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The Politics of the Ratings Game: Shame and The Passion of the Christ

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Ostensibly, Shame is a film about a sex-addict; underneath, it’s a film that examines self-imposed isolation from a prudish society that taboos prurience. As Brandon, a thirty-something, successful New Yorker, Michael Fassbender gives a characteristically solid performance; at times, he is dislikable in reactions toward his wayward, vulnerable sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), but his existence is also simultaneously heart-rending and pitiful when his anger transitions to a longing for human connection, something that he craves but refuses to indulge in.

The downside to this performance is that it will be talked about more for its presence in a film stigmatized by an NC-17 rating – typically a death blow to award chances and public success. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which claims to be the “voice and advocate of the American motion picture,” asserts that “NC-17 does not mean ‘obscene’ or ‘pornographic’ … and should not be construed as a negative judgment in any sense.” Furthermore, “An NC-17 rating can be based on violence, sex, aberrational behavior, drug abuse or any other element that most parents would consider too strong and therefore off-limits for viewing by their children.” Theoretically, the MPAA has undertaken a noble endeavor to do their part to prevent the mangling of the minds of the youth.

At the same time, the NC-17 rating is often seen as akin to a rating of “X,” a signifier of sexually pornographic films like Deep Throat or Behind the Green Door. While the rating has been euphemized in an attempt to soften the stigma, the most recent NC-17 films have received such a rating based on sexual content as opposed to graphic violence or drug behavior; therefore, despite the MPAA’s definition, this more euphonic rating is still a way to mask the existence of sexual puerilities, actions that are rather commonplace and might not necessarily be “aberrational behavior.” How else can one explain the billion-dollar pornography industry or the various “hook-up sites” that offer one-night stands or flings from stagnant relationships?

According to Boxofficemojo, each of the ten top grossing NC-17 films has been given such a rating based on sexual content, from Showgirls at number 1, ($20.3 million) to Shame (number 10, having grossed $1.7 million). The exception to this categorization might be Bad Education, which sits at number 4 and has grossed $5.2 million. It certainly has a wealth of sex, but the content is more taboo in that it tackles molestation and pederasty by the church, something that could be considered more “aberrational” than the various sexual encounters that Brandon indulges in to the tune of Bach crescendos in Shame.

And here, I begin to wonder how a film like American Psycho, which blends lurid sex, the music of Genesis, and graphic violence, could achieve an R rating. Does decapitation, disemboweling, and storing heads in a fridge – all amidst snorting lines of cocaine and lascivious behavior – constitute “aberrational behavior”? Or, does American Psycho avoid the NC-17 because the violence outweighs the sex, in terms of actual screen time?

Truthfully, I have no issue with American Psycho and believe it mordantly satirizes consumerism, greed, and corporate indifference; however, the subjective gaze of the MPAA seems to solely fixate on sexual content rather than physical violence. Another example of this phenomenon is The Passion of the Christ, the top-grossing R-rated movie of all time, earning about $371 million domestically.

That film recalls the last hours and the life of Jesus of Nazareth (Jim Caviezel) up through his crucifixion, and for the better part of 127 minutes, Jesus is beaten, whipped, flogged, and stabbed. The scenes are anti-Hitchcockian in their depiction of brutality and more akin to the early films of John Carpenter. The body is covered with blood for nearly the entire film, but the audience is well-versed on how it got there: a cat o’ nine tails is often shown imbedded in and tearing away at Jesus’ flesh, leaving very little to the imagination. The crown of thorns placed on Jesus’ head is struck with a stick and the thorns are shown graphically penetrating the scalp; during the crucifixion, each nail is shown hammered into his palms and feet; and, at Jesus’ death, a soldier plunges a spear into his side, causing a river of blood to flow forth.

Scenes of graphic violence comprise this film, yet it garners an R, thus avoiding the stigma of NC-17, and perhaps this happens because the film purports to be rooted in the historical life of Jesus. Another theory might be that the graphic violence is ripe with purpose and is illustrated to show the abject dedication and faith with which Christianity is fortified.

However, both of these rationales are fallacious for the very same reason: there is no depiction of such “Passion” in the Bible. In all four New Testament Gospels, the last supper and crucifixion are relayed, but the only consistent allusion to violence is when “they smote him on the head” with a reed (Matthew 27:30, Mark 15:19). Therefore, the notion that this film is based on accurate historical events (with the exception of crucifixion because various methods have been historically documented) is flawed given that the majority of the movie is based on conjecture.

Furthermore, depicting this sequence of execution on film to fortify faith and Christ’s dedication is irresponsible inasmuch as the interpretation of the prelude to the execution is left to the whimsy of a passionate director, which makes the content of The Passion of the Christ nearly as subjective a story about a sex-addicted man.

This is not to say that Jesus didn’t exist or anything that could be misconstrued as blasphemous; however, the MPAA’s condoning of a graphically violent film rooted in religious ideology – and justifying and “R” rating because of this – reaffirms the notion that they are mostly opposed to acknowledging the existence of lasciviousness and prurience, which, in itself, is a rather prudish and puritanical motive.

In the end, Shame’s NC-17 is a rather ironic statement unto itself, and one that fits perfectly with the subtext of the film: Brandon is not shamed by his actions; rather, he feels shamed and isolated because society has rigged it as such.

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About Dustin Freeley