The Passion of the Christ

Mel Gibson's masterpiece, The Passion of the Christ, is remarkable on many levels. It is not merely a serious work of art, it is a profound work of sacred art. The Passion of the Christ grounds for a Twenty—First Century viewer not just the story of the Gospels, but much of the artistic tradition of the West, built so centrally around the story told here once again.  This time around we have the benefit of all the technology of modern movie—making, a director of photography (Caleb Deschanel) obviously steeped in the religious imagery of Second Millennium oil painting, the artistic genius of a director staking his claim to membership in the pantheon of cinematic immortals, and a cast of heretofore—but—no—more unknowns (Jim Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, and Monica Bellluci) who all deserve serious Oscar� consideration.

 

Like all great art, the message received depends on the viewer. An instant classic, this movie will be screened again by the teenagers who are in today's audience when they are decades older, and they will understand it better for each year they have lived. The complexity and depth of its message require considerable thought and reflection, and will be understood in many different and potentially even conflicting ways.

 

This is a film full of stunning images. Some refer to earlier works of art, but some are entirely original to the writer—director's mind. Foremost among these is a sexually ambiguous, eyebrowless Satan, who not only questions Jesus so as to instill doubt, but also moves among the Jews and Romans, as the story unfolds. It is surely only a matter of time before the sexually indeterminate community is up in arms. Had Dick Gephardt remained a serious contender for the Democratic nomination, the eyebrow—challenged nature of Evil Incarnate might have been held to reveal a political bias of the film, too.

 

An old saying puts it well, 'What you see depends on where you stand.'

 

Abraham Foxman, the high—salaried head of the Anti—Defamation League, a group which depends for its financial survival on Jews feeling threatened by lingering hatreds of their neighbors, announced the commercially released version of The Passion of the Christ, 'repeats all of the stereotypes and images surrounding the death of Jesus that have generated anti—Semitism for 2,000 years.'

 

I give Mr. Foxman his due. There were, in the first half of the film, some images which made me seriously uncomfortable. The head priest of the Pharisees had a nose disturbingly large and pointed earthward, and a cruel face which could have come from the pages of an anti—Semitic tract of the 1930s. The Pharisees were clearly the Bad Guys, who not only demanded the crucifixion of Jesus, but who also shamelessly sucked—up to and maniupated Pontius Pilate, a disarmingly complex and sympathetic character in the Gibsonian artistic vision. They were, in fact, leaders who put their own power and position above all other considerations, surrendering to evil in the same way leaders of every ethnicity and every era are always tempted.

 

However, The Pharisees wore no distinctively Jewish symbols. No Star of David. No Torah scrolls visible in their quarters. Their robes were rich and luxurious, but were close to 'generic holy man' in nature, as if the costume designer were recycling outfits from an earlier picture built around another religion. Some wore shawls which could have been tallis, but which did not bear the blue and white designs common to modern Jewish prayer shawls. If Mr. Gibson is an anti—Semite, he is as incompetent at it, as he is gifted as a writer and director.

 

But, more importantly, in second half of the film, as Jesus walks the Stations of the Cross, there are many good, even heroic Jews portrayed. Not the elites, but the ordinary folk. Simon of Cyrene, the bystander ordered by a Roman soldier to pick up the cross and help bear it, after Jesus stumbles and falls, has as stereotypically Jewish a face as one could ever find in Tel Aviv. He is cursed by a Roman, with the word 'Jew' used as an epithet, and becomes a representative of all that is good in man's nature, as do many other faces in the crowd, Jews all of them, who are moved by the awful spectacle they are called to witness that day.

 

Most fundamentally, Jesus is himself portrayed as a Jew, even addressed  as 'Rabbi' by Judas himself. The film portrays two groups of people, Jews and Romans. Historically, these are the people who happened to populate and govern the territory where the story actually happened. The story is about Good and Evil. In order to tell this story, there must be good and evil people. Naturally, some of the evil people were Jewish. To pretend otherwise would not only violate Scripture, it would turn the movie into a politically correct cartoon.

