With the DVD release of “The Passion of the Christ” on August 31, Mel Gibson will certainly make money. If he chooses, though, he also can use the occasion to make some interfaith peace. He can withdraw “The Passion” from Oscar consideration, thereby preempting a new round of acrimony at Academy Award time.
Despite its foreign shoot location and Aramaic-Latin dialogue, under the rules of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences “The Passion” may compete in all the top categories. Be sure that if it does, all the suspicion, anguish and resentment that surrounded “The Passion” last Easter season will kindle anew as nominations emerge, ballots are cast and awards announced. Even in June, at “Oscar-halftime,” gossip columnist Liz Smith anticipated a renewed “Passion” storm, proclaiming “I can feel the hysteria brewing.”
Fallout will be felt both behind closed doors and in the public square. Of the roughly 5,800 Academy voters, how many, Jewish or gentile, will vote fearing a popular backlash if “The Passion” garners no Oscars? How many other voters, Jewish or gentile, will, even if they personally admire the filmcraft, hesitate to impliedly make the Anti-Defamation League or Simon Wiesenthal Center out as crying wolf — today, when all around the world the real wolf of antisemitism is increasingly on the prowl?
Imagine “The Passion” sweeps. How long before the cultural left charges intimidation and capitulation to the forces of blind faith? Suppose “The Passion” limps off with only, say, the Oscar for best sound. How loudly will the cultural right seize upon this as dispositive evidence of political correctness and elite hegemony run amok? “The Passion” may or may not win. But our already polarized society can only lose.
No doubt Gibson’s opting out of the Oscars would entail sacrifice, potentially financial and, for such an alpha male, certainly psychic. And yet with such a gracious move, Gibson might win a rehearing among people who, sight unscreened, accepted the view that he had perpetrated a cinematic hate crime. The DVD format might facilitate such a rehearing.
Some of the most virulent attacks on “The Passion” contended that the very facial features of the characters reinforced prejudice: The persecuting Jews had bad teeth and hook noses. With the luxury of replay, a viewer can look and see that the most stereotypically Jewish nose sat on the face of chief apostle Peter and that, on net, the Roman guards took the prize for being orthodontically challenged.
Virtually all Passion critics charging bias keyed in on Gibson’s egregiously lenient treatment of Pilate, suggesting this shifted blame for Jesus’ death to the Jews as a group. Once the DVD reaches stores and libraries, Gibson could, subject to verification, point to the affirmative measures he took to dispel the lie of collective Jewish guilt.
Gibson already maintains a promotional Web site for his record-breaking movie. He could easily post the film times to which to fast-forward for each of these measures, thereby affording the skeptic easy inspection of the exculpatory evidence: The walkout from the Temple trial by some of the High Priests who suggested the proceeding was a “travesty” because some council authorities had been excluded; the squelching of many dissenting voices from the crowd in the Temple; the underscoring of Mary’s devout Judaism within seconds of her appearing on screen; the almost didactic emphasis on the Jewishness of Veronica and Simon of Cyrene, figures of compassion, as Jesus carries his cross up to Calvary; Jesus’ repeated prayers of forgiveness for all his persecutors, Roman and Jewish — pointedly including Caiaphas, the High Priest determined to see Jesus executed, and the use of a demonic figure — lacking even gender, never mind affiliation by creed or blood — to fill exclusively the job of Evil Personified.
Of course, Gibson cannot expect Oscar abjuration to incite a universal reappraisal or trigger his total vindication. “The Passion” has a Rorschach quality. Some, no doubt, will still revile “The Passion” and its maker. Nonetheless, Gibson’s sidelining himself at the Oscars will bear powerful witness to three truths that he and every other serious Catholic must cherish.
First, in the swell of phenomenal success at the box office and the glow of a big gamble won, Gibson’s eschewing peer recognition would reaffirm the ultimate vanity of earthly achievement when placed next to things eternal. Sic transit gloria mundi.
Second, insofar as Gibson quells conflict at his own expense while holding that the conflict was never of his making, he submits to the ethic of his blockbuster’s bloodied antagonist: to walk the extra mile, even after having been forced to travel the first. See, even Braveheart can turn the other cheek!
Last, by avoiding further interreligious frictions, Gibson can acknowledge, humbly and beyond the reach of cinematic misinterpretation, Catholicism’s theological debt toward, and roots in, Judaism. For whatever Gibson makes of Vatican II, he surely concurs with Pope Pius XI, who, condemning antisemitism in 1938, spoke for every Catholic when he insisted: “We are all spiritual Semites.”
Kevin Doyle, a government-appointed capital defender, is a commentator on interreligious controversies.