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Jewish Journal

The Goriest Story Ever Told

by David Finnigan

February 26, 2004 | 7:00 pm

USC film student Jennifer Tufaro left Wednesday's midnight screening of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" emotionally drained, her eyes red from tears. She stood in the lobby along with hundreds of the estimated 1,200 people who had just watched the movie on three screens at Hollywood's Cinerama Dome and adjacent Arclight Cinema.

"The whole movie I was, like, shaking," said Tufaro, 20. "I'm still disturbed by it. I'm not very religious right now, but as a child growing up I was, so I learned all the stories. And seeing it was a whole different experience."

Tufaro's response was typical of many people catching the pre-dawn "Passion" debut. Asked if she felt that the massively hyped film engaged in anti-Semitic portrayals, as some Jewish leaders have charged, the lapsed Catholic said, "I have a lot of Jewish friends that didn't want to come see it tonight for that reason. When I was watching it, I didn't think of it that way."

It was a somber crowd of seemingly stunned "Passion" patrons that left the huge Cinerama Dome, with many -- in typical Los Angeles theater protocol -- staying until the last credit rolled. The movie's end was greeted with applause, this after the film's two hours of continual, violent images centered on the crucifixion of Jesus. The Cinerama audience sat in silence as blood, whips and torn human flesh filled the massive screen. Ushers standing beside the curtained doors were as transfixed as the patrons.

"The most violent film I've ever seen," said Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, western regional director of the American Jewish Committee, who joined priests and rabbis at a special Monday night "Passion" screening at the UA Cinemas in Marina del rey.

Greenebaum said the Jewish leaders depicted in the "Passion" were wrongly depicted as, "overdressed, overfed and overly cruel. And there really is no context in the film for Jesus being such a threat to the status quo."

But, Greenebaum also said, "I didn't feel that it was strongly anti-Semitic. Mr. Gibson could have made choices that would have made it appear as less anti-Jewish or choices that could have made it much worse. I think Gibson's goal was to depict a physical suffering which Christians understand as the necessary 'passion' that leads to resurrection and potential salvation for humanity."

As for the months of debate over the anti-Semitic issue, Greenebaum said after viewing the movie that the filmmaker and his detractors unintentionally created a strange, almost mutually beneficial alliance by constantly talking about the film.

"I think that the controversy has, in part, been manufactured by an odd sort of complicity on the part of certain Jewish organizational leaders and Mr. Gibson himself," he said.

Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, said he found "The Passion" to be, "a shockingly violent movie. I was kind of numbed by the violence. Overall, I didn't see overt anti-Semitism, but I certainly saw instances that troubled me that, in the wrong hands, in the wrong spin, could be troublesome. I came out of the movie more determined than ever to spend more time and energy on Christian-Jewish relations.

"The first part of the movie with the high priests and the Jewish mob was most troubling," Diamond said. "Jews and Christians are not going to see this movie in the same light; I don't expect them to."

The weekend before "Passion's" opening, more than 30,000 Catholic priests, nuns, bishops, teenagers, schoolteachers and lay people gathered for the Religious Education Congress, the Los Angeles archdiocese's annual three-day gathering at the Anaheim Convention Center. Talk of "The Passion" and anti-Semitism did not dominate the event; however, there were two related seminars on Sunday afternoon, in the eighth and final of the convention's seminar blocks.

Several Hispanic Catholic women from Stockton expressed views on Jesus' death common among "Passion" fans. As for who's to blame for his death, one woman said, "It was done by the Jews," and then added, "It's not like we have hatred toward Jewish people. To walk away [from seeing 'The Passion'] with hate for somebody, that's not Jesus."

The Rev. Michael Crosby, a Milwaukee-based author and congress speaker, said Roman Catholic Church leaders have not leveraged "Passion" back-and-forth to make Christians better understand the Bible.

