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Gibson’s Feminine Satan

by Kathleen McGrory, Chair of the Department of Rhetoric, Language and Culture at the University of Hartford where she also teaches writing.

Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ can be viewed as the macho director’s revenge on feminists who have criticized most of his films for their excessive violence, brutality and misogyny. What would a true misogynist’s ultimate payback be, if that misogynist happened to be a devout Catholic as well as a famed cinema star and director? Why, of course, cast a woman (Rosalinda Celentano) as Satan! Gibson’s epic treatment of the final twelve hours of the life of Jesus adds the figure of Satan, menacing and solitary in crowd scenes, in veil and robes the color of death. Her gaze menaces the captive Yeshua, the Christ (Jim Caviezel). Satan and her child, in the film, are the evil mirror-image of the Madonna and Child. Satan does not appear in any of the four Gospel accounts of the Passion. Gibson’s feminine Satan disrupts his otherwise faithful account of the New Testament story.

Demonizing women by feminizing Satan is an ancient indoor sport enjoyed by male creators of art since the game began with Eve in Genesis. Images in medieval manuscripts and monastic carvings in stone reveal that Eve and Satan (in the form of a snake) have the same human, female face. The female Satan reappeared briefly in 1950 when Carl Fisher’s song “Satan Wears a Satin Gown” (Frankie Laine) reached #28 on Billboard’s chart of Top 30 Hits. Mel Gibson’s film plays the game.

The central women in The Passion of the Christ, Mary the mother of Jesus (Maia Morgenstern) and Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci), are passive, one-dimensional figures, present at the Passion simply to act as witnesses to an inevitable cosmic tragedy. No real-life Jewish (or Irish or Eskimo) mother could watch without visible, gut-wrenching agony while her son is flayed alive before her eyes. Yet in countless close-ups, Yeshua’s on-screen mother withholds her tears until hours into the historical horror. Maia Morgenstern’s character shows almost no human response to the
savage beating that even real-time audiences are wracked by in the film. She betrays little or no emotion at the awful sight of her only son being brutalized, dehumanized, reduced to “a worm and no man” (in the words of the Messianic prophecy in Psalm 22) when he is stripped, mugged and hacked—for hours—by Roman warrior-brutes.
Gibson ignores recent research by biblical scholars. The historical Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute but a woman cured by Jesus of demonic possession, possibly a cultural misdiagnosis of mental illness. Even the Vatican has recognized Mary Magdalene as the “Apostle to the Apostles” because she was the first friend to whom Jesus appeared after the Resurrection, the first to bring news of the Resurrection to the men in hiding. Mary Magdalene, the strong co-leader of the early Church with Peter (Francesco De Vito in the film) now emerging from the Gnostic Gospels, is not recognized either by the Church or Gibson.

The Gospels give Mary, the mother, no dialogue at all during the Passion. But at one point in the film, Mary asks herself in Aramaic, “When will he put an end to this suffering?” The script by Benedict Fitzgerald and Mel Gibson recognizes a central theological truth of the Christian faith: that Jesus, fully God yet fully human, willed to die for all men. Mary’s question is rhetorical. The suffering must continue until the final moments on the cross, twelve long hours (two movie hours) after Jesus’ betrayal by his friend Judas (Luca Lionello).

The Passion of the Christ is a man’s film. It is an almost completely physical experience, not a spiritual one. It’s about endurance, not holiness. There is very little evidence of the love at the core of Jesus’ teaching, and almost no human feeling at all except pain. Only in one brief flashback does the film show a human mother running to protect her human boy when he falls. But The Passion of the Christ, a brilliant cinematic gem, does exactly what it set out to do. It forces an audience to watch, in vivid, brutal detail, the earth-bound human pain and sacrifice of the Passion, but not its transcendence. The transcendent love of the Christ is another story, better told by mother and child. (Originally published in The Hartford Courant. Reprinted with permission).

Winter 2004



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