Amid all the boiling passions awakened by Mel Gibson’s “Passion,” it’s been mostly overlooked that this movie is a critical landmark in Gibson’s personal journey as an artist. Of the 40 films with which he’s been associated over a 25-year career as actor, director, producer and writer, only three have been described as labors of love that reflect a deeply personal vision. “The Passion of the Christ” is the third. The first was his Oscar-winning 1995 epic, “Braveheart.” Sandwiched in between was a little-noticed television biopic that he conceived, championed and shepherded to the small screen in 2000 as executive producer: “The Three Stooges.”
That’s right — the story of the Horwitz brothers, Moishe and Jerry, and their long-suffering pal Louis Fineberg, known to posterity as Moe, Larry and Curly. He even co-wrote a book about them. You can look it up.
If the passions of the heart offer a window into the soul, then here’s what we can glean about Gibson from his labors of love: He is fascinated by garish images of violence. He is moved by honor, duty and redemption. He has a wide-eyed earnestness, mixed with a contempt for convention and a rude sense of humor. And he harbors a genuine affection for scrappy Jewish underdogs.
The feeling isn’t particularly mutual these days. Gibson has stirred up a heap of passion with his latest project, a graphic rendition of the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus. It’s basically a big-screen version of the classic Passion play performed by Christians for centuries as an act of worship. Gibson sees the film as a personal act of testimony to his own redemption through faith. Press accounts suggest that viewers by the millions will share his enthusiasm in the weeks ahead.
For Jews, the film will inevitably evoke deeply uncomfortable associations. We remember the Passion play in history as a trigger for murderous mob violence against our ancestors by Christians who blamed us for Jesus’ death. The blood of our martyrs is historic fact. Their memory is burned into our souls every bit as deeply as Gibson’s experience of sin and redemption is burned into his.
It’s almost certainly true, as thoughtful Christian leaders argue, that America won’t be swept by pogroms as a result of “The Passion.” But movies travel. Gibson’s celluloid images of Jewish mobs screaming for Jesus’ death will been seen in places where passions are more raw and Jews are more vulnerable. Jews have been burned before in Kishinev and Cordoba. In some places mobs are once again howling for Jewish blood. If our nerves are a bit raw, we do not apologize.
Is Mel Gibson an antisemite, then? Hardly likely. You can’t thrive for a quarter-century in a tight community like Hollywood with a secret like that hidden away. We’ve heard the quotes from his father, we’ve heard his verbal stumbles over issues like the Holocaust, and we don’t think the case against him adds up. He’s sincere in disavowing hatred. He believes his movie preaches love.
No, Gibson’s weakness lies elsewhere: in a religious piety that refuses to be tempered by outside forces like reason. He’s been caught up in a worldwide wave of passion, along with millions of believing Christians — as well as Muslims, Hindus and Jews. Like them he has come to see his faith as a pure flame that must lead where it will. Like them he can’t imagine that his acts of witness might cause suffering to others.
If we’re angry, it’s partly because we thought things were changing. We saw democracy spreading. We saw institutions like the Catholic Church honorably confronting the past and struggling to reform. For all the high-tech horrors of recent decades, we thought that in the last century or two humankind had acquired, along with science and technology, some new understanding of human dignity. We thought reason might someday learn to harness passion, and we’d all be a bit safer because of it. As a matter of fact, that’s how our tradition defines redemption.
Gibson is surely entitled to his own faith, and he’s free to bear witness as openly as he likes. But duty doesn’t end with fidelity to an inner truth. It also includes little things like behaving responsibly when you’re handling flammable materials.
It’s not too late. Gibson could add a tag line to his film, as some have suggested, recalling the martyrdom of Jesus’ fellow Jews at the hands of bigots in Roman times and since, and warning against a reprise. Only his pride is stopping him.