February 6, 2007
A few years ago, while watching the Superbowl with a friend who worked at an advertising agency, one of the highly touted million dollar ads caught my attention. I didn't like it--it was rude and obnoxious. My friend's response was, "Well, you're not the target audience."
So it is with Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ. As a Jew, I am not the target audience. This is not an epic for the uninitiated. The mission of the movie is not to introduce the outsider to Jesus, or explain the "who and why" of Christ. What we are shown is two hours of some of the most graphic torture scenes ever committed to film. The target audience knows why everything is happening and what is going to happen next. The rest of us are, literally, in the dark.
Perhaps to overcome expectations Gibson writes the story in Jesus's blood. He starts early and lays it on thick. We see Jesus being beaten on the way to being beaten, being tried as he's beaten, then beaten and thrown in a cell where he's beaten, then beaten, scourged and then scourged some more, then beaten, denounced, beaten, whipped while carrying the cross, beaten, crucified and, finally stabbed.
So why is Jesus deserving of all this? Gibson gives us a few flashbacks to help us flesh-out (no pun intended) the character of Jesus. But what we're shown of him--falling as a child, as a young carpenter joking with Mary (while finishing a table that looks remarkably Danish modern), brief snippets of the Sermon on the Mount and the Last Supper--fail to give the audience motivation for the horrible ordeal to which he is subjected. It seems that he is hated by the people and feared by the authorities for being no more than a nice guy and a good son who has a rather high opinion of himself.
As a Jew, do I feel the movie is anti-Semitic? In all honesty I've never been particularly observant and I'm not easily offended. Nor am I schooled in the New Testament, so if there are words taken from the Gospels--or created for the film--which attribute Jesus's death squarely to the Jews, I may have missed them. It seemed to me that the mob was a mob more than a Jewish mob. In the same way, the solders were masochistic slobs first and foremost, then Roman masochistic slobs. Again this brings me back to the lack of explanation for who was doing what and why it was being done. If you don't already know something about Caiaphas and the Pharisees, Herod, and Pilate you aren't going to get your information here.
What bothers me is the lack of Jewishness in the film. Jesus was, after all, a rabbi who had come to Jerusalem to observe a Passover seder. He, the apostles, and the early Christians who followed them, were Jews. They took part in Jewish liturgy and accepted Jewish customs. Though much of what we now recognize as Judaism happened after the destruction of the second Temple (which, regardless of what the movie implied, had nothing to do with an earthquake at the time of Jesus's death and happened 40 years later around 70 CE), the concept of the seder was already in place.
Yet Jesus and the apostles were having a mere dinner. Their bread was not matzah, the unleavened bread of Passover. The act of the washing of the hands was less of connection to the holiday than it was a tool to contrast that action with Pilate's washing of his hands.
The only echo of the haggadah came in words passing between Mary Magdalene and Miriam, mother of Jesus, as they waited for a report of his arrest. "Why is this night different from all other nights...?" Miriam asks Mary Magdalene, who answers, "Because once we were slaves and now we are free."
Another thing that troubled me, as a Jew, was the use of the word Adonai (a word for God used by Jews only in prayer). Even when studying prayer the word is considered so holy it cannot be said, so the word haShem is used instead. I know it may be considered nitpicking, but Mr. Gibson could have shown Jews some respect by using haShem.
As for other aspects of the film, the entire cast did a great job as far as I could tell (given that they were speaking Aramaic and Latin--and seriously, there was no reason for that except to give a film an air of authenticity). Technically the film was overwhelming--and that certainly is part of its appeal. It comes at the viewer so powerfully and so relentlessly that it floods the senses. You cannot turn away from the violence or you will miss the subtitles. The film demands all of your attention and insists you accept its vision. The film is the Way.
And it works. It's been reported that upon viewing the The Passion of the Christ Pope John Paul II said, "It is as it was." Nearly 80 years ago there was another controversial film which was accepted by much of America as The Truth. The Birth of a Nation was proclaimed to be, "history written in lightning" by President Woodrow Wilson. As time passed portions of its story became discredited, even while people continued to marvel at its technical achievements. How will future movie goers view Mel Gibson's Passion? Only time will tell.