February 19, 2004
The Passion of Mel Gibson
After watching Mel Gibson's two-hour-and-six-minute "The Passion of the Christ" at the Fox Studio's 200-seat Zanuck Theater, with barely a dozen carefully invited others in the audience, I came away with great admiration for Gibson.
Not for the film, I can assure you.
For while it is superbly photographed by Caleb Deschanel ("The Patriot," "Being There" and "Black Stallion") you can't but sit in awe of Gibson's brilliant publicity juggernaut that could teach Barnum and Bailey a thing or two about the not-so-delicate art of movie promotion and marketing.
This has to be the most brilliant marketing campaign in the history of movies. First, the story goes out: This movie will be in Latin and Aramaic and there will be no subtitles. The media swallows that one whole. Inevitably by the time the film is finished there are subtitles galore. Gibson may be a gambler, but he's no fool, and there's upwards of $25 million of his own money riding on this one. Then, there is the masterstroke of inviting a few token Jews to screenings. The inevitable cries of anti-Semitism guarantee ink in major newspapers worldwide -- getting some Jews to cry anti-Semitism being only marginally more difficult than encouraging a yellow dog Democrat to attack Rush Limbaugh. Exhibit No. 1: When can you remember anyone securing a solid hour of "Primetime" puffery for an independent, unbelievably bloody (I defy anyone not to look away at certain points in this interminable torture) movie on a religious theme, in two dead languages yet?
So did we all fall into Gibson's trap? Don't bet the farm against it. This guy's been around Hollywood for a long time. He knows what works.
Which brings us to the movie and the central issue -- and no matter how much Gibson dodges the question that's what the film is all about: Did the Jews kill Jesus? (Promotional postcards distributed by mainstream churches in North America do indeed provoke: "Who killed Christ?") Gibson has removed from the subtitles the line in which the Jewish leaders, in encouraging Pilate to order the crucifixion, take the responsibility for the blood of Jesus into their hands and the hands of their children -- the justification for centuries of Jewish persecution. The line remains "in the background" in the Aramaic dialogue. But he leaves no doubt whatsoever that the Jewish high priests under the leadership of the "ugly monster" Caiaphas, who on this evidence could have used a good dentist and cosmetic surgery, were the real instigators of the crucifixion. And that that perfectly decent chap Pontius Pilate, and his even nicer wife, really tried everything they could to talk some humanity into the bloodthirsty Sanhedrin.
The central problem with the film is that it is not the story of Jesus' life. It is the story of his death: The slowest (all 12 hours of it), bloodiest, most painful death ever depicted on film. There are a very few fleeting flashbacks, all of which entirely, perhaps deliberately, miss any explanation of how we got to this point.
Why is this nice guy, who does nothing but preach sweetness and goodness and lovingkindness to everyone with whom he comes in contact, being treated like this? Why do the Jewish leaders want to get rid of him? One looks in vain for answers from the story "According to Gibson." (He said the background is too well-known to anyone familiar with the Gospels so there was really no need to go into any explanations.)
In fact, it's obvious from even a cursory viewing of the movie that he is not interested in historical niceties involving complex philosophical and cultural forces. His only answer -- and it's a lame one, even in a movie era obsessed with hobbits and goblins and child wizards -- comes in the shape of a strange hermaphrodite, hooded creature that lurks on the edge of the crowd scenes and apparently represents Satan. For Gibson, the death of Jesus is a simple tale of good and evil -- no further explanation required. His devotion to mediaeval nuns of 16th-century Spain and to his radical father for whom the current pope is a Polish heretic, gives him a simple, almost childlike black-and-white theology that is not too different from that preached by the Taliban.
Gibson, like most ludicrously powerful, rich, undereducated superstars, is immune to logic or history, and if he wants to propagate the "Gospel according to Mel" who can stop him? He's the director and therefore entitled to shade his story as he sees fit. His version of the story of the Scottish rebel William Wallace in "Braveheart" -- as any student of Scots history can attest -- was no more accurate than his version of the story of Jesus of Nazareth. But his romantic ignorance of the struggles of the Highlanders against the English has considerably less serious implications.
As Jewish leaders cry for footnotes to accompany the movie, let me put in my suggestions: It would be nice if everyone who sees the movie was encouraged to go out and buy the best-selling book "The Sword of Constantine," a scholarly and extremely readable account by James Carroll of the dealings of the Catholic Church with the Jews for the last 2,000 years. It would also be nice if just one Jewish leader had the guts to say we will hold Gibson personally responsible for any Jew who is injured as a result of this film, and that includes all the children who will run home from school having been accused -- yet again -- of "killing God."
Ivor Davis writes for The New York Times and Los Angeles Times syndicates.