In one of the last scenes of “The Passion of the Christ,” the character of Mary, played with emotive steel by the Romanian Jewish actress Maia Morgenstern, embraces the mutilated body of her dead son. Streaks of dirt and Jesus’ blood form swaths of darkness on her light skin, as Morgenstern looks ahead with a combination of maternal wrath, sheer exhaustion and the placidity of faith.
It is a subtle evocation of complex emotions in a movie that often settles for the comfortable starkness of simplistic interpretations. In an interview with the Forward, Morgenstern, 42, an actress in the Yiddish State Theater of Romania and the child of Holocaust survivors, batted away charges of antisemitism and questions about the motives of the filmmaker, instead choosing to focus on her own role in one of the year’s most controversial cultural offerings.
“I discovered a wonderful character — very human, a mother, a Jewish mother, a mother losing her child while she couldn’t do anything,” she said in an interview at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles. “She could not interfere. From time to time, she’s weak, she’s desperate, she loses faith.”
Morgenstern — whose name, in an apparent coincidence, means Morning Star, one of the Virgin Mary’s oldest monikers — began her career in Romania’s Yiddish theater, with which she continues to tour. She caught the eye of a casting agent, who introduced her to the man whom she repeatedly refers to as “Mr. Mel Gibson.” Almost immediately after reading a copy of the script, Morgenstern accepted the role, and she has since become the focus of curious speculation, with many asking how a woman whose grandfather was murdered at Auschwitz could participate in a film that some fear could incite pogroms against her fellow Jews.
“I trust my parents very much, and they are my first critics,” said Morgenstern, tugging at a reddish ringlet peeking out from under a white-knit hat. Like her, she said, both her mother and her father found the script moving, philosophical and not the least bit antisemitic.
“I’m trying to be honest, to explain, to open a real fresh eye to the vision of Mr. Mel Gibson and of the film. Again and again — I underline and underline this — it’s not the people who are blamed,” she insisted, knocking her mirthful tone down to one of deep foreboding, with almost alarming swiftness. “It was some leaders. Unfortunately, we have so many examples — even now, every minute — of political, social, military, religious leaders who are dealing with our fears, with our hopes, who are trying to manipulate our ideas and our fears. And that film speaks about this.”
“It’s a masterpiece. Art, pure art!” she said. “Like La Pieta de Michelangelo, it’s not a lesson.”
According to both the actress and her director, the two established a special working relationship, one that bordered on the telepathic. “At the start I didn’t even know if she could understand me,” Gibson told the Forward in an e-mail. “I mean she has a great command of the English language but for more complex explanations, I’m thinking, ‘Is she even going to get this?’ But after a very short while I realized that she was way ahead of me.”
When asked about allegations that Gibson’s artistic choices amounted to filmic incitement of hatred, Morgenstern shot back. “Antisemitism is a big word. It’s a very big word, and we need to be very careful with it,” she said, drawing a line between feelings and actions. “There were public newspapers or people calling me ‘Bloody Jew.’ But I do have a career in Romanian country, I can follow my dreams, and use my name — Morgenstern.”
“I’m an artist and an actress not to wear pretty clothes, but to be responsible…. As an artist, [I want] to bring life a little bit more light, a little bit more hope. And I hope any film, any theater, any part I’m interpreting will make people think and be better. Maybe the word is too big, and I didn’t dare say it to myself every day, but this is my deep, deep wish.”