July 30, 2003
Mel Gibson's film, The Passion, which is about the last twelve hours of Christ's life is the object of campaign villification and book burning by a committee of Christians and Jews who want to shut it down before it is shown, or edit it to their own politically (or religiously) correct standards. Paula Fredriksen is a spokesman for this committee. The New Republic has shamed itself by printing her ill-informed and bigoted attack on the film.Unlike Fredriksen and others who want to destroy film before they have seen it, I have. It is not an attempt to portray the historical Jesus -- which is the subject of Fredriksen's entire screed -- nor could it be. By Fredriksen's own account there is no evidentiary basis for such a portrait and if anyone tried to create one it would be eviscerated by the same Savanarolas, precisely because no one can know what the truth is.Gibson's film is an artistic vision and must be judged that way. Like others who have seen the film, I am sworn to keep details confidential so that it gets its chance when the distributors present it to the viewing public next Easter. However, I will say this: It is an awesome artifact, an overpowering work. I can't remember being so affected by a film before. It is extremely painful to watch and yet the violence is never gratuitous. You never feel like you want to take your eyes off the screen. It is a wracking emotional journey which never strays from its inspirational purpose. It is as close to a religious experience as art can get. It is not anti-Semitic, as the film-burners have charged. Two illustrative details: Jesus is referred to in the film as "rabbi," and there is never any distancing of Jesus or his disciples from their Jewishness. (One point missed by ignorant bigots like Frederiksen whose only familiarity with Passion is with a stolen script) is that while the film is in Aramaic -- a brilliant effect that enhances the symbolic resonance of the story -- it has subtitles. Second detail: A Jew carries Jesus' cross along the terrible route to Golgotha and shares his miseries. But yes, the film is also faithful to the Gospels and therefore the Pharisees are Jesus' enemies and they and their flock do call for Jesus' death (and why wouldn't they, since Jesus was a threat to their authority and their beliefs?).But all this is to miss the point. This is a Christian parable. The cruelty, intolerance and lack of compassion of human beings is limitless -- and we who have lived through the Twentieth Century know this all too well. The moral of this Christian story -- of Mel Gibson's film -- is that we all killed Jesus -- Jew and Gentile alike -- and tortured him, and we do so every day. But if you believe the vision that Gibson has rendered so searingly and so well, Jesus forgives us for that very act. Whosoever will give up cruelty and love his brother will enter paradise. That is the message that Gibson has framed in his extraordinary work. The effort to shut down his film before it opens is just another station of the cross.