I’m given to understand that Mel Gibson is a rather devout Roman Catholic, and, if I were to judge that before this month from the only movie he has directed that I’d seen, I’d quite believe it. Besides anything else a viewer may say about it – and millions of viewers have had their say and much more – The Passion of the Christ looks to me like a sincere article of the ardent faith of a genuine believer. The finer details of that doctrine can’t really be discerned from the film, and probably shouldn’t be surmised from Gibson’s regrettable personal statements and actions, but there is one thing we were all made absolutely sure of by The Passion of the Christ, in ways that would never let us forget it: In Gibson’s worldview, human faith (of the kind he practices) and brutal violence are indissolubly linked in the immense suffering that each causes mankind. For Gibson, as necessary and rewarding as it is, faith brings tribulation and its force is met with a proportional ferocity in the violence (physical or psychological) one inevitably encounters.
As repellently violent as The Passion of the Christ is, Gibson managed to illustrate quite effectively the broader points of that worldview. His narrative, rather than demonstrating anti-Semitic biases, paints all humans (except his main character, of course) as inherently sinful, guilty, unworthy of God’s favour, and deserving of harsh punishment for their sins, which brings about a blazing contrast with the grace and mercy of Jesus, who undergoes just the kind of horrific scenes of torment and agony that grip Gibson’s imagination – and reinforce his ideas of man’s sinful nature – to deliver a remorseless human race from an even more remorseless judgement. With this kind of narrative underpinning the central doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, it isn’t surprising that such tight bonds are drawn by so many Catholic artists between the notions of faith, guilt, and suffering, nor that the personal expression of Gibson’s religious convictions turned out as so off-putting to such large numbers of viewers. His obvious sincerity, allegiance to doctrine, and determination to cinematically represent those ideas explain its enormous success among equally large numbers of viewers.
However, that source of personal religious conviction would be far less obvious to any watching Gibson’s new film, Hacksaw Ridge (now Oscar nominated in six categories, including Best Picture and Best Director). Its hero is an American Seventh-day Adventist pacifist combat medic, sent to the Pacific theatre during World War II to take part in the Battle of Okinawa. Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) was a real-life hero, and his story as depicted here is more or less true and historically accurate, but his ardent faith seems only an incidental feature to Gibson. It’s given in the script (written by Robert Schenkkan, Randall Wallace, and Andrew Knight) as part of the reason for his uncompromising pacifism; the rest of it is made up of particular incidents in Desmond’s childhood and adolescent memories, revealed in flashback at various moments. But the particulars of Desmond’s faith – the doctrinal details, the place it takes in his life in a secular world, the relation between it and his eagerness to go to war, specific scriptures he holds on to, cultural and personal expressions of his faith, the sense of community it imparts and the nature of that community – are seemingly of no interest to Gibson. He doesn’t call for them in the script, and he doesn’t bring any part of it onto the screen; the only depictions of a personal Christian set of beliefs is again in obvious imagery and the link between it and spectacular violence.
Gibson seems to be aware of the dissonant cognition that sparked filming; he exults in the moral greatness of the pacifist hero Desmond, who, though he supports his comrades who kill enemy soldiers, has renounced all practice of violence himself, while taking evident delight in the filming of inexorable, barbarous violence. Hacksaw Ridge is as gory and blood-spattered as The Passion of the Christ, strewing the intestines and brain matter of American as well as Japanese soldiers across the battlefield and painting them in a viscous scarlet. Gibson is clearly influenced (as were most contemporary film-makers with war on their minds) by Spielberg’s eminent Normandy-landing scenes in Saving Private Ryan, and it’s also clear that he wishes to outstrip that influence. The uniformed bodies of American soldiers are filmed tumbling over and crawling across mud towards hidden enemies, and the camera tumbles with them, conveying the frighteningly disorienting chaos of the experience. But when the battle turns bloody and those same bodies are being torn and shattered, the violence is less realistic, and shot with less of a documentary-like coarseness than Spielberg’s. Gibson embraces Hollywood artifice and technical prowess in depicting violence more stunning and more dramatic than the humanist Spielberg did, and in sending across a more dogmatic and iron-fisted message than Spielberg had had in mind. Gibson heightens the spectacle to deepen the spiritual implications of his vision, and reinforces imperishably the religious resonances of bloodshed. The spiritual realm of his ideas is filled in when the body is broken and emptied.
It is, of course, an irony that Gibson’s film centres on a pacifist, and lauds the courage and virtue of that pacifism, while obviously taking great pleasure in depicting horrible violence, and, of course, Gibson has grasped that irony. But either he is not an agile enough or not a bold enough director to fully map out the roots and the implications of that irony on the screen. But he makes clear the distinction between his own worldly obsessions and the uprightness and strength of his hero. The shot, brightly sunlit and glowing with reverence, of Desmond washing himself after he’s returned to camp from the titular ridge is bluntly obvious as a reference to and a claiming of the biblical baptism. Desmond cleanses himself of the blood spilled by all the other soldiers, and, rising from his shower, cleaned and refreshed, inspires awe among the entire division in his state of spiritual transcendence. Despite never even touching a rifle since his first day in training, when confronted by the horrors of actual warfare, Desmond has rescued the lives of over 75 soldiers, virtually single-handedly, most of it done while alone and close to or behind enemy lines. The heroism of Desmond Doss is already vast and undeniable to nearly any viewer; Gibson renders it as a sanctification as well, and beatifies (or canonises, if you prefer) Doss through both religious imagery and the secular sacraments of the cinema. He seems to be saying, perhaps unapologetically, perhaps in humility, that he recognises the horror of his film’s violence as well as the incongruity between it and the moral purpose of his story, but the outcome of it – that very contrast – serves to exalt his hero into a less visited realm of goodness. Most heroes in the movies are immortalised in memories and images of their heroism; Gibson immortalises his hero in the more arcane ideals of eternal life.
For all the surreal intensity of Gibson’s Hell on Earth vision, the sincere piety and sensitive sentimentality of his storytelling purpose, his explicit abhorrence of the losses war causes, his sense of the devastation war wreaks on the psyche of a society at large, and his message of redemption from that devastation through faith, the final effect it left with me is one of an empty sanctimoniousness, in which a preacher of devotion and sanctity fails to practice the deep and challenging tenets of his message. Rather than offering any apology or explanation, he bends the focus of the inquiry and offers a self-satisfied vision instead of a heroic icon and exhorts us to take up that example instead. Whatever Gibson may enact and practice in his private life is his own affair, and is ultimately what the value and virtue of his endeavours will be measured by, but his art is not a cinema that redeems and edifies; viewers in search of the images of God’s grace and the vision of following God’s path are to move on, and keep searching.