2004-02-19 / This Week's Attitude

This Week’s

AttitudeThe Gospels According To Mel Gibson
By Neil S. Friedman
This Week’s Attitude By Neil S. Friedman The Gospels According To Mel Gibson

The Gospels According To Mel Gibson

I can’t remember when there’s ever been as much controversy or awareness surrounding a movie’s impending release as there is for Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ," scheduled to open in about 2,000 theaters nationwide on February 25, Ash Wednesday.

Good and bad, the hype surrounding the religious epic has been almost constant for nearly a year and will probably send more people to theaters in the coming weeks than regularly attend Sunday Mass.

Last week, James Caviezel, the actor who portrays Jesus in the movie, was on the cover of Newsweek magazine. On Monday, ABC’s "Primetime Live" devoted a full hour to the movie, including a candid interview with Gibson, its director and chief financier.

Even the Pope was briefly involved in the debate recently after a Wall Street Journal columnist claimed Pope John Paul was an "admirer" of the movie. But a Vatican spokesman quickly refuted the comment telling the Catholic News His Holiness never gave it a "thumbs up."

Nevertheless, all the hoopla may be just what the director ordered. Just one year ago the award-winning director of "Braveheart" was having a hard time finding a distributor for his film about the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life. After all, religious epics are seldom box office successes. But despite the R-rated movie’s excess of graphic violence, torture and bloodshed, which might appeal to some, "The Passion" has a major drawback for traditional moviegoers. The film will be screened with subtitles because its dialog is performed in languages that are dormant — Latin and Aramaic — or atypical — Hebrew.

Anticipation of "The Passion," even as it was in the final stages of production and portions of the script were supposedly leaked, has provoked equal amounts of backlash and support before hardly anyone has seen more than a few snippets of the two-hour film.

But, devout, ultraconservative Roman Catholic Mel Gibson seems to have — perhaps unintentionally — breathed life into a centuries-old argument. The actor/director said he took on this project, which he personally financed to the tune of $25-30 million, because of "a need to reevaluate" his life after becoming depressed over his growing wealth and international celebrity status. (Perhaps the excess of gratuitous violence and wanton sex in some of his earlier films also left him with a guilty conscience.)

Gibson, who I generally enjoy as an actor and filmmaker, directed and co-scripted "The Passion," has consistently denied the film maligns Jews, proclaiming he isn’t anti-Semitic and considers it to be "a sin." Nonetheless, it has prematurely drawn harsh complaints from those who say it strongly suggests Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

The core of the debate stems from Jewish groups who fear the film will revive a fresh wave of global anti-Semitism because it depicts Jews as the chief culprits responsible for Christ’s execution, taken, as he faithfully asserts, from several narratives in the New Testament. Those segments of the scriptures were the source of widespread anti-Semitism that ensued after many ancient passion play stagings that resulted in the slaughter of European Jews long be-fore the Holocaust.

In historical accounts, Pontius Pilate, the tyrannical Roman Governor of Judea, yielded to pressure from restless Jewish subjects, but he ultimately decreed the crucifixion. (By the way, Pilate had been crucifying large numbers of Jews before Jesus was targeted.) So, how could there be any question who is ultimately culpable when a Roman governor gave the order and Roman soldiers nailed him to the cross?

The fact that a Vatican Council and Pope John XXIII formally exonerated the Jews in 1965 for their role in the crucifixion ("...what happened cannot be charged against all Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.") apparently means nothing to some Christian extremists. In other words, neither modern Jews nor their ancestors bear any responsibility — or guilt — for what happened 2,000 years ago, regardless of the truth or inaccuracy of what Gibson put in his film.

In a New York Post op-ed piece last summer, two Anti-Defamation League representatives wrote, "Our concern is that the images could be used by

Continued on page 20 those who are disposed towards hatred to harden their hearts."

Hopefully, "The Passion of the Christ" will not fan the flames of anti-Semitism that has seen a steady rise in incidents worldwide since 9/11, including numerous acts of vandalism in Brooklyn, because some irrationally believe it was related to America’s longstanding alliance with Israel.

Jewish and Christian leaders have pressed Gibson to add a postscript, imploring moviegoers not to turn their passion turn to hate. But the director told Sawyer that it is unlikely because it would imply he was unsatisfied with the completed film, which he insists is simply his interpretation of the Gospels.

Whether critics applaud or pan the film and audiences flock to theaters remains to be seen. Regardless, Mel Gibson’s brutal, religious epic has stirred the passions of Christians and Jews. But, it is up to religious leaders to remind worshippers that love and tolerance are the heart of Christ’s teaching, not hatred. Nor is it prudent to pass centuries-old transgressions on to succeeding generations.

Most importantly, during the approaching period of Lent — and beyond, Christian leaders must condemn and suppress any indication of anti-Semitism inflamed by the film by firmly reminding congregations of the Golden Rule, before subtly adding, "It’s only a movie."


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