The Passion of the Christ

1095 words about

…a woman on my block…

by Patrick J. Webster

The Passion of The Christ


I have always been intrigued by the song ‘License to Kill’; on the one hand I regard it as one of Dylan's least well performed songs, the vocal performance here being almost risible; whilst on the other hand the handling of the female presence in the song must remain one of the most subtle in Dylan’s entire canon. 

Mel Gibson’s recent film The Passion of the Christ, has some similarities. It was a film that possessed shrewd and adroit tactics in terms of its publicity campaign. One cannot fault it here. In addition it was skillfully photographed, the production values were of sufficiently high standards to provide an almost faultless mise-en-scene. It was innovative in its use of language, Aramaic and Latin are used throughout, providing an added sense of verisimilitude. 

However, it seems to me the film was superficial in its understanding of cinematic narrative. We all know the story, but it is told with such a lack of dramatic pacing or tension, that it scarcely seems to engage at all. There is little sense of character motive, for example, why does Caiaphas despise Christ to such an extent? We have no sense of the back-story here, without recourse to the gospel narratives. 

The film has been accused of being anti-semitic, and it undoubtedly is, but probably unknowingly so on Gibson’s part. The portrayal of the Jews is facile and stereotyped, and, being generous, one would speculate that Gibson was probably unaware of how potentially dangerous such a manipulative and clichéd portrayal might prove to be in the current climate. 

In the same facile way much of the film is grossly overplayed, again it is clichéd and stereotyped. No stone is left unturned (to use a facile cliché) in Gibson’s search for the visual icon. For example, Mary holding the dead Christ at the base of the cross - we are obviously made to envisage this as a Pieta - but the image is offered to us in such an overplayed way as to preclude any subtlety or dramatic tension. 

Another criticism, a surprising one for Mel Gibson, who would claim to be such a fundamentalist Catholic, is that it is ignorant of scripture. For example, we know Jesus’s legs were not broken to fulfill the prophecy, not a bone shall be broken.1 However, in the film one of the Roman soldiers assisting at the crucifixion breaks Christ’s shoulder to stretch his arm out on the cross. 

And finally, the film has a violent content, and the violence is displayed in a questionably sadistic fashion. The film has been accused of pandering to repressed sado-masochistic and homoerotic desires - I wouldn’t like to comment too much on this - but it would certainly answer some of the questions raised by such an exaggerated depiction of seeing a young, bronzed, muscled body being tortured to death for almost the entire length of a feature film. 

However, the film is interesting in its depiction of women. To begin with the devil is portrayed as having a feminine form, which offers a disconcerting and dramatic manoeuvre in a film notably lacking in disconcerting and dramatic manoeuvres. The scene in which we see the devil suckling a deformed child whilst Christ is dying on the cross and His mother is mourning his death, is genuinely disturbing. 

In addition, the way the film depicts the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalen is of interest, and here the film intertwines with Dylan’s great song, ‘License to Kill’. The film offers us the two Mary’s - one his mother, one his quasi-lover-passively observing Christ’s passion. They follow Jesus, from his arrest, through his trial before Pontius Pilate, his scourging, his carrying of the cross to Calvary, his crucifixion and then the deposition. Throughout they are passive and silent, they merely witness the violence and pain they observe. 

‘License to Kill’ offers a similar discourse. It is a trenchant critique of masculine violence and female pacifism. Man (and here the word is not used in a generic sense - it is gender specific toward the masculine) thinks he rules the earth and can do with it what he pleases. This is contradicted by the song’s view of woman:

Now, there’s a woman on my block
She just sit there as the night grows still.
She says who gonna take away his license to kill.

This is similar to the way The Passion positions the nature of its female characters; and the comparison is still more pertinent in the way the above chorus changes after the second verse:

Now, there’s a woman on my block
She just sit there facing the hill.
She says who gonna take away his license to kill.

I don’t think it is too speculative an interpretative reading to see the phrase: ‘She just sit there facing the hill’ as acting as a symbol for Calvary.2 Thus the song achieves its power insomuch as the women are not only depicted as passively watching man despoil the planet - but as the women watching Christ’s death. In each case the women have no power to alter what they are witnessing, they must merely observe and deal with the consequences. 

Unfortunately, Mel Gibson’s film does not possess such a subtle and complex discourse. I see it as a simplistic film, a morally suspect film, a sexually repressed and ambivalent film, and finally, an unknowingly dangerous film. I would not go as far as Christopher Kitchens - who famously regretted being an atheist - insomuch as there would then not be a hell for Gibson to burn in - but nonetheless I think it is important to perceive of the slick commercialism in operation. This was not an attempt to elevate the Roman Catholic faith, it was an attempt to elevate Gibson’s power base in Hollywood - and in that sense it has succeeded.

1 John 19.36: ‘For these things were done, that the scripture should be fulfilled. A bone of him shall not be broken.’ 

2 Note how ‘hill can be seen as fulfilling a similar symbolic role in such songs as: ‘It Takes a Lot to Laugh ...’ (Well, if I die on top of the hill), ‘Idiot Wind’ (There’s a lone soldier on the cross - changed from an earlier version There’s a lone soldier on the hill), ‘Shelter from the Storm’ (In a little hilltop village they gambled for my clothes), ‘Foot of Pride’ (I can see him in my mind, crawling up that hill) and so on.