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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Passion play

I think it is time to draw attention to an outrage depicted in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. In this movie we see an American (Jim Caviezel in the role of Jesus) arrested, flogged, tortured and killed by Europeans (playing Pharisees, Romans, citizens of Jerusalem, etc.). I am amazed that no one else has had the courage to condemn this blatant display of anti-Americanism in a major motion picture spreading its message of hate against Americans all over the world.

Yes, I am kidding. But I am also making a point. If you are totally determined to see prejudice and defamation in a work of literature, you can always manage to find it somehow. This is not to say that some works aren’t actually and deliberately racist, sexist, or anti-this or anti-that. There have always been bigots who have spewed their hate through various media. But, on principle, I have always felt very strongly that we must err on the side of freedom of artistic expression rather than treading around one group’s or another’s sensibilities.

This is an opportune time to restate one of my cardinal laws of movie reviews. Readers who have slavishly read every word on this web site and committed them all to memory can probably recite it along with me: A movie review tells us far more about the reviewer than it does about the movie. This has never been truer than it is for The Passion of the Christ. As I read the reactions to the film from reviewers, columnists, pundits and commentators, it has become crystal clear that this movie is the ultimate Rorschach test. Even though, as far as I know, Mel Gibson has released only one movie called The Passion of Christ, everyone who sees it seems to see a different movie from everybody else. Because of all the baggage that the story of Jesus carries in western culture, in the major religions, and in people’s personal lives, I suppose there really is no way for people to look at this movie objectively. I submit that I might come as close as anybody, having never been a member of any organized church. Still, Protestant Christianity was a key factor in the lives of all my grandparents, I am married to and the father of Roman Catholics, and Christianity has permeated the culture in which I live, so I can’t claim to be totally unbiased either. For what it is worth, I am comfortable around people of devout religious faith and also around atheists. I have friends in both categories, as well as in several categories in between.

On one hand, Christian churches and organizations have embraced this movie with amazing fervor. I saw it five days ahead of its Republic of Ireland opening thanks to an invitation from my friend, the mysterious Deborah of the Christian Film & Television Excellence Society. I have been to such advance screenings before, but usually it is the film’s distributor who presents the movie. In this case, it was a committee called HOPE that is using the film’s release as a major tool for evangelism in Ireland, a counterpart to what has happened with the film’s release in the U.S. On the other hand, there has been a hailstorm of negative commentary from reviewers and writers, ranging on the political spectrum from left to right. I believe I have yet to hear a bulletin or read a straight news article about the movie that does not include the word “controversial.” It seems that the appearance of this film is yet another landmark, along with the Clinton impeachment and the 2000 presidential election, in America’s major ongoing cultural/political wars.

To take one prominent newspaper, the commentary on the pages of The New York Times seems, in my admittedly unscientific estimation, definitely negative. In a strange kind of national dialog, Times columnist Frank Rich wrote in January, before seeing the film, that the Pope’s apparent endorsement of the movie (“It is as it was,” the pontiff was quoted as saying) was unseemly, and Rich grumped that he (who happens to be Jewish) had not been invited to a preview screening. Upon the film’s release, Jay Leno gave Mel Gibson the same sort of friendly celebrity welcome that he gives to, say, Arnold Schwarzegger, and invited him to respond to Rich. A strangely nervously chuckling Gibson said his film was about forgiveness and that’s how he felt about his own detractors. Rich then shot back with another column, contrasting Gibson’s forgiving attitude on TV with less forgiving things he supposedly said about Rich way back in September, when controversy about the film was already heating up. Rich then compared the film to a porn movie and asked rhetorically if the movie is “bad for the Jews” and then replies, “Not necessarily.” But he then goes on to detail all the ways he says it trades in Jewish stereotypes and worries that major leaders in the world and in the media have given Gibson and his movie “a free pass for behavior that is unambiguously contrived to vilify Jews.” Another writer in The New York Times, Edward Rothstein, compared Gibson’s film, rather unfavorably, to Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, even though it is musical composition and not a movie. Both, however, says Rothstein, “share notions of Jewish villainy.” William Safire, a conservative political writer, wrote that Gibson had found a “loophole,” allowing him to exhibit graphic movie violence to families that would normally shun it and avoid it. And, says Safire, the “villains at whom the audience’s outrage is directed are the actors playing bloodthirsty rabbis and their rabid Jewish followers.”

I was particularly interested in the opinion of Andrew Sullivan, a commentator whom I admire a great deal and who is thoughtful and sophisticated enough to compartmentalize his opinions to such an extent that he can excoriate President Bush for proposing an amendment against gay marriage and yet whole-heartedly support the invasion of Iraq. Sullivan, who is Catholic, wrote on his blog, “I wouldn’t say that this movie is motivated by anti-Semitism. It’s motivated by psychotic sadism” and brands it “a deeply immoral work of art.” In his best (if uncharacteristically overwrought) line, he says, “The whole movie is some kind of sick combination of the theology of Opus Dei and the film-making of Quentin Tarantino.”

