A film to excite passions

Posted: Mar 01, 2004 12:00 AM

Two brief and minor scenes in Mel Gibson's movie stick in my mind. During the long torment of Jesus, a flashback shows stones dropping slowly to the ground. We are not sure what we are seeing. Is this some sort of boccie-like game? As the camera pulls back, we understand. It's the stoning of the adulteress, halted by Jesus's words, "let him who is without sin cast the first stone." The placement of the flashback draws a contrast between the punishment Jesus recommended for the woman (none), and the punishment he suffered. Later Gibson shows Mary, on her knees in terrible grief and pain, picking up and tightly clenching two handfuls of pebbles as she watches her son being tortured on the way to Golgotha. She relaxes her grip and drops her stones too--no room for hatred or revenge for those who wish to follow Jesus. Two intertwined lessons in forgiveness, in a few seconds, with no words. This is brilliant filmmaking.

You can see why Gibson originally planned to release this film, The Passion of the Christ, without subtitles, with a sound track in three languages that almost nobody understands: it's a visual experience. He seems to say, of course you all know the story, but you live in a visual culture and have never understood it visually. In his last words to Mary, Jesus says, "See mother, I make all things new." It's a familiar line turned into an emotionally wrenching scene. Another image I found unforgettable: Simon of Cyrene and Jesus linking arms over each other's shoulder as they bear the cross up to Golgotha. Simon has grown more and more protective of the abused Jesus. He is no longer the randomly selected onlooker forced by the Romans to help carry the cross. He is literally walking with Jesus. In one evocative image, lasting just a few seconds, Gibson places all serious Christians in the scene in the figure of Simon. Some of us will never again be able to hear the phrase "walk with Jesus" without thinking of Gibson's image here. Many viewers will not be able to think of the passion and death of Jesus except in Gibson's images.
So far, Gibson's achievement here has been overwhelmed by the argument over anti-Semitism. His most dogged critic has been hounding him on this issue for a full year, arguing that while Gibson is not an anti-Semite, he holds anti-Semitic views--a way of alleging serious bigotry while seeming to deny it. One red herring after another has been hurled Gibson's way: his father seems anti-Semitic, Gibson is an unorthodox pre-Vatican Council Catholic and he has been in a lot of violent movies and must therefore be in love with gore for its own sake (a charge rarely raised against the makers of Kill Bill, which shows heads and many arms and legs coming off, or the makers of Hannibal, which features a man forced to eat his own brain). Gibson contributed to the mess by a single outburst against a columnist (endlessly rehashed by his detractors) and by seeming to downplay the horror of the Holocaust in a recent interview in Reader's Digest.

Is the film anti-Semitic? It didn't seem so to me, but after talking to friends, maybe I underrated some of the film's touches, the fussing over the 30 pieces of silver, for instance, which some people say is an attempt to connect Jews and greed. At least Gibson is clear that Jesus is not to be viewed as a victim of Jews or Romans either. He wills his own death. "No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord," Jesus says.

Gibson thinks that some critics came close to saying that a Christian is not allowed to film the Christian scriptures as written (i.e., with the charge that some influential Jews wanted Jesus killed). He has a point. That's what the gospels say. But Gibson's adherence to the literal text of the Bible is selective. He had no trouble inserting many things not found in the scriptures (pre-trial abuse of Jesus, Mary mopping up Jesus's blood, the vast extent of the scourging). However, he declined to tweak the script to reflect biblical and historical scholarship that points primarily to the Romans as those responsible for the crucifixion. This is not a liberal plot or a political attempt to placate Jews. It is simply where the scholarship is, and has been, for some time. Early Christians were in no position to provoke the Roman conquerors by blaming them for killing Jesus. On the other hand, the first Christians were harassed by synagogue authorities and bitter that their fellow Jews were not accepting Jesus as the messiah.

In sum, I think the film is not anti-Semitic and not likely to provoke anti-Semitism. It has way too much carnage for my taste, but it's a serious and powerful film.