A man leaving the theater where “The Passion of the Christ” was playing saw a Jew in line waiting for the next show and belted him in the chops.
“Why did you do that?” asked the Jew.
“Because you killed our Lord,” said the beater.
“But that was 2000 years ago,” pleaded the bleeding Jew.
“Yeah, but I just found out about it.”
My friend who went with me to see the film that has broken box-office sales commented that had Anti Defamation League chair Abe Foxman not publicly identified as Jews the bearded and robed men in the film who demanded that the Roman governor crucify Jesus, few people would have known who they were and the fear of renewed anti-Semitism would not have arisen.
Understandably, critics have demanded of director Mel Gibson a higher degree of accuracy for this big screen version of a religious snuff film without porn– than they did for example the makers of “Amadeus.” He admitted that his father, a holocaust denier and an anti-Semite, exerted a strong influence on him. Did his father also administer the lash to young Mel when he misbehaved, much as the sadistic Roman guards did to Jesus in the film? Did Mel imagine chunks of his own flesh ripped open, revealing the pink tissue underneath?
In the film, the audience, thanks to Dolby stereo, hears the crisp sound effects “swish, splat, crack” and watches artful cutting between burly whip wielders and close ups of torn flesh, leaking blood. Gibson leaves little to the imagination. In older Hollywood films a man would get shot, clutch his stomach and fall down dead. We didn’t need shots of blood and flesh to convince us. The very premise of movie editing relied on the audiences’ imagination.
Not so with Gibson. Indeed, the make-up department he hired might have gotten an Oscar nomination, except they forgot to stain all of the actors’ teeth the actors who played Jews, black hats, also had blackened teeth. James Caviezel (Jesus) had that Ultra Brite commercial look. Later, some creative “mouth man” inserted colored red dye onto Jesus’ dentures to simulate blood.
Some of the creative art work called attention to itself, like that done on the self-tortured Judas before he committed suicide (I hope I’m not giving away too much of the plot). The parched, cracked quality of the flesh surrounding the teeth, revealed in extreme close up, actually made me so thirsty that I reached for the $3.50, 12 ounce bottle of water I had lodged in the convenient hole in the arm of my reclining movie chair. God forbid you should actually feel really uncomfortable while the images, sound effects and music combine to make you feel virtually uncomfortable! Watching harsh reality while sitting in a secure chair makes for an ideal vicarious experience.
To achieve the semblance of 2000 year old reality, Gibson had the actors speaking Aramaic and Latin, with subtitles. But why didn’t Gibson catch the shining white teeth mistake when he watched the rushes? He could have color corrected the scene by adding a dash of yellowish-brown stain. Hey, in pre-dentist days people had gnarly and tarnished bicuspids despite the absence of refined sugar. The gleaming and perfectly set of white molars should have alerted the public: “it’s only a film with actors playing parts of the last twelve hours as Mel Gibson and other writers imagined them; not as they were.”
By taking this piece of cinema trash seriously, critics have helped Gibson quintuple his original $25 million dollar investment after one week.
Instead of articulating only their own critical thoughts, some critics engage in speculation as to how audiences will react to a film. Film distributors, however, diminish their uncertainty factor by submitting their products to focus groups before releasing their works of art and then they make changes according to the dictates of the majority in those groups. So much for art?
A Hollywood cinematographer described to me how he had to re-shoot the final scenes of a film after a focus group decided that the heroes had not submitted the villains to “enough violence.” Other focus groups don’t like unhappy endings and Hollywood producers bend art, integrity and common sense to these product testing assemblies. Hollywood, after all, represents the Motion Picture Industry just as Detroit once represented the Motor Car Industry. Both could claim that their products shined and gleamed with perfection on the outside. But don’t look under the hood or beneath the makeup too carefully as to what’s in the actual commodities.
