Shadows are cast by objects and people…. Do you want to skin the whole earth, tearing all the trees and living things off it, because of your fantasy of enjoying bare light?
— Mikhail Bulgakov, “The Master and Margarita”
The decisive moment in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” occurs about midway through the film. It follows what must be one of the most gruesome scenes in any mainstream movie to date, in which Roman soldiers — ordered by a compassionate Pontius Pilate to punish but not kill — submit Jesus (played by James Caviezel) to a vicious torture session. He is caned more than 50 times and, unlike in other movies, viewers don’t simply see the weapon and then the wound. We are presented with the point of contact, over and over, in what amounts to a detailed lesson in the shredding of a human body. The scene is interrupted, mercifully, by one of Pilate’s aides, another sympathetic character who rushes into the courtyard and stops the mutilation. Before dragging Jesus back out to Pilate, Roman soldiers delicately place the crown of thorns atop his blistered face, only to then drill and jam it into the raw skin of his head.
When Jesus is brought out, Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov) flinches, alarmed at the cruelty of his own minions. Pilate then looks out at the crowd of assembled Jews, led in front by Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest. “Isn’t this enough?” he asks. It is not, and the crowd clamors for a death sentence. Pilate turns to Jesus, pleadingly, and says, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have the power to release you, and the power to crucify you?” Jesus glances at Pilate and declares of the Jewish high priest: “It is he who delivered me to you who has the greater sin.”
There, in one line, is the answer to months of speculation.
I don’t envy Gibson the task that he assigned himself. Rendering tales from the Bible into modern cinema has proven an intricate challenge — encompassing not only the standard filmmaking tasks of character development, plot and suspense, but also the more pregnant ones of historicity and faith.
Some Bible tales, though, are more pregnant than others. The Passion play, which depicts the last 12 hours of Jesus’s life — or, more accurately, the 12 hours of his slow death — is notoriously problematic, primarily because there are four biblical sources for it, and they don’t exactly match up. The Gospels depict key elements of the events differently, including the crucial details of Jesus’ trial before the Jewish priests and the content of his last lines. Though they all seem to concur, in varying degrees, that the Jewish priests were complicit in the judgment and crucifixion of Jesus, the question of which party was ultimately more responsible — “the Jews” or “the Romans” — remains open for discussion and controversy. Numerous Bible scholars and historians have argued that only Rome had the power to crucify (and that Pilate was not exactly the kind of guy who brooked acting-out on the part of his subjects), but Gibson does away with the most basic question behind the story almost immediately. In “The Passion,” the Romans are very nearly absolved of all responsibility, with the soldiers depicted not only as morons — along with a King Herod who, in form and style, resembles nothing more than Zero Mostel in a Minnie Driver wig and cabaret eyeliner — but, more importantly, as ancillary characters.
Indeed, despite pious claims of commitment to historical accuracy, Gibson has drawn sharp distinctions where none exists scripturally — transforming Pontius Pilate into the narrative’s second hero, demoting the Romans from engaged players to mindless, bumbling torturers and elevating Caiaphas into the drama’s calculating puppeteer. In one scene, an androgynous Satan actually lurks among the crowd of Jews as they watch the Romans beat Jesus.
Creatively speaking, Satan is an understandable (even predictable) artistic device, and Gibson has both the right and the mandate to produce and disseminate his art as he sees fit. But his insistence that he is presenting viewers with an accurate depiction of history is disturbing. Instead of a version of historical events, one gets the distinct feeling that Gibson has turned on us the blinding bare light of his own deeply inflexible personal belief, one that refuses the nuance and complexity of the human interaction behind the movement of history. Gibson, who has been quoted as saying the Holy Spirit directed this film through him, seems to have confused the fact of his artistic vision with a Nietzchean conviction of divine inspiration.
Recently, though, I’ve taken to wondering whether the fracas over “The Passion” hasn’t been beneficial in some way — for both American and Jewish communal discourse. That there have been conversations about the Gospels around Friday night dinner tables all over the country must be good for something. Plus, one hopes that the spirited defense of the film offered by so many conservative Catholic and evangelical Protestant leaders means that they are invested in preventing consequent flare-ups of antisemitism.
Still, one cannot wish away the potential dangers of this film by invoking aesthetic theory or the possibility of some large-scale interfaith dialogue. While the notion of a film-induced pogrom may seem absurd in the context of American society and culture, it is not nearly as remote a possibility in Europe or South America. And the fierce loyalty it has engendered among conservative Christians, as well as the resentment of Jewish protests, underscore what I fear the film has already produced: the erosion, in some measure, of nearly 40 years of revolutionary progress in Jewish-Christian relations.
Perhaps most importantly, the film has revealed some disquieting developments in our own community. In July 2003, as the controversy over the film began to emerge, the Washington Times reported that Gibson had taken to “shopping his film to a more receptive audience: evangelical Christians, conservative Catholics, and Orthodox Jews.” Indeed, a number of respected Orthodox thinkers, along with neoconservative ideologues, have declared secularism the new enemy of American Jews, arguing in defense of the movie in particular and in favor of a stronger connection between communities of faith in general. In their zeal to keep Judaism safe from the less traditional hordes, many of these leaders have chosen to align themselves with the most fundamentalist people and ideas, even at risk to the very religion they are presumably dedicated to preserving. They have been joined by Jews of all religious and political stripes for whom the fierce support of evangelical Protestants and traditional Catholics for Israel — regardless of its creepy theological basis — has trumped their interest in the future of American society and culture.
Before we jump into the bed of what has come to be known as Red America, it might be wise to note the checkered pasts and questionable intentions of some of our new partners. It is tempting to fall into their magisterial world and its consolingly Manichean vision for America’s future, in which the stigmata of secularism and a decadent pop culture are healed by a government imbued with religious authority. But we should be warier of breaking down the wall separating our state from their church. Mel Gibson is on the other side.
Alana Newhouse is the Arts & Letters editor of the Forward.