September 2, 2004
Quiet Debut for ‘Passion’ DVD
When Rabbi Harold Shulweis learned that the DVD of "The Passion of the Christ," which debuted on Aug. 31, would be just a bare-bones, no-frills copy of Mel Gibson's controversial movie, the spiritual leader of Encino's Valley Beth Shalom said, "That's very good. I don't think the Jewish community has to repeat, regurgitate, all the anguish, all the anger."
The DVD and video release of "The Passion" by Fox Home Entertainment will arrive in stores quietly, a change from the loud, once seemingly never-ending ecumenical controversy that surrounded the film's Ash Wednesday theatrical release in late February. The film's midnight premiere at Hollywood's Arclight Cinemas found Christians leaving the theater in tears; at least one Christian viewer argued politely afterward with a Jewish patron, telling her, "I'm gonna pray for you right now."
None of that greets the film's DVD/video arrival. Gibson is not doing interviews. The $29.98 DVD has no director's commentary, behind-the-scenes feature or any other add-ons that usually accompany the DVD release of a film that enjoyed a $375 million U.S. box office.
What Jews may remember most is not a blockbuster film, but some insensitive -- to some anti-Semitic -- movie images of Jewish leaders living under Roman occupation. Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance, said he would not have changed anything about his response to the film.
"If you're asking me if we have changed our positions, absolutely not," said Hier, who said he still feels "The Passion" depicted those ancient Jews who did not become Christians in the first century C.E. "in a very negative manner."
The American Jewish Committee (AJC) considered "The Passion" an interfaith outreach tool rather than a continuing controversy, and in Houston the AJC worked with Gibson on a Jewish-Christian "Passion" preview screening. By contrast, Anti-Defamation League (ADL) National Director Abraham Foxman spoke out continually against the movie until its premiere, but the DVD release is not prompting new comment because, he said, "The issue plays once. DVD is not the event the film was."
The February opening prompted the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to issue a collection of Catholic documents about Jews and Jesus' death. While some bishops commented publicly on the film, the bishops collectively did not issue prominent statements or hold national press conferences to warn against possible anti-Semitism or tell millions of non-practicing Catholics that "The Passion" should not cause people to blame the Jews for the death of Christ.
After seeing the film in Rome, Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony wrote in the archdiocesan newspaper The Tidings last March 19, "Did hints of anti-Semitism creep in?" But the question was raised without being answered.
"Not every bishop felt it was necessary to issue a public statement," said Eugene J. Fisher, associate director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' secretariat for ecumenical and interreligious affairs.
"There are resources and materials aplenty," he said. "The system worked to deliver the teaching to the Catholic community."
But not seeing bishops on television expressing concern about Gibson, an ultraconservative traditionalist Catholic, disappointed Jewish leaders; Hier believes the bishops were getting mixed signals from the Vatican about whether or not the pope liked the movie.
"More could have been done. Absolutely more could have been done," Hier said. "When there were the confused signals of what the pope said, I think Catholic cardinals and bishops were confused as to what the pope did think."
Hier and Foxman both were accused of helping promote the film by talking about it repeatedly. Hier points to the best-seller status of Christian end-of-time/rapture books as proof that without Jewish criticism, Christians see movies and buy books that may not portray Jews positively.
"The 'rapture' books -- they're hardcover best-sellers," Hier said. "There were no protests, no controversy. There is a constituency to buy such books as there is a constituency to see such movies."
The DVD is expected to sell well; Wal-Mart will discount the R-rated movie similar to the Family Christian Stores' $19.95 DVD price. Aug. 31 also heralded some "Passion" bandwagoning as studios released fresh DVDs of "Jesus Christ Superstar," and "The Greatest Story Ever Told," plus ABC, NBC, BBC and PBS will release religion documentaries and a documentary on Ethiopia's Falasha Jews.
On the humorous side, this week, Paramount released a DVD of religion-mocking "South Park" episodes titled "The Passion of the Jew."
Looking back on what once was an exhaustive debate over Gibson's movie, Foxman said, "Would I do it again? The answer is yes. I don't think we had a choice not to react. None of us prophesized the burning of synagogues. If we hadn't been out in front, the Catholic bishops wouldn't have put out a compilation of essays. [Gibson] put it out there. He made the issue. We didn't have the luxury, based on history, to be silent. I don't think I took us anywhere that we shouldn't be."