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Passion Plays

Photo by Philippe Antonello

It’s a tough call to decide who’s behaved worst during the eight-month firestorm over The Passion of the Christ. As early as last June, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Marvin Hier, without having so much as laid eyes on a rough cut, took to the op-ed pages of the Los Angeles Times to prophesy a rising tide of anti-Semitism on the heels of Mel Gibson’s movie about the crucifixion of Jesus. An ecumenical group of scholars read a bootleg draft of the script and formed a committee to set Gibson straight on his reading of the Gospels, with special emphasis on who really killed Christ. (“He doesn’t even have a Ph.D. on his staff,” one of them fumed to The New Yorker last September.) The scholars, among them the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman, asked for an excision of a speech that appeared to hold Jews responsible for Christ’s death (they got it), then a coda absolving them of collective guilt (they didn’t get it, and properly so).

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Then there was Mel, by turns evasive, defensive, defiant, paranoid, and finally abusive, wishing aloud that he could impale the intestines of The New York Times’ Frank Rich on a stick. Strong stuff from a man who implores us, in his new movie, to embrace brotherly love. Sins of the father, and all that: Gibson’s own dad, Hutton, an enthusiastic Holocaust denier, repaid his son’s refusal to dissociate himself from his father’s wacko views by announcing only a week before the film’s release that only a small fraction of the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust actually did, because the rest had upped and left for the Bronx and Los Angeles (where, no doubt, they’ve lurked ever since, plotting to bake Hutton’s blood into matzos).

And last but by no means least, day after day, there were the media, whipping it all up into a lather, then beating it to death while bestowing scads of gratis publicity on Icon’s already aggressive marketing campaign. To hear the press tell it, American Jews were rushing en masse to hang garlic on their lintels to ward off the pogroms that were sure to follow hard on the heels of The Passion’s release. (It wasn’t until last Monday that the Los Angeles Times ran a piece citing prominent Jews who thought there was little to fear from the movie.)

Still, it’s not as though there’s nothing to discuss. Gibson belongs to a Catholic sect that finds fault with much of Vatican II, including statements that firmly absolve the Jews from collective responsibility for Jesus’ death. The traditional Passion play, which frames his film, has spawned centuries of active and often brutal anti-Semitism, and Gibson has shaped his version not just around the Gospels but from the teachings of two notoriously anti-Jewish nuns. And the time to worry out loud over all this is now, when the movie is out and we can legitimately respond to it. So: Does The Passion have it in for the Jews? Well, sure, at least to the degree that the movie lets the Roman governor Pontius Pilate off the hook (at worst, he’s a weak-willed vacillator in deciding Jesus’ fate), while stating in so many words that the Jewish high priest Caiaphas, a creep for the ages, is the greater sinner of the two. And while I have no doubt that The Passion was made from Gibson’s heart, I don’t much like what I see of that heart, which is indeed hostile, bloodthirsty, not a little vulgar and appallingly literal-minded. Will The Passion spur hordes of vengeful American Christians to fan out into Jewish neighborhoods with knives between their teeth, or even to think nasty things about Jews? Hardly — though I, and other Jews, tremble at the thought of the passions it may arouse in countries like Russia, where anti-Semitism is deeply embedded and old-time religion is flowering after decades of suppression.

If anyone should be picketing the offices of Icon, it’s the gay community: King Herod appears in the movie as a dissolute queen, complete with hairpiece askew, screaming with laughter at Jesus’ predicament and humiliating his prisoner in front of an equally decadent court. And he’s far from the only cartoon in The Passion. Witness the temple guards, leering, grinning and chortling as they drop a trussed and already battered Jesus over a bridge. Witness the Roman centurions charged with punishing Jesus as they flay him alive in slow motion, drop him face down with the cross on top of him, and, in the most graphically detailed scenes, drive the nails into his hands before planting the cross in the ground. The Passion will have two primary audiences. One is the evangelical Christians who are buying up whole theaters and plan on taking kids they otherwise would never consider bringing to an R-rated movie. The other is the mass of red-meat moviegoers who can take or leave the Greatest Story Ever Told, but who went in droves to see that other Mel Gibson movie — neither more or less nuanced than his new one — about a martyr being tortured to death for his beliefs. For all Gibson’s stated devotion to historical fact, his Jesus is no more historically accurate than was his William Wallace. Once again, though, Gibson shows himself medievally, ardently, not to say sexually addicted to violence, to a degree that far outstrips what we know of the period’s excesses. As the pope himself said (or didn’t say, we’ll never know) — it is as it was. No doubt he meant as it was in Braveheart.


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