If you want to learn biblical history, don’t see Gibson’s production. It bears occasional resemblance to what scholars have unearthed about the crucifixion, but most of the scenes originate in the imaginations of art directors, costume designers, makeup veterans and a very skilled cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel. As history, it is as relevant as the various versions of The Three Musketeers.
Only once does Gibson present a political idea in the film. Pontius Pilate actually talks about the greater chances of a colonial uprising if he doesn’t accede to the demands of the nasty rabbinate. His attractive and humanitarian wife pulls him to save Jesus on the first round, but then he contemplates how Caesar will punish him if yet another rebellion occurs under his command and he finally succumbs to “political logic” and gives his Roman goons the green light to waste the carpenter’s son.
The film doesn’t, however, explore the politics of Jewish priests or the reasons they feared Jesus. That little piece of history he presumably relegates to those who would examine history before the final twelve hours.
Gibson wants the audience to see how he envisions the pain Christ had to undergo in order to die for our sins. We’ve had glimpses in prior Gibson films where Mel, playing the hero undergoes horrendous torture and does not submit. Previews of actor Gibson’s woes appeared in “Braveheart,” where Gibson undergoes disembowelment at the end and in one of the final scenes in one of the “Lethal Weapon” series where Mel, hung from a wall by his arms, ala crucifixion, and tortured with electric shocks to reveal information, finally wraps his legs around the torturer’s neck and breaks it. This is Hollywood grammar applied to Christ: the black hats get beaten and killed after they try to crucify the white hat.
Indeed, such scenes should remind viewers that Gibson had a keen interest if not an obsession with suffering on a cross. Critics have emphasized how the actor’s recovery from alcoholism through a twelve step program colored his vision of religion, thus leading him to make this film financed with his own money (which he will recuperate several times over). Did I just see an example of commercial art as therapy? Or is Gibson giving AA a bad name?
Bill Maher defended Gibson as “sincere” (“Real Time,” HBO February 27, 2004). I agreed, but New Yorker critic (March 11, 2004) David Denby pointed out that “saying that Gibson is sincere doesn’t mean he isn’t foolish, or worse.”
I agree with rabbis and others who predict that this film will incite anti-Semitism. Almost any event has proved sufficient to bring on that historic hatred of Jews. But had the Jews not exacted the cruel and fatal punishment of Jesus, there might not have been a Christian religion, which is, after all, based on the events of the last hours of Jesus’ life and the way he died. If that had not occurred, maybe anti-Semites could have persecuted Jews for not killing Christ. “You dirty Jew, you denied me and millions of other potential Christians a religion!”
If people applied logic, a difficult task when discussing the passions of religion, they would see that “Christ: The Movie,” (a more accurate title) shows that the Jews made Christianity possible precisely by demanding that Jesus die in a specific way after undergoing torture. The many versions of Christianity that today capture the religious souls and minds of hundreds of millions would have been unthinkable without the treacherous role of the Jews some two millennia ago.
Imagine Rev. Jerry Falwell, as strong a supporter of Israel as exists, trying to keep his flock amused without Jews to scapegoat! “A few of you don’t like the Jews and I know why, he said, “they can make more money accidentally than you can on purpose” (The Washington Star, July 3, 1980).
Fundamentalist preachers urge their flock to see Gibson’s film. They may use this piece of crude cinema rather than complex scripture to re-enforce their anti-Semitism — while trumpeting Israel’s cause. “An anti-Semite,” Texas pro-Israel preacher James Roberson once remarked, “that’s someone who hates Jews more than he’s supposed to.” Would Jesus have endorsed this line or Gibson’s film for that matter?
SAUL LANDAU is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. He teaches at Cal Poly Pomona University. For Landau’s writing in Spanish visit: www.rprogreso.com. His new book, PRE-EMPTIVE EMPIRE: A GUIDE TO BUSH S KINGDOM, has just been published by Pluto Press. His new film is Syria: Between Iraq and a Hard Place, now available from the Cinema Guild. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org