As I said, this movie and the reactions it is drawing are telling us an awful lot about a lot of writers. It’s difficult to think of another movie that has evoked such strong reactions, both pro and con, and where those reactions have been colored so deeply by the viewers’ religious and ideological beliefs. Leave it to The Economist magazine of Britain to supply the most clinical analysis. In its Lexington column recently, it noted that, while “liberal intellectuals” have long accused the religious right of a “paranoid style,” now “the paranoids may well be the secularists themselves, horrified by the new conservative grip on the culture.” But it’s not just religious people versus secular people. Christians themselves seem divided between those who think it is important to wallow in the suffering of Jesus and those who prefer to de-emphasize the passion in favor of the more feel-good aspects of the Christianity.

For what it’s worth, here are the points of the indictment of the film, as I understand them, and my own thoughts on them:

Mel Gibson’s father is an anti-Semite and a Holocaust denier. I am not familiar with the opinions or writings of Gibson’s father, but I read that this is true. If this is so, he is reprehensible. But the views of the father of a film director have no direct bearing for me on the artistic quality of a film.

Mel Gibson is a member of a break-away Catholic sect that does not acknowledge Vatican II. I believe a person’s religious beliefs are his or her own business. I also believe that it is totally valid not to pay money to see a movie if that money will go into the pocket of someone you do not like or do not want to support. But, at this point in time, I have no reason to boycott a Mel Gibson movie, and I certainly wouldn’t do it merely over his religious beliefs.

The movie is misogynistic because Satan is played by a woman. Oh, give me a break. I firmly believe that an actor should be able to play any role. Given that Lucifer is a fallen angel and that angels are understood to be androgynous, it is logical to portray Satan as a androgynous creature. And in this film you couldn’t find a more androgynous-looking devil (which, incidentally, has a male voice), even if you cast Michael Jackson in the role.

The movie pruriently exults in violence, spending an extended time with the graphic depiction of the torture of an attractive and all-but-naked man. I suppose there are sick minds that will get off on this movie for this reason. But I’m a firm believer that you can’t judge a movie by what it will do to society’s weakest minds. And how many of the people making this charge are also speaking out about movies like Kill Bill: Vol. 1?

It is immoral for people to be making so much money from telling the story of Jesus. If you really believe that, then sneak into the movie instead of paying to see it. Or don’t see it at all. What would Jesus have thought about this anyway? Would he be glad to have the story spread, even as it lined the pockets of a man who took a considerable financial risk to make it? Or would he think it was the equivalent of changing money in the temple? You will have to decide that for yourself. For me it’s not an issue. I accepted a long time ago that a big part of organized religion was about money.

The movie concentrates too much on Jesus’s passion and not enough on his teachings or his resurrection. I would have liked to see more about the resurrection myself, but Gibson’s choices are artistically valid. As it is, to my mind, a movie that depicts a man going through the unspeakable torture that Jesus does and then asks God to forgive his torturers and everyone else is pretty powerful stuff.

The movie is anti-Semitic. This is the most pervasive indictment against the movie. The charges suggest that the New Testament itself is anti-Semitic and that there are subtle and not-so-subtle cues in the movie to emphasize the anti-Semitic elements. These include “Fagin-like” actors to play the Jews in the movie and the way Satan moves among the crowd cheering on Jesus’s execution. Further, say the critics, Pontius Pilate and his wife are shown to be way too nice and sympathetic, leaving all the more blame to the Jews. This is the hardest charge to deal with, for so many deep-rooted historical reasons. Not being a Jew myself, I can’t speak to how a Jew would feel seeing this movie. All I can do is report what went on in my heart when I watched it. Intellectually, I was aware that the people who were demanding Jesus’s death were Jews, but more than that they were a mob. They could have been any mob. Caiphas could be the leader of any religious organization. In my estimation, the characters who come off the worst are the brutal and sadistic Roman guards. But no one accuses the movie of being anti-Roman. Now, I’m not completely naïve. I know there is a whole history of Christians condemning Jews as “Christ killers” and that Gibson’s film can be seen as part of a long line of passion plays that had the purpose, at least in part, to whip up hatred of the Jews. But, having seen this film, I firmly believe that it will whip up hatred only among people who are full of hatred to begin with. Will it have this effect on anti-Semites? Maybe. But I go back to two of my previous points. A work of literature deserves to be judged on its own merits. And you can’t condemn a work of literature for the effect it might have on society’s weakest minds. William Safire worried what anti-Jewish frenzy the movie might whip up in Europe and the Middle East, apparently through subliminal cues like those in the movie The Manchurian Candidate. Anti-Semitism is definitely still a problem in Europe but, given the documented lack of interest in religion among Europe’s nominal Christians, it’s hard to imagine a movie about the passion of Christ whipping up too many of them. Likewise, it is hard to imagine Moslems in Europe or the Middle East getting any more inspired to hatred by a movie about Jesus than they are by, say, Israeli government policies. No, my gut feeling is that the main damage this film is doing is to waken demons and nightmares in the subconscious minds of a lot of people who have never reconciled themselves either to their own religion or to their parents’ religion or to the darkest periods of the 20th century.

I can’t tell you how strange it is for me to find myself defending a movie that is destined to be a major tool for proselytizing. But, as a work of art and literature, it deserves its day in court of serious opinion (as opposed to the court of box office receipts and cash generation, where it is already a huge winner). And with that, I rest my case. The verdict is up to you, the jury.

* * *

I was bummed to hear this week that they finally found the body of Spalding Gray, who apparently threw himself into New York’s East River two months ago. I have to write about this man, but I guess it will wait until next week.

-S.L., 11 March 2004

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