 

Statistically, I would say that a greater percentage of the Romans than the Jews in the film were evil, especially the soldiers who took blood—curdling delight in the unspeakable tortures they inflicted upon Jesus. But even some of the Romans partook of goodness and redemption (oh yes, incidentally, that was another one of the themes of the movie, not that I want to spoil the ending for any readers). In other words, for the story to be told, there had to be some evil Jews, and some evil Romans, too.

 

But someone animated by the passion of Abraham Foxman will see only the bad, and not the good of the Jews in the story. That is, of course, the prerogative of any viewer, and Mr. Foxman is certain to find a number of anti—Semites sharing his perceptions of the Jews in the film as bad, bad, bad. I suppose that those who are obsessed with preventing any depiction of Romans as stereotypically evil might also find this film troubling on similar grounds, although, strangely enough, I do not remember protests of the movies Gladiator or Spartacus on this basis.

 

There were press reports that Mel Gibson had been asked to add a postscript to the film, noting that over 200,000 Jews were crucified by the Romans. Given the stunning power of the end of the movie, I can see why the director legitimately chose not to do so, comforting though it might have been to those worried about pogroms breaking out at suburban multiplexes.

 

At the screening I attended, in an ethnically diverse suburb of San Francisco, something happened which I had never before encountered in a movie theatre. Just before the film started, a man stood up in front of the thousand or so people packed—into the auditorium (others were, at this time, already lined up in the lobby for the next showing, forty minutes later on another screen in the multiplex), and invited any and all members of the audience to a discussion of the film at his church nearby. He obviously spoke from his heart.

 

I strongly suspect that The Passion of the Christ will get people talking. About not just the film, and not just the story. Not just about Jews and their role in the story of Christ (his life AND his death), and the broader theme of Jewish—Christian relations. Talking about the deeper themes. You know: the ones which have been with us since the beginning. The important ones.

Mel Gibson's masterpiece, The Passion of the Christ, is remarkable on many levels. It is not merely a serious work of art, it is a profound work of sacred art. The Passion of the Christ grounds for a Twenty—First Century viewer not just the story of the Gospels, but much of the artistic tradition of the West, built so centrally around the story told here once again.  This time around we have the benefit of all the technology of modern movie—making, a director of photography (Caleb Deschanel) obviously steeped in the religious imagery of Second Millennium oil painting, the artistic genius of a director staking his claim to membership in the pantheon of cinematic immortals, and a cast of heretofore—but—no—more unknowns (Jim Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, and Monica Bellluci) who all deserve serious Oscar� consideration.

 

Like all great art, the message received depends on the viewer. An instant classic, this movie will be screened again by the teenagers who are in today's audience when they are decades older, and they will understand it better for each year they have lived. The complexity and depth of its message require considerable thought and reflection, and will be understood in many different and potentially even conflicting ways.

 

This is a film full of stunning images. Some refer to earlier works of art, but some are entirely original to the writer—director's mind. Foremost among these is a sexually ambiguous, eyebrowless Satan, who not only questions Jesus so as to instill doubt, but also moves among the Jews and Romans, as the story unfolds. It is surely only a matter of time before the sexually indeterminate community is up in arms. Had Dick Gephardt remained a serious contender for the Democratic nomination, the eyebrow—challenged nature of Evil Incarnate might have been held to reveal a political bias of the film, too.

 

An old saying puts it well, 'What you see depends on where you stand.'

 

Abraham Foxman, the high—salaried head of the Anti—Defamation League, a group which depends for its financial survival on Jews feeling threatened by lingering hatreds of their neighbors, announced the commercially released version of The Passion of the Christ, 'repeats all of the stereotypes and images surrounding the death of Jesus that have generated anti—Semitism for 2,000 years.'