"In the obsession of the institutional Catholic church not to be considered anti-Semitic, it is bending over backward not to use it as a teachable moment," Crosby told The Journal. "The Scriptures aren't anti-Semitic. The early Christians, when they had written those Scriptures, had just separated from [Jews] and as a result there were hard feelings and there were hurt feelings. And those get exhibited in the Scriptures, and nobody is showing how we really got to interpret the Scriptures today; they're taking it as a literal thing, rather the understanding the historical division between communities, between 'thems' and 'uses.' Nobody's showing how those Scriptures came out of a community at odds with another group."

Rabbis involved with interfaith issues praised L.A. Cardinal Roger Mahony for his statement on Christian-Jewish relations in the Feb. 20 edition of the archdiocese's newspaper, The Tidings, discussing next year's 40th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council's 1965 document, "Nostra Aetate" (Latin for "In Our Time"), on Catholic relations with non-Christians.

"These guidelines provide an excellent means of educating all of us as we once again anticipate the season of Christ's passion and death. They denounce an accusation that has provoked contempt for Judaism and persecutions of the Jewish people for centuries," Mahony wrote in the article, which did not comment specifically on "The Passion" but is viewed by some rabbis as the archdiocese's indirect way of addressing the film's issues.

The archdiocese, as of Feb. 25, had made no official "Passion" comment. A Catholic church official said that as of Feb. 22, Mahony had not seen "The Passion," and thus made no reference to it, or even to movies or anti-Semitism, during his sermon to more than 7,000 Catholics at the Anaheim convention's closing Sunday Mass.

Bishop Malcolm McMahon, leader of Catholics in England's Nottingham diocese, said that Christians need to use "Passion" chatter to move beyond history. "We can't change what's what," McMahon said.

"Other people were also complicit in Jesus' death. So it's a wider circle than just anti-Semitism. We wouldn't be Christians if it weren't for Judaism. We share some of the same scriptures and we share quite a lot of the same background. And that is always a good basis to start -- what we have in common."

Wednesday's Cinerama Dome screening of the film saw no protesters outside the Hollywood theater. Inside, it unfolded on-screen after trailers for Paramount Pictures' upcoming, sunny girls-meets-prince movie, "The Prince & Me," and Universal Pictures' family movie, "Two Brothers," about two lost baby tigers. Food and beverage sales were brisk as midnight patrons went into the relentlessly violent, gory film. The sound of popcorn being chewed contrasted with the blaring screen sounds of chains and whips pummeling Jesus' body.

When the post-"Passion" crowd thinned out, a Reform Jewish woman and an evangelical Christian actress found themselves politely, but firmly, arguing the movie's merits.

Daryl Pine, a 50ish accountant, worships at the Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village, while actress Laura Pinner, 34, came to the "Passion," with three other women from the Christian nondenominational In His Presence church in Woodland Hills. Both San Fernando Valley women were raised as Methodists. Pine converted to Judaism, and Pinner was drawn deeper into her Christian faith.

Their conversation was a microcosm of debate between Jews concerned about anti-Semitic images and evangelical Christians profoundly moved by "Passion." Their talk started on the defensive, as Pine said of Pontius Pilate, "He had total control over the Jews."

"Oh, he did?" Pinner said, flashing a skeptical frown. "Where did you go to seminary?"

"I've heard it said over and over by rabbis," Pine said.

"Jesus," Pine said to Pinner, "lived a Jew. He died a Jew."

"Exactly," Pinner said. "My favorite people in the whole wide world are Jews."

"And [the apostle] Paul created a religion," Pine said in reply.

As their debate ensued, Pinner said to Pine, "We just love you so much. I'm gonna pray for you right now."

"I would appreciate that," Pine said.

"That you receive that love that he [Jesus] has for you," Pinner said.

"OK, all right," Pine said.

"That's all it is," Pinner said. "It's a story about love."

"Did you notice how yellow the Jews' teeth were?" Pine said. "They all had yellow craggy teeth. It was very creepy. Jesus didn't have yellow, craggy teeth."

"It's probably because they didn't have dentists," Pinner said. "The bottom line, it's just about love; it's not about blame."

"It's about torture," Pine said.

"If that's all you see, just see with your natural eyes," Pinner said. "We see with our spiritual eyes. It's so hard to comprehend it."

"There were many messiahs," Pine said. "We've had about 50."

The film is in theaters now.

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