A serious filmmaker would normally feel gratified if his cinematic work inspired impassioned debate, intense emotional response, detailed analysis, even raging controversy. Well in advance of his picture's release, Mel Gibson has already produced that sort of reaction with The Passion of the Christ, his brutal, graphic, and lyrical account of the last 12 hours in the life of Christ. But Gibson insists he neither expected nor wanted the bitter arguments over the allegedly anti-Semitic content of the film.
Long-time movie authority Michael Medved is a nationally syndicated radio host based in Seattle.
The vitriolic denunciations of his artistic integrity, and even his personal religiosity, have proven especially painful to Gibson--who directs The Passion (his first such effort since Braveheart) but does not act in it. One critic who acknowledged that she had not yet seen any version of the film, Paula Fredriksen of Boston University, went so far as to declare that her reading of the script left no doubt that the movie will provoke anti-Jewish violence when it is shown outside the United States."When violence breaks out," she wrote in The New Republic, "Mel Gibson will have a much higher authority than professors and bishops to answer to."
Such hysterical pronouncements, all too typical of the current storm over The Passion, emerged out of a poisonous combination of mistakes, misunderstandings, and sheer malice.
The viciousness first appeared in a March article in the New York Times Magazine that went to press before Gibson had even finished filming his epic in Italy.Writer Christopher Noxon acknowledged a family feud with Gibson--his father had played a prominent role in trying to block construction of the traditionalist Catholic church in Malibu that Gibson funded with several million dollars in donations.Noxon's article represented a continuation of that localized quarrel.Unable to speak to Gibson himself, the reporter interviewed the star's 84-yearold father, Hutton Gibson, and highlighted the elderly man's unconventional, occasionally outrageous views--including the belief that the fatal planes of 9/11 had been "remote controlled," and the notion that the figure of 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust had been exaggerated.
Inevitably, this article led to horrified press reports that Gibson's father was a "holocaust denier"(a charge that both Mel and his father emphatically reject) and gave rise to suspicions that his unfinished film about Jesus expressed some anti-Semitic agenda. After all, the few facts known about the project prior to its completion made it sound weird, eccentric, and excessive. The star invested nearly $25 million of his own money to make the film.At one time he suggested that the dialogue, almost entirely in Aramaic with a smattering of Latin, would appear without subtitles. Reports from the set suggested that leading man Jim Caviezel (The Thin Red Line, The Count of Monte Cristo), another devout Catholic, had become so immersed in the role that he suffered significant injury while filming the violent torture of Christ. The rumors about the movie reached such an intense pitch that Paula Fredriksen's bruising attack on a film she had never seen appeared under the sneering headline,"Mad Mel."
Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League, the world's most prominent watchdog group combating anti-Semitism, had received an early, unauthorized copy of Gibson's script (presumably before its translation into Aramaic) and assembled a group of Catholic and Jewish scholars to evaluate it. Gibson and colleagues were furious that this stolen script, which they insist has been changed in many of its essential elements, was subject to such analysis. Predictably, the scholars "unanimously agreed that the screenplay reviewed was replete with objectionable elements that would promote anti-Semitism." In a blistering June 24 press release, the ADL expressed very public concerns that The Passion would "portray Jews as bloodthirsty, sadistic, and moneyhungry enemies of Jesus."
At this point, I became personally involved in the burgeoning controversy. As a film critic and cultural commentator who also happens to be an observant Jew (and a long-time president of an Orthodox congregation), I felt heartsick over the harsh denunciations of an unfinished motion picture that almost no one had seen. In the past, I've supported and spoken for the Anti-Defamation League, even serving as one of the featured speakers for its national convention eight years ago. I called the ADL office in New York City to express my opinion that the hostile tone of its press statements would destroy all chance that Gibson might cooperate in making adjustments to his motion picture. I also invited ADL director Abe Foxman to discuss the controversy over The Passion on my nationally syndicated radio show, but on several occasions he declined. In discussing the issue on my broadcasts, and in an op-ed column, I emphasized my sense that Gibson had been unfairly targeted with wildly premature attacks on his movie, and by a guilt-by-association campaign focused on his elderly father.
I also expressed my belief that the criticism of his unseen movie stemmed in part from the predominantly liberal political perspective of the Anti-Defamation League and other groups speaking for the Jewish establishment. Numerous commentators have noted recent shifts in the political allegiance of Jewish voters. George W. Bush has won greater popularity in the Jewish community than any Republican since Ronald Reagan. And fervent support for Israel by evangelical Christians has produced an increasingly vibrant alliance between committed Jews and Christian conservatives. The ADL, which has been outspokenly critical of the so-called "Christian Right" on many occasions, clearly looks askance at this emerging coalition. Could the controversy over The Passion help to divide Jews from the fervent Christians likely to embrace the film?
