Why Is The Passion of the Christ So Controversial?

The Film Is Bad for Jews, Worse for Christians
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Feb. 26 2004 5:59 AM

Why Is The Passion of the Christ So Controversial?

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Elaine Pagels was originally scheduled to participate in this dialogue. Due to unforeseen circumstances, she will not be able to. In her place will be Stephen Prothero.

Dear Stephen,

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As we have been hearing for too many months, there is a good deal of alarm among Jewish audiences that Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ will prove to be bad for the Jews. Now that the film, surely one of the most extravagantly over-heralded movies of the last several decades, has opened, there is confirmation enough of those fears to be seen by all. But that misses the point of what is really wrong with this film.

The Jews, of course, do not figure very favorably in the original Gospel narratives, and especially not in John, on which Gibson has drawn heavily. Gibson's claim all along has been that he means to offer a faithful representation of the Passion narrative as it appears in the New Testament, and this involves an implicit rejection of any high-minded revisionist efforts on the part of the Vatican to exculpate the Jews when the plain intent of the Gospels was to inculpate them. Thus the Jews throw stones at Jesus, as in John, and in all four Gospels, quite spectacularly, when Pilate tells them he has no case against Jesus and is prepared to free him, they shout, "Crucify him, crucify," and Pilate is compelled to succumb to the demands of the blood-thirsty Jewish mob. In Matthew, he actually washes his hands in the presence of the crowd, announcing, "My hands are clean of this man's blood."

Bent on fidelity, Gibson has incorporated all this in the film, but it should be said that he has also ratcheted everything up a couple of notches. Pilate comes across not merely as a hesitant, not altogether bad Roman official but as an eminently civilized man, reflective, fair-minded, disinclined to use violent measures, in the end constrained to act against his own better instincts by the brutal, vengeful Jews. (Pilate, who speaks Aramaic to the mob in the film, has a chance to engage in some Latin conversation with Jesus. Though the fluency in that language on the part of a Galilean carpenter may seem a little surprising, one must assume that divinity here trumps linguistic plausibility.) The lingering shots of the screaming, fist-shaking Jewish crowd are not likely to endear their descendants to Christian audiences, though perhaps this effect is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the High Priest and his ecclesiastical cronies, no doubt intended to appear vaguely rabbinical, actually look more like Greek Orthodox priests by the cut of their beards and the elegant design of their pseudo-sacerdotal costumes.

In any case, the hostility with which the Jews are drawn is not the fundamental problem of the film. The Roman soldiers, in fact, who torture Jesus and hammer him to the cross are even scarier, far outdoing the Jews in sheer physical brutality. I detect a certain anti-populist tilt in these images. You can be a Roman and a decent person if you happen to be a member of the aristocratic elite—Pilate, his wife, his chief military officer—but the simple foot soldiers are almost all vicious animals. On the Jewish side, the mob is nothing but ugly, and the priestly officials are a false elite, no more than a pompous extension of the savage mob. The only redeemable Jews, of course, are Jesus' loyal followers, who constitute a small, embattled spiritual elite.

If The Passion of the Christ is, inescapably, bad for the Jews (at an unfortunate moment, it should be said, when old anti-Semitic fires have been rekindled), it is worse for Catholicism and worst of all for film, at least as a medium for representing spiritual subjects. Gibson works from the first frame to the last on the assumption that cinematic truth is the truth of the literal physical image, and the result is altogether mind-numbing. The decision to do the dialogue, apart from a bit of Latin, in subtitled Aramaic, is driven by this same literalist notion of authenticity. The Aramaic is a mixed success, some of it a little garbled, including, of all things, the word for messiah, meshikha, pronounced here, in a conflation of the Hebrew, as meshiakha.

We get very little of the Passion story or of the Christ figure except the sheer, unspeakable physical suffering of the victim of the crucifixion. A bare indication in the Gospel text, "Pilate now took Jesus and had him flogged," is turned into 15 minutes onscreen of nonstop beating with hideous barbed whips and worse. The maceration of Jesus' flesh is so overdone that it becomes, as my companion at the movie remarked, a kind of barbecue-sauce version of the Suffering Servant. After all that, it is scarcely credible that Jesus is still conscious, not to say sufficiently erect to walk on the Via Dolorosa. Gibson in effect has given us an extreme concentration of the sadomasochistic element in Catholic iconography with most of the spirituality left out. One wonders, in fact, how film might go about seriously representing spirituality. There surely must be some way to transcend this sheer wallowing in violence, counterpointed by old Hollywood clichés such as swelling choruses of sublime music on the soundtrack and panning shots of the sky with beams of sunlight breaking through the clouds.

Robert

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