The ‘Passion’ of Mel Gibson

Mel Gibson and Jim Caviezel in 'The Passion of the Christ'
Mel Gibson and Jim Caviezel in ‘The Passion of the Christ’

This is an article which was lifted directly from a letter I wrote to a film critic here in New York who got blasted for her review of Passion of the Christ. She gave the film one star, and labeled it as “anti-semitic” and grotesquely violent. The following was my response to her review:

I would like to disagree with your assessment of The Passion as being anti-Semetic, because while I understand why viewers have reached this conclusion, it is quite mistaken. At least, from my perspective.

First, I understand the reasons for this belief. Chiefly it’s the lack of context. While I thought it was an interesting choice for Gibson to not necessarily tell a story, but instead to simply visualize an event, I think its biggest failing is that people who do not have an understanding of the time and events will not get the bigger picture.

They will not fully understand why the Jewish priests wanted to stop Jesus, they will not understand why Jesus accepted his fate, they will not understand why Mary simply stood by and watched — doing nothing. As a result, the priests — note, the priests, and not “Jews” — are treated as simple, two-dimensional characters who “get there’s” in the end.

There are good people in this story who are Jewish, yet people who simply shrug this film off as anti-Semitic choose not to acknowledge this because it’s easier to focus on the idea that Gibson dared to make several Jewish priests out to be the chief baddies. Why is it that we can have films that have a gang of blacks as evil drug dealers or cruel hispanics who torture their teacher, yet no one calls out about how these films are racist? Do we pretend that Simon doesn’t exist? Do we pretend that the woman who tries to give Jesus water (unfortunately, her name escapes me at this moment) wasn’t there? Do we forget that several Jewish priests stood up during his “trial” blasting what they were doing to Jesus?

But, going back to the notion of context, the motivations for the Jewish priests are not really spelled out in the film, which I think is the chief reason they appear demonized. We don’t see Jesus entering the Jewish temple and knocking over the collection plates, telling people not to give money to the temple. We don’t see him preaching against the Jewish establishment of the time.

Another problem here is that people insist on seeing the priests as Jews, and forget the very basic concept that they were also human. Forget that they are Jewish, because ultimately that isn’t important. They wanted to destroy Jesus because he was a threat. A threat to their station, a threat to their power, a threat to their control. They were frightened by him, like any establishment would be to someone who wanted to change things.

Of course, we must also look at The Passion’s depiction of Pilate. I, too, was a little surprised by his rather kindly visualization. The sympathetic leader. But, from what I understand, it is basically accurate. Pilate did “wash his hands” of the whole thing and agree to the crucifixion. Still, like all things, it’s all in perspective. I think he was made a little too sympathetic, but I understand Gibson’s reasons for it.

While the priests are the ones calling for Jesus’s death, the Romans are the ones who do the bulk of the abuse. They torture him, they beat him, the crucify him. As such, some kind of balance was needed. Because the Roman soldiers are responsible for so much of the terrible abuse, the need to balance out that violence with something nobel or good was required. As such, Pilate becomes sympathetic. The Jewish priests also had that balance, with several priests bring ejected when they tried to object during the trial. With the Jews who wept at Jesus’ torture and death, as well as those who stepped up in an effort to help him when he carried the cross. Perhaps not as pronounced as Pilate, but it was in balance with the level of the behavior of the Jewish priests.

As for the mob, well, that’s mob mentality. That’s not something unique to Jews, nor are they immune to it. And since the bulk of the population was Jewish, this is an inescapable element to the story.

Lastly, we come to the violence. Was it too much? My wife felt so. I didn’t. Not for what Gibson, I think, was trying to achieve. He wanted people to understand what Jesus went through. He wanted people to understand that when Jesus suffered and died for our sins, that he REALLY suffered and died for our sins. And to do that, he couldn’t hold back. He couldn’t cut away. Instead, he had to get in your face and go the whole nine yards. He wanted to disgust people, shock people, make them cry. Because he wanted people to understand like no other film had done.

Do I think The Passion was a great film? I don’t know. I think it was an admirable production. It was beautifully shot, beautifully directed, wonderfully acted. But, it’s not a film as much as the visualization of an event. I don’t think Gibson was trying to tell a story, he was simply trying to show people something. Show them a moment in time when a man changed the world. As such, it’s hard to hold this up against other films and fairly compare it.

Perhaps if the film was given more context, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. But still, I believe that giving the film one star was rather unfair. Personally, I’d say three. It loses a star for lack of context, but also for the cheesy earthquake at the end and the over-the-top “demons” chasing Judas prior to his suicide.

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