It’s like something out of a movie: An Oscar-winning
superstar risks his career and reputation by directing a violent
and controversial film about the last 12 hours in the life
He titles the epic The Passion of the Christ,
and foots the $30 million bill himself. For nearly the entire
duration of filming, the project is without a distributor.
He casts actors either unknown to American audiences
or unproven at the box office, and he shoots it in
Aramaic and Latin, with subtitles.
But this is no Hollywood yarn. Many thought Mel
Gibson had lost his mind. One could smell a career-ending
flop. What followed was much darker.
Rumors began circulating before its release that
Gibson’s film would strike a blow for anti-Semites everywhere
by blaming Jews for the death of Christ. Those who had seen
advance screenings were divided. Many who have seen the final
version still are.
In one camp are those who see The Passion as
proof of Gibson’s bigotry toward Jews. In the other are those
quick to praise his artistic integrity or see him as a beleaguered,
And in the middle of the circus is the ringleader,
Mel Gibson, who seems puzzled by the uproar but is surely
grateful for its volume. The Hollywood mantra, “There’s no
such thing as bad publicity,” proved especially true in this
case: The hailstorm of press guided this film to box-office
The Agony and the Ecstasy
In all fairness, The Passion is a
stunning piece of filmmaking. Little surprise: Gibson is a
gifted director and a clever visual storyteller.
Artistically, it’s a breathtaking achievement.
Emotionally, it’s grueling. Gibson is merciless with his camera,
wielding it with a force as piercing as the whips of the Roman
guards. Be warned: The Passion is violent, sometimes
Still, Gibson should be admired for having the
spine to helm a project of this nature, one that could capsize
his impressive career.
Is He or Isn't He?
But not so fast. Mel Gibson is a seasoned
Hollywood player. The Passion may be, as he puts it,
“a film for the soul,” but it is, nevertheless, a film—a
product he’s eager to push.
It was never an easy sell. Gibson denied charges
of anti-Semitism but fueled suspicions by releasing the film
to fewer theaters in highly liberal or Jewish areas. He raised
eyebrows again by carefully handpicking which Jewish leaders
could preview it.
Is Gibson an anti-Semite? Is his film anti-Semitic?
One could argue that he is a traditionalist Catholic—a member
of a group that denounces the reforms of Vatican II. (Acknowledging
that Catholics are not the only ones who can be saved and
denying that Jews as a group bear responsibility for killing
Jesus are Vatican II teachings not embraced by most
Yet Gibson asked Jewish actor Maia Morgenstern,
who plays the Virgin Mary, and her father, a survivor of the
Holocaust, to examine the script for their input. This is
not the act of an anti-Semite. An anti-Semite wouldn’t have
hired Morgenstern in the first place.
I am no fan of Mel Gibson, but The Passion
is not anti-Semitic. It is not a bigotry lesson. Cinema,
however, is a powerhouse of a medium and weak minds are everywhere.
Those searching for reasons to hate could misinterpret
If The Passion should widen the chasm between
Jews and Christians, then the film is what its harshest detractors
have said all along: a vehicle for division between two faiths.
If it should reinvigorate our spiritual lives or forge a greater
awareness of Judaism or Jewish people, then Gibson has done
us a favor.
The ending is unknown. What’s certain is that
Gibson has endured punches, above and below the belt, for
his film, his art. But dry your eyes—bruises heal. The
Passion is a rousing box-office hit. In the long run,
it will be Gibson, not his critics, with the last word.
People are talking about this film and, more
remarkably, the topic of spirituality. Gibson and his film
have started a dialogue. Perhaps understanding will follow.
But the praise should be rationed. The Passion,
from the beginning, was about a man’s quest to enlighten,
to offer hope, to teach and to save—the story of Christ, not
Gibson. Jesus is the hero here, not the artist who cinematized
his final hours.
What we have is a flawed but beautiful film, guided
by a talented, somewhat self-righteous director—one whose
ego, battered but surely intact, might be the biggest flaw
behind the project.
In an interview with Diane Sawyer on Primetime
last February, the impassioned, candid and sometimes cheeky
Gibson assured us that God is pleased with his film and that,
in spite of the endless uproar, people will want to see it.
And Gibson knows well enough that many will see the film
because of the uproar as well.C.H.
For more information on the film, please log on to http://www.opwest.org/Archive/2004/200402/passion_of_the_christ.htm
or visit the film’s Web site at www.thepassionofthechrist.com.