The warmth of that embrace became apparent in July, as soon as Mel Gibson began showing a rough cut of his movie to selected religious, political, and entertainment leaders. Praise for the artistry and power of his accomplishment proved all but universal. Jack Valenti, the former aide to President Lyndon Johnson who has served for almost 40 years as president of the Motion Picture Association of America, hailed The Passion as one of the greatest movies he had ever seen, and a sure bet as an Oscar contender.
When I watched the rough cut at the offices of Gibson's Icon Entertainment International, I also felt overwhelmed by its lyrical intensity and devastating immediacy: the suffering of Christ (superbly portrayed by the haunted and haunting Jim Caviezel) becomes almost unendurable. The much-derided decision to force the international cast to deliver the lines in Aramaic also works brilliantly, emphasizing the almost unbridgeable distance between the world of first-century Judea and our own, and avoiding the banal, anachronistic chatter typical of less authentic Biblical movies ("You mad, adorable fool, Moses!" Ann Baxter told Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments).
The charges that the film emphasized the anti-Semitic elements of the Gospel story also struck me as wildly overblown. In the past, passion plays sometimes fomented Jew hatred by linking the New Testament persecutors of Jesus with contemporary Jews. These renditions depicted the Temple authorities wearing prayer shawls, phylacteries, sidelocks, beards, and hook noses that emphasized their "Jewish" identity in ways modern Europeans would readily recognize.
Gibson's film pointedly avoids such inflammatory stereotypes. In fact, the words "Jew" or "Jewish" seldom, if ever, appear in the subtitles. The high priest and his followers most certainly come across as vicious, self-important, and bloodthirsty, but they seem motivated by pomposity, arrogance, and insecurity rather than religious corruption or ethnic curse. The movie also avoids the regrettable tendency of other cinematic treatments of the death of Jesus, in which Judas and the conniving priests of the Temple look swarthy and Semitic but Jesus and his loyal followers appear all-American, or even Nordic (the great Swedish actor Max von Sydow played Jesus in 1965's The Greatest Story Ever Told). In The Passion, on the other hand, Gibson emphasizes the Jewish identity of his hero, and an actress from the Rumanian Yiddish Theatre,Maia Morgenstern, plays his mother Mary.
While the movie hardly qualifies as the hateful anti-Semitic screed described by its critics, it remains a difficult film for any religiously committed Jew to watch. In discussing my reactions to his work in a wide-ranging four-hour conversation after the screening, Gibson insisted that The Passion is meant to make everyone uncomfortable, not just Jews. For us, however, there's a special squirm factor involved in watching officials of a long destroyed Temple, which we still revere as sacred, behaving in a cruel, sadistic manner. Like any other Jew with pride and commitment regarding his own religious tradition, I might have preferred a movie that interpreted the Gospel sources to place primary blame for the death of Jesus on the Roman authorities.
Gibson, however, remains fiercely determined to bring to the screen what he considers the truth of the New Testament.He has said elsewhere that the Holy Spirit played the dominant role in shaping his film and that as the human director, he was merely "directing traffic."Without question, an interpretation of the story in which the Judean priests and the Judean mob played a prominent role in demanding the death of Christ would hardly fall outside the Christian mainstream. In John's Gospel, his fellow Jews repeatedly attempt to stone Jesus and cry "Crucify him, crucify him!" (19:6). In Matthew, the Jewish mob howls,"His blood be on us and on our children" (27:5)--an explosive line which Gibson had originally included in his film, but which he had already excised in the version I saw. The Orthodox Jewish scholar David Klinghoffer argues that when organizations like the ADL demand that Gibson absolve Jews from blame in the death of Jesus, they ask him not only to disregard the Gospels, but to ignore the teachings of our own tradition. "Authoritative Jewish sources teach that Jesus died at least partly thanks to decisions taken by his fellow Jews," Klinghoffer writes in the Jewish Forward, proceeding to quote the Talmud and Moses Maimonides.
The most frustrating aspect of the current recriminations over The Passion involves the failure of most of the major Jewish organizations to take advantage of Gibson's repeatedly expressed willingness to work constructively with Jewish leaders and scholars to adjust and fine tune his film. He refuses to surrender to the ADL, however, because of lingering distrust engendered by their exploitation of the "stolen script" and their pre-emptive condemnation of a movie they had not seen.
