A martyr to his art

Cinema - Sebastian Horsley brings painful personal experience to Mel Gibson's <em>The Passion</em>

Generally, movies are better than real life because they are shorter. No other activity or art form provides so reliable an antidote to life, just so long as we can bring to it the necessary surrender. However, there are exceptions to this rule and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ is one of them.

This is a horrible, nasty, sanctimonious piece of propaganda from the salvation salesman turned director. The only way to be redeemed is to commit sin first - and the bigger the sin, the bigger the redemption that comes after. It follows that Mel Gibson should be guaranteed his front-row seat in heaven. His sin is worse than murder; he has made bad art. The problem is that he is such a devout Catholic that he won't be happy until he is crucified.

His film should have been called "You can't fall off the floor", as it consists of two hours of a man being beaten, scourged, cut, nailed and whipped. As soon as he stands up, he gets knocked over again, and so it goes on. And on. Don't get me wrong - a movie is only good for me if someone dies within the first 15 minutes, and the bloodier the death the better. Part of the appeal of the Crucifixion is the same as that which drew our ancestors to public executions and freak shows. Film-makers know that if you wish to attract an audience's attention, you must be violent; if you wish to hold it, be violent again. By the end, I realised that if Christ was the guy with the longest hard-luck story of them all, then he has found a true friend in Gibson.

The violence is not only heavy-handed, it is unrealistic. I know this because I have been crucified myself. An enactment ritual has existed in the Philippines since 1961, and in August 2000 I was the first westerner to take part.

When I got back from The Passion of the Christ, I decided to watch the 15-minute film of my crucifixion, shot by Sarah Lucas, for the first time in more than a year. I saw myself lying down on my cross, holding out my hands, first one, then the other, to a Filipino I had never met, who bathed them in alcohol before pressing his thumb down in the centre of the palm, feeling again for the right point of entry. My arms were strapped to the bars with two ribbons of cloth on each side - presumably to prevent me from jerking them away, from tearing the nails loose. My feet were supported on a small platform of wood.

The Filipino carefully positioned the point of a nail and then he tapped it with a hammer, surprisingly gently, six or seven times. You can see that the pain of each hammer-fall drove all thoughts from my head, yet blood does not squirt out like a fountain as it does in Gibson's portrayal. There is very little blood in the hand to squirt out. In comparison to Gibson's film, mine is gentle, poetic and understated - and the impact greater as a result. The whisper is always louder than the shout.

Obviously, I didn't die on the cross, which was disappointing. Under certain conditions, a great work of art is a kind of suicide, which is what I wanted mine to be. I have always wanted to have a significant death. I yearn to go out in a blaze of glory. But I can't. I'd even settle for a blaze of ignominy. Yet it seems even a cheap death is hard to come by.

Jesus beat me hands down. His life was an awesome study in self-destruction. It has been valuable for us to deceive ourselves about the depth of his destructiveness. Clearly, as a great religious stylist, he knew that, without his cru-cifixion, he would be no one. In Dick Turpin's day, the crowning moment of a criminal's life was his public execution. Modern-day felony has lost its style with the abolition of capital punishment. Where would Christianity be if Jesus had got eight to 15 years with time off for good behaviour?

There's nothing wrong with using the life of Christ to further your career. But you shouldn't exploit his mythology as Gibson does. There is something feeble and a little contemptible about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths. You see, for me, Christ was only the son of man. He was an anarchist - above all. I was crucified to save my career, while Jesus did it to save humanity. In my opinion, neither of us had that much success.

The Passion of the Christ (18) is on general release

Sebastian Horsley is an artist, writer and failed suicide