Mel Gibson’s new film The Passion, which depicts the last hours and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, has generated enormous controversy even though it is nearly a year away from release. The Anti-Defamation League now features on its Web site the banner headline “Mel Gibson’s The Passion: Why ADL Is Concerned,” which links to several articles questioning whether the film is anti-Semitic or might provoke physical attacks on Jews, like those that sometimes occurred following Passion Plays during the Middle Ages. But none of the criticism comes from anyone who has actually seen the film.
Two weeks ago, I was invited to a private screening of a rough cut of the film at the Motion Picture Association in Washington, D.C. While I certainly can’t lay claim to being a Biblical scholar or an authority on anti-Semitism, I do think much of the controversy is overblown, fed by fear — some of it legitimate in the context of a recent increase in anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere.
The movie is both beautiful and harrowing. The dialogue is entirely in Aramaic and Latin with few subtitles, but the story is familiar enough not to need much interpretation for anyone who has read the Gospels. The film opens with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane as he prays to be delivered from the suffering he is about to endure, and then acknowledges that it is God’s will that Jesus die.
The words “Not My will but Thine be done” — which appear in various versions in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke — set up all that follows in the film. Christ’s death on the cross may have been ordered by Pontius Pilate at the urging of the Pharisee Caiaphas — following the judgment of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious court that judged Jesus guilty of blasphemy — but, according to Scripture, it is done to fulfill God’s will.
Gibson’s film is an intensely Catholic account of the Passion. Indeed most of the scenes depicting Christ’s journey along the Via Dolorosa on the way to Golgotha seem inspired by the Catholic devotional ritual the “Stations of the Cross,” which dates back to the 14th century. A scene in the film depicting Jesus’ encounter with Veronica, who wipes his face and is left with Christ’s image on her veil, is part of Catholic tradition, for example, and may be totally unfamiliar to non-Catholic viewers.
In Catholic teaching, all of us who have sinned are responsible for Christ’s suffering and death. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “All sinners were the authors of Christ’s Passion.” It seemed to me that the entire point of the film was to drive home this message. Every bloody detail of the scourging of Christ by Roman soldiers, the tortuous path to Golgotha and the crucifixion itself is meant to make viewers uncomfortable — not in order to blame someone else, but to blame ourselves.
No doubt this will distress many people — believers and non-believers. But it is certainly not anti-Semitism. Nor does the film contain anti-Semitic stereotypes.
While Caiaphas and most of the Pharisees are cast as antagonists in the film, other Pharisees are seen leaving the Sanhedrin trial in disgust when some witnesses make obviously false charges against Jesus. All of the protagonists of the film are Jews as well, and Gibson’s movie shows a very Semitic-looking Jesus, actor James Caviezel, not a fair-haired, blue-eyed version like those depicted in most previous movies. The only characters who come off as demented sadists are the Roman soldiers who torture Christ after Pilate orders him beaten — and these truly seem to be possessed of the Devil, who appears as a specter-like character throughout the film.
The Passion is an incredibly powerful interpretation of Christ’s last hours on earth. It is clearly a project of love on Gibson’s part, one that should inspire — not anti-Semitism — but much soul-searching on the part of Christians as to their own culpability in Christ’s suffering.