February 26, 2004
Gibson Film Doesn’t Star Anti-Semitism
Before saying what is wrong and what is right with Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," let's get out of the way the question that is on everyone's mind. Now that the film has opened, it will become clear to regular moviegoers who have heard of the controversy -- furiously fanned by those enterprising fundraisers at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) -- that no, the film is not anti-Semitic.
It does not show Jews per se in a uniquely nasty light. Depicting the final 12 hours of Jesus' life, it portrays all humanity, except for the few earnest followers of Jesus, in an exceptionally ugly fashion.
The Roman soldiers who mercilessly, endlessly scourge Jesus with clawed whips, laughing and wiping drool from their mouths the whole time, are no less disgustingly portrayed than the proud, callous, foolish Jewish priests who demand that the Roman governor take the torture to the next level: crucifixion.
When Gibson has the crucified Jesus cast an eye up to heaven, the director orients the camera so that the big, round chocolate-brown eye is looking straight at us all in the audience, accusing humanity. Moments later, when Jesus is taken down from the cross, his mother cradles him in her arms, and she looks directly at us in the audience, again casting the accusing eye.
But the fact that "The Passion" isn't anti-Semitic doesn't make it an effective piece of filmmaking. The bad news is that Gibson's motion picture manages to be sadistically violent and somewhat boring at the same time.
It would be hard to know, just from the portrayal in this film, what it was that made Jesus a personality so special as to inspire one of the world's great religions. The fact that he died in agony? That's it?
In a quick flashback to the Sermon on the Mount, he is shown endorsing love of one's enemy, and in a flashback to the Last Supper, he commands his followers to love each other. That exhausts Gibson's depiction of Jesus as teacher of timeless spiritual truths.
The whole rest of the movie is taken up with depicting Jesus' grotesque and minutely shown final agonies. When in the course of the very long scourging scene, a claw on one of whips wielded by his Roman tormentors gets stuck in his bloodied flesh and has to pulled out, I thought: OK, enough. But that was only about halfway through the movie.
It is very hard to see how anyone is going to be uplifted by this. Frankly, I'm a little worried about a non-anti-Semitic lunatic getting it into his head to bludgeon some innocent person of any or no religion like Gibson's Romans do to Jesus.
This alone isn't a reason not to have made his movie. Who could have predicted that "Taxi Driver" would inspire John Hinckley to try to assassinate Ronald Reagan?
But Gibson ought to have known that there's a good reason why sensitive people avoid violent films: Watching this stuff, however noble or spiritual or religious the filmmaker's intentions, coarsens the soul.
Specifically, contrary to Gibson's intent, "The Passion" seems unlikely to inspire personal repentance. For all the realism of the violence, the rest of the film is highly unrealistic, in such a way that no one who sees it -- unless he's a psycho killer -- is going to recognize himself in Gibson's narrative and feel moved to control himself and stop hurting other people.
The cruelties in our lives, the hurts we inflict, the acts of unfaithfulness to others and to God are many, but they are simply of a different character than nailing a man's hands to a cross.
As for the part the Jewish priestly establishment plays, arresting Jesus and turning him over to the Romans, their villainy is unrecognizable, because it makes no sense. We're supposed to believe the Temple priests are after Jesus because he's got some big, dangerous following that's going to crown him Messiah, but nowhere do these massively numbered followers ever make an appearance.
From all the evidence of "The Passion," Jesus had about 10 disciples, 20 max. So why were certain Jews in the New Testament's telling so intent on seeing him dead? Gibson has no idea.
I mentioned that there is something right about "The Passion." In at least trying to make a film that depicts his own faith not as a golden dream fantasy but as a reality -- an event that actually happened in history, complete with dialogue in the ancient language Jesus really spoke (Aramaic) -- Gibson has done something daring, even heroic. The juxtaposition of the Aramaic dialogue in particular, beautifully achieved, with the Caravaggio-esque spooky atmosphere of certain scenes is genuinely thrilling. There is art here, and that fact will move other artists. The importance of his movie lies in the new wave of religiously and even biblically inspired films it will help launch.
He has shown other filmmakers it can be done, and not even the ADL can stop you. This is going to be interesting.
David Klinghoffer is a columnist for The Jewish Journal and The Forward and author of the forthcoming "Why the Jews Rejected Christ: In Search of the Turning Point in Western History" (Doubleday).