I realize I’m far from the first to be writing on this topic, but on Easter Sunday I was watching The Passion of the Christ and started thinking about the significance of violence in art and storytelling. You see, the first time I ever saw that movie, I didn’t like it because I thought it focused too much on the utter brutality and the unimaginable suffering that Christ endured: I found the most poignant scene in the entire movie to be the one in which Jesus is building a table, and a sort of banter ensues between he and Mary over the table’s height and how people would one day sit at chairs in order to reach a table like the one he had just made. At one point, Jesus is looking underneath the table, apparently trying to judge the straightness of his lines, and it seems almost as if he winks and smiles at Mary (or us, the audience): I found this one scene, less than two minutes long, to be the most emotional and inspiring scene in the entire film. I remember thinking that the movie would have been much more resonant had it focused just on that more human aspect of Jesus’ life.
Then, this Sunday, after my wife and kids went to bed, I came across The Passion of the Christ on television and watched it again. There was a certain visceral feeling about it, especially in the opening scene where Christ is in the Garden of Gethsemane and is preparing himself for what he knows is to come: his suffering. He is tempted by Satan to turn his back on this, but Jesus knows he cannot. I felt a literal pain in my stomach trying to imagine the resolve one must have to willingly walk into this sort of fate. Later, when Jesus is questioned by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, he has another chance to escape his “conscription” to this fate, but he leaves it all in the hands of God, essentially forgiving the troubled governor for his role in this.
The subsequent half of the movie contains some of the most violent and troubling scenes I’ve ever encountered in film save for perhaps a Quentin Tarantino movie, but his sort of violence almost seems unrealistic in its extravagance. This violence, however, was real, extremely visceral. This is what a lot of people didn’t like about the movie, what I at first didn’t like about it.
Then I realized that the movie wasn’t focusing on the violence, per se, but that it was using it to sort of mirror, in the best way possible, the immense love that Christ had for mankind. If he didn’t, he would never have endured such a thing so willingly, going so far as to pray for his tormentors’ forgiveness. It occurred to me that sometimes it is through extreme violence that we see extreme love, extreme forgiveness. It is as if one extreme fosters another. This is the power of the human spirit, the power of Christ’s message.
Flannery O’Connor once said: “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock–to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures” (Mystery and Manners 34). I think this film, and all good art (without being too didactic) does just this. The violence in The Passion of the Christ is “large” and it is often “startling” but it is clear that by juxtaposing that violence with (or using the violence to show) Christ’s love for his friends and for fellow man alike (at the Last Supper scene in the film, he even says: “You are my friends, and the greatest love a person can have for his friends is to give his life for them”), one is able to see the importance of such violence in the film and in any serious art with a message of hope: that the violence is essential, not gratuitous or extraneous; and through it we can learn, become cleansed.
Post Script (04.07.13): In all three of my novels, there is what could arguably be called an excessive amount of violence. The characters hurt each other throughout the books, both physically and emotionally (yes, I believe in emotional/psychological violence); and in the vein of Shakespearean and Greek tragedies, the novels end with scenes of a sort of climactic violence: it is a tableau of pain, but much like the tragedies that inspire my work, there is a catharsis that follows this pain, both for the characters in the books and hopefully for the readers/audience as well.
I am reminded again of Quentin Tarantino’s best work: Django Unchained, Inglourious Basterds, Pulp Fiction, and Reservoir Dogs (True Romance is also a great film (directed by Tony Scott but written by Tarantino) that has a sort of Shakespearean “standoff” at the end). I love the blocking of these kinds of scenes, the build-up of tension, the mise en scene, and how this tension is mostly built on the violence, or the coming of violence, the threat of it. I’ve tried to set up similar scenes at the ends of my novels, and hopefully have done so successfully.
But to return to the main point of why I started this little article in the first place, I think that violence can sometimes shake us up to a place of purity: whether it’s the pain itself, the fear of pain, or just the simple fact of being utterly afraid and in the moment with no sense of past or future–only now–that we become primal and alive, stripped bare, closer to what’s real and true: which ultimately is God. And in the final judgment, that should be the purpose of all great art that stands to mean anything, that stands to last: that stands to be a permanent artifact against the neverending pulse of time and its subsequent decay.
For further reading:
King James Bible
Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men
Flannery O’Connor’s stories/essays/novels
Aaron Gwyn’s and Benjamin Percy’s essay: “Spilling Blood: The Art of Writing Violence”