On August 8, Gibson traveled to Houston for a special screening of his still unfinished project.More than 30 members of the Jewish community were invited to watch the movie, along with 50 evangelical and Catholic leaders. Rabbi Eugene Korn, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, signed a confidentiality agreement, as did other members of the audience, promising not to discuss what he had seen. This pledge did not prevent him from telling The Jewish Week that "the tragic dimension to this movie is the way it portrays the Jews in the worst way as the sinister enemies of God." Korn reportedly engaged in an acrimonious exchange with Gibson after the screening and told the press that the star "seems to be callous to the fear and concerns of his critics."
I know firsthand that there is no basis whatsoever for this charge of "callousness." I've spoken with Gibson nearly a dozen times regarding his heartfelt desire to avoid wounding members of the Jewish community. He says repeatedly that he always wanted The Passion to unify people rather than divide them. Before the setback in Houston, Icon had announced an ambitious "Jewish Initiative" and had begun putting together lists of Jewish opinion leaders, representing every religious and political outlook, to respond to the film and to help shape the study guides and educational materials that will be distributed along with it. Mel spoke excitedly and hopefully about using the film to take Jewish-Christian dialogue to a constructive new level.
Those plans are now "on hold" due to his sense of betrayal following the public relations disaster in Houston. The headline of the article in The Jewish Week proclaimed "Jews Horrified by Gibson's Jesus Film," while the Internet Movie Data Base announced its story with the line "Jews Slam Gibson Movie After First Screening."
At this point, the major question for the ADL leaders,who seem determined to continue the open warfare with one of the world's most popular stars, would be:What do they hope to accomplish? Given Mel's determination and clout, they will not succeed in stopping him from releasing and distributing his movie. Nor can they prevent tens of millions of Christians from applauding the film for what it is: an audacious work of art that represents by far the most compelling cinematic adaptation of a Biblical story ever attempted by Hollywood.Whether or not The Passion becomes a box office hit (and I believe the odds stand heavily in its favor), the high-profile charges of anti-Semitism seem counterproductive. If the film goes on to commercial success, the shrill Jewish critics of the film will only have highlighted their own impotence and irrelevance. And if the movie bombs at the box office and reaches only limited audiences, it can't make a significant contribution to anti-Semitism. So all the frenzied attacks serve no purpose whatsoever.
The very idea that a two-hour movie could generate a new wave of anti-Semitic violence makes no sense. Anyone disposed to hostility toward Jews already knows the elements of the Gospels that are unflattering to Jews; there's no need for Mel Gibson to remind them. Moreover, if you feel such hatred in your heart that a well-intentioned motion picture in Aramaic could inspire you to commit brutal attacks, then trimming lines and re-editing scenes won't prevent that reaction anyway. The sweeping condemnation of the movie by Rabbi Korn and Abe Foxman (who still hasn't seen it, by the way) make it clear that they don't really want to change the movie; they simply want to stop it from coming out.
A ludicrous Reuters story ("Calif. Rabbi Says 'Passion' Already Fueling Hatred") demonstrates the worst possible outcome of the present charges and counter-charges. Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center declared that The Passion had "already unleashed a wave of anti-Semitism in the United States." He told Reuters that his "Jewish human rights organization" had already received dozens of hate calls and letters prompted by the film.
Taking Rabbi Hier at his word, consider for a moment the true source of this "new wave of anti-Semitism." The movie won't be released until February 25, 2004, and so far Gibson has shown the film to only a few hundred people in total. The hate-filled calls and letters that the Rabbi has received, in other words, could not be in response to a movie that remains almost entirely unseen; they could only represent the indignant (and utterly predictable) reaction to Rabbi Hier's own ceaseless denunciation of Gibson's work.Many Christians may feel rightly enraged by an attempt to control Gibson's expression of his personal faith, just as Rabbi Hier would feel appropriately resentful of any efforts by outsiders to dictate the way he lived his Judaism.
Sadly, the battle over The Passion may indeed provoke new hatred of the Jews. That hostility will center, however, not on a few remote and exotic figures who play villainous parts in a new motion picture, but on the reckless maneuvering of real-life Jewish leaders whose arrogance and short-sightedness has led them into a tragic, needless, no-win public relations war.
Reprinted with permission of The American Enterprise, a magazine of politics, business, and culture. On the web at www.TAEmag.com.