 

I give Mr. Foxman his due. There were, in the first half of the film, some images which made me seriously uncomfortable. The head priest of the Pharisees had a nose disturbingly large and pointed earthward, and a cruel face which could have come from the pages of an anti—Semitic tract of the 1930s. The Pharisees were clearly the Bad Guys, who not only demanded the crucifixion of Jesus, but who also shamelessly sucked—up to and maniupated Pontius Pilate, a disarmingly complex and sympathetic character in the Gibsonian artistic vision. They were, in fact, leaders who put their own power and position above all other considerations, surrendering to evil in the same way leaders of every ethnicity and every era are always tempted.

 

However, The Pharisees wore no distinctively Jewish symbols. No Star of David. No Torah scrolls visible in their quarters. Their robes were rich and luxurious, but were close to 'generic holy man' in nature, as if the costume designer were recycling outfits from an earlier picture built around another religion. Some wore shawls which could have been tallis, but which did not bear the blue and white designs common to modern Jewish prayer shawls. If Mr. Gibson is an anti—Semite, he is as incompetent at it, as he is gifted as a writer and director.

 

But, more importantly, in second half of the film, as Jesus walks the Stations of the Cross, there are many good, even heroic Jews portrayed. Not the elites, but the ordinary folk. Simon of Cyrene, the bystander ordered by a Roman soldier to pick up the cross and help bear it, after Jesus stumbles and falls, has as stereotypically Jewish a face as one could ever find in Tel Aviv. He is cursed by a Roman, with the word 'Jew' used as an epithet, and becomes a representative of all that is good in man's nature, as do many other faces in the crowd, Jews all of them, who are moved by the awful spectacle they are called to witness that day.

 

Most fundamentally, Jesus is himself portrayed as a Jew, even addressed  as 'Rabbi' by Judas himself. The film portrays two groups of people, Jews and Romans. Historically, these are the people who happened to populate and govern the territory where the story actually happened. The story is about Good and Evil. In order to tell this story, there must be good and evil people. Naturally, some of the evil people were Jewish. To pretend otherwise would not only violate Scripture, it would turn the movie into a politically correct cartoon.

 

Statistically, I would say that a greater percentage of the Romans than the Jews in the film were evil, especially the soldiers who took blood—curdling delight in the unspeakable tortures they inflicted upon Jesus. But even some of the Romans partook of goodness and redemption (oh yes, incidentally, that was another one of the themes of the movie, not that I want to spoil the ending for any readers). In other words, for the story to be told, there had to be some evil Jews, and some evil Romans, too.

 

But someone animated by the passion of Abraham Foxman will see only the bad, and not the good of the Jews in the story. That is, of course, the prerogative of any viewer, and Mr. Foxman is certain to find a number of anti—Semites sharing his perceptions of the Jews in the film as bad, bad, bad. I suppose that those who are obsessed with preventing any depiction of Romans as stereotypically evil might also find this film troubling on similar grounds, although, strangely enough, I do not remember protests of the movies Gladiator or Spartacus on this basis.

 

There were press reports that Mel Gibson had been asked to add a postscript to the film, noting that over 200,000 Jews were crucified by the Romans. Given the stunning power of the end of the movie, I can see why the director legitimately chose not to do so, comforting though it might have been to those worried about pogroms breaking out at suburban multiplexes.

 

At the screening I attended, in an ethnically diverse suburb of San Francisco, something happened which I had never before encountered in a movie theatre. Just before the film started, a man stood up in front of the thousand or so people packed—into the auditorium (others were, at this time, already lined up in the lobby for the next showing, forty minutes later on another screen in the multiplex), and invited any and all members of the audience to a discussion of the film at his church nearby. He obviously spoke from his heart.

 

I strongly suspect that The Passion of the Christ will get people talking. About not just the film, and not just the story. Not just about Jews and their role in the story of Christ (his life AND his death), and the broader theme of Jewish—Christian relations. Talking about the deeper themes. You know: the ones which have been with us since the beginning. The important ones.