I feel that the unknown world is so near.
Pride will vanish and glory will rot
But virtue lives and cannot be forgot.
The bells of leavening have rung
There’s blasphemy on every tongue
Let ‘em say that I walked in fair nature’s light
And that I was loyal to truth and to right
Serve God and be cheerful, look upward, beyond
Beyond the darkness of masks, the surprises of dawn,’

Before I go any further, let me mention that line:

‘the bells of leavening have wrung’

which has a direct connection to Christ’s last days in that the biblical ritual of the Passover is a feast of eating bread that was ‘unleavened’ i.e. before any yeast had been added to it to make it rise. It will be remembered, by all those who know the story, that Christ’s last meal, commonly known as the Last Supper (a scene played out in Gibson’s film) is where unleavened bread was eaten before the bells were rung to signify the end of the Passover: those same bells signifying the start of Christ’s last hours. By this line being included in the song, Dylan creates a biblical scenario rather that a battlefield one.

The use of the word ‘blasphemy’ clearly introduces a religious connotation but it is the subsequent cluster of lines that could have been lifted from the Bible. Lines that were reported as being spoken by Christ just before he was arrested. Dylan has:

‘Let ‘em say that I walked in fair nature’s light
And that I was loyal to truth and to right
Serve God and be cheerful, look upward, beyond
Beyond the darkness of masks, the surprises of dawn,’

Compare this walking ‘in fair natures light’, ‘beyond the darkness of masks’ to this passage from John 8:12

‘I am the light of the world; he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness , but shall have the light of life’.

There is also, in true biblical fashion, the suggestion of the state of ascension, to survive death and be carried away to a far better land somewhere over the rainbow where blue birds fly:

‘I’m ten miles outside the city, and I’m lifted away
In an ancient light, that is not of day
The world is old, the world is gray
Lessons of life, can’t be learned in a day
I watch and I wait, and I listen while I stand
To the music that comes from a far-better land’

So, unlike the empty bleakness at the end of Gibson’s film, Dylan sticks somewhat closer to the script by suggesting that something good arises from the suffering. On the other hand, the song could just be about the American Civil war and nothing else.

This isn’t an after thought but it relates to a verse in ‘Cross the Green Mountain’ that bothered me from the first time I heard the song. The verse seems somehow out of place, clunky and unnecessary. It goes as follows:

‘A letter to mother came today
Gunshot wound to the breast is what it did say
But he’ll be better soon, he’s in a hospital bed
But he’ll never be better - he’s already dead’.

Discounting the view that this verse concerns the delay of the American postal service – that the letter took so long to arrive the person who had been shot in the breast had died before the letter was delivered – the sentiment reminded me of the letter sent by another soldier to his mother, that soldier being John Brown who went off to fight in another ‘good old fashioned war’. In a previous Dylan song there was of course the lone soldier on the cross, who, in the final end won the war after losing every battle and who had an idiot wind blowing through the letters that he wrote. But if you read that last line again:

But he’ll never be better - he’s already dead’

the image of ascension, of hearing music from a better land, smacks home. Dylan is not saying that the soldier will never get better (i.e. his condition will not improve) but that he will never be better (i.e. his condition will not be improved upon). He has a condition after death and in that condition he has never had it so good – he will never be better off. Sounds like a land of permanent bliss to me!

‘The Passion of The Christ’ certainly could have been a lot better. It could have been closer to the truth, if indeed there is any truth in the story being told. But was it just a question of Mad Max rides again – give ‘em blood and gore and they will come? Or is there something more to this film. God knows.