In an effort to make his bloody blockbuster about the death of Jesus more palatable, Oscar-winning director Mel Gibson has edited about six minutes of violent footage from his 2004 hit, “The Passion of the Christ.”
The film, which some scholarly critics say ahistorically blames Jews for Jesus’ death while promoting ancient anti-Jewish stereotypes, reopened in hundreds of theaters around the country this week.
To the dismay of some Catholic and Jewish interfaith experts, it seems sure to become an annual Easter event, much like “The Ten Commandments,” Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 spectacular that is an annual Passover television ratings grabber almost 50 years later.
Gibson, the action hero who practices a fundamentalist form of Roman Catholicism, says he trimmed “The Passion” from its original 127-minute length because of suggestions that the film was too gory for family audiences.
“The Passion” raked in about $611 million in global box office receipts last year, making it one of the most successful independent films of all time. While the original “Passion” was rated “R,” the edited version has been re-released without any rating.
“Some of you actually said that you wish you could have taken your Aunt Martha, Uncle Harry or your grandmother or some of your older kids, and you thought that perhaps the intensity of the film was prohibitive to those people,” Gibson explains in a video introduction on the film’s Web site. “So I listened to that, and it inspired me to re-cut the film. Indeed I softened it,” he added, but “it’s still a hard film, and I have maintained the integrity of the film I wanted to make. I’m hoping it will attract a wider audience.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, blasted Gibson for eliminating some gore to attract a new audience while refusing to remove what Foxman called “antisemitic” scenes.
Foxman has been among the most vocal in a group of Catholic and Jewish leaders who, in the spring of 2003, asked Gibson to amend his working script to excise antisemitic scenes. In one such scene, Jewish Temple guards torture Jesus for no apparent reason. In another, an ugly Jewish mob proclaims that Jesus’ blood will be on their hands and those of their descendants, a verse from the Books of the New Testament: Matthew.
But Gibson refused to talk, and instead sued a group of interfaith scholars for allegedly obtaining a purloined script.
“This is cynical arrogance,” Foxman told the Forward on Monday, regarding Gibson’s new edited “Passion.” “He is on the one hand showing that he’s sensitive to the public and therefore he is changing the film, yet he totally ignores the more serious element of what the film portrays, which is fueling classical antisemitism.”
Foxman also says that Gibson is being disingenuous by continuing to claim that the movie is a “true” retelling of the Gospel passion story, when in fact Gibson has produced a composite tale that includes subplots from a book attributed to a 19th-cetury antisemitic German nun.
“It’s antisemitic,” Foxman said of the film, and with an annual release, “it’s impact will be felt on the unaware and the innocent without any debate or perspective every Easter in the U.S. and elsewhere.”
Ironically, as the film was being re-released, Catholic and Jewish interfaith leaders were meeting in Washington this week to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II Council document that repudiates the doctrine blaming all Jews for all time in the death of Jesus — a theological change that Gibson’s Catholic sect does not accept.
The film strained relations last year between Jewish interfaith leaders and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which was accused of failing to speak out against Gibson’s film even though it clearly violated the conference’s own guidelines on avoiding negative Jewish stereotypes in passion plays. One Jewish scholar at the time said that the conference’s action amounted to a fundamental betrayal of Catholic-Jewish relations.
To be sure, millions of Christians have praised Gibson, saying that they were extremely moved by the film’s long, blood-soaked portrayal of Jesus’ suffering, even though the Gospels themselves do not go into such details.
Some churches are including the movie in their Easter rituals, seeing it as a way to understand Jesus’ suffering, a primary Christian theological requirement.
One Missouri church is having all its adult Sunday school classes study the movie during the four weeks preceding Easter, according to Religion News Service.
“The meaning of Easter isn’t bunnies and jelly beans,” the Rev. John Bartunek, a Catholic priest who was a consultant on the film, told RNS. Bartunek, author of the new book “Inside the Passion,” added: “If [the film] becomes a fixture, great, I say. Great. It reminds us of what Easter is all about.”
But other Christian leaders decried the film for focusing on blood and violence while failing to portray Jesus’ messages of love and hope.
“I would never want the images of this film to become the standard by which this story is known, recognized or remembered,” Peter Pettit, a Lutheran director of the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding at Allentown, Pa.’s, Muhlenberg College, told RNS.
Gibson supporters scoff at the concern, noting that there were no pogroms following the wide release last year.
Indeed, while there was no reported violence against Jews as a result of the movie being released in February 2004, studies show that antisemitism has been on the rise around the world in recent years.
Breaking all of Hollywood’s business rules, Gibson used his own money to make “The Passion,” which he co-wrote, directed and produced. He created his own movie distribution deal, which means he pockets much of the profits.
The star of the “Lethal Weapon” series and “Braveheart” does not act in “The Passion,” except for a scene in the original edition in which his arm is shown hammering a nail into Jesus.
Filmed in Aramaic with English subtitles, “The Passion” is available around the world in video and on DVD, enjoying great success in Arab Muslim countries.