November 13, 2003
Over the next several months, it is going to be increasingly difficult to be dispassionate about "The Passion."
Actor-director Mel Gibson's movie about the final 12 hours in the life of Jesus -- recently renamed "The Passion of Christ" -- will open nationwide on Feb. 25, Ash Wednesday. Last Thursday, the Anti-Defamation League's (ADL) Abe Foxman tossed more kindling on the prerelease flames by declaring, at an ADL panel discussion in New York City, that Gibson was "seriously infected" with anti-Semitic views.
I think Foxman needs to take a deep breath. Actually, we all do.
The "Passion" War has been building fast, and now is the time, before the battle is fully joined, for the warriors to sheath their swords and consider the alternatives.
The ADL and more liberal Christian groups and scholars laid down the gauntlet over "The Passion" several months ago. After reviewing an early draft of the script, a panel of Catholic and Jewish scholars issued an 18-page report on the film saying that, in the words of Amy-Jill Levine, a professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University, the film lacked "fidelity, accuracy and sensitivity."
Icon, Gibson's production company, claimed the panel read a stolen copy of the script, which the panel denied.
Soon, the Internet filled so full of attacks and counterattacks over "The Passion" that there is was hardly any byte space left for Spam.
The mounting attacks are said to have hit Gibson like a thunderclap. On June 13, he published a statement in Variety saying, "'The Passion' is a movie meant to inspire, not offend. My intention in bringing it to the screen is to create a lasting work of art and engender serious thought among audiences of diverse faith backgrounds."
On Aug. 14, Icon officials sought to diffuse charges of secrecy and nonresponsiveness by saying they would screen the movie for "eight to 10 significant Jewish leaders over the next 30 days." That never happened, unless Icon managed to find Jewish leaders so significant that even other Jews hadn't heard of them, or so compliant that they are keeping mum on what Foxman seems to think is one of the Four Horsemen.
One of the Jews who has seen the movie is Michael Medved, an observant Jewish talk radio host for Salem Broadcasting, the leading provider of Christian-oriented radio programming. Jews need to know two things about "The Passion," Medved told an audience during another panel discussion this last weekend at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute (BBI) in Simi Valley. The first is that the movie is far and away the finest on-screen representation of the Bible ever made. In addition, he said, it will be an enormous financial success, and probably a critical one as well.
The audience at the BBI retreat wanted to know the extent to which Gibson's interpretation of the Gospels and other Christian sources foisted blame for the death of the Christian savior on the Jews of the time and on their descendents. Medved said that in his opinion the movie did not attach eternal blame to the Jews for the crucifixion, a canard that has buttressed, if not created, generations of anti-Semites.
I don't know if Medved is right about the movie's quality or content. I don't know if Foxman is. I want to see "The Passion" and judge for myself.
But Gibson and Icon have done a brilliant job of marketing the movie, which also has the Vatican's blessing, to Christian audiences. On the panel at BBI with Medved was movie theater chain owner Greg Laemmle, manager Joan Hyler, television writer/producer Howard Gordon, advertising executive David Suissa and myself. Laemmle agreed that "The Passion of Christ," made for $20 million and distributed by Icon and Newmarket Films, could very well be a box office success.
That means that there must be a better way of dealing with this movie than the way its critics have chosen so far.
For one, we could see it before forming an opinion. This sounds intuitive, but evidently it's not, either to "The Passion's" critics or to the opponents of CBS's Reagan miniseries.
We could also see the movie as an opportunity, not a curse. Handled right, this movie should encourage us to investigate not only the history of anti-Semitism, but the history of our faith. Step out of the theater and into a book. Rabbi Neil Gillman's "The Jewish Approach to God" (Jewish Lights, 2003), which just received the National Jewish Book Award, is a good place to start.
Suissa suggested Jews treat Gibson's movie as a "learning moment." It is an opportunity for Jews and Christians to engage in honest dialogue, to learn more about each other's faiths, to try seeing even the difficult scenes through each other's eyes. I can already see the movie's premiere at The Museum of Tolerance. Followed, of course, by a panel discussion.