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February 27, 2004

Passion elicits snores

Film exceeds Gospels, blames Jews for Jesus' death.

Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ opens in a mist-shrouded olive grove. James Caviezel, playing Jesus, is wracked with emotion, dreading his fate. It's the beginning of Pesach and the full moon glows overhead. He prays in Aramaic, which sounds something like Elvish here, with English subtitles.

Enter Satan, a hooded androgynous figure played by a woman (Rosalinda Celantano, with her eyebrows shaved off) and voiced by a man (uncredited). She has long pointy nails and a worm crawling out of her nose and looks so much like the figure of Death in The Seventh Seal that I expected her to whip out a chess set and suggest a friendly game.

Shortly thereafter, the Temple guards arrive to arrest Jesus. His followers engage them in a slow-motion sword fight, an ear is lopped off (and helpfully re-attached by Jesus) and it suddenly becomes clear: The Passion is going to be Bergman meets Braveheart.

Back at home, Mary (Jewish-Romanian actress Maia Morgenstern) is startled from her sleep and says to her companion, Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci), "Why is this night different from all other nights?" (They are not, it should be noted, having a seder at that moment.)

Piling non sequitur on non sequitur, Mary M. replies, "Because we were slaves in Egypt and now we are free." At which point James, the brother of Jesus (who may or may not have been buried in that box recently featured on the cover of Biblical Archeology Review), shows up to get the plot back on track.

That "plot," such as it is, consists of two hours' worth of Jesus being beaten, spat at, kicked, punched, scourged (lots of scourging here), and involuntarily bungee-jumped while wrapped in chains, all while being taunted by both the brutish Roman soldiers and the snaggle-toothed Jews. (Jesus and his immediate family are apparently the only Judeans with a decent dental plan.)

At one point, Satan reappears carrying a baby (the anti-Christ?), who looks a lot like Darth Vader with his helmet off. Finally, Jesus is reduced to a bloody pulp, but is still able to haul a 300-pound cross up a large hill.

And the worst is yet to come. During the crucifixion, his arms are dislocated and spikes driven into his palms with a sickening squelch. (There's a slightly different squelch when the man on the next cross over has his eyes pecked out by a raven.) A Roman soldier, to confirm that Jesus is dead, pierces his side with a spear and is showered with blood, in the manner of a lawn sprinkler.

After Jesus' death, a single raindrop falls with a boom, like a nitroglycerin tear from heaven, and the earth splits. Down in hell, Satan has a hissy fit.

Restored to his pre-flayed state (except for see-through holes in his palms) Jesus marches from his tomb to the beat of a military drum, with a ticked-off look in his eye.

The film, just in case it's not apparent from the above, is heavy-handed, occasionally incoherent, artsy, ultra-violent, and frankly rather boring, at least to a non-believer. It lacks any sense of historical, political or religious context, not to mention character development or suspense. (Snores could be heard at the press screening Monday morning.)

But is it anti-Semitic?

Orthodox Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (author of Kosher Sex and a former Michael Jackson confidant) has denounced the Christian gospels as "cheap forgeries" – fightin' words when you're talking about somebody else's articles of faith – and called on Jews to boycott the film. But Gibson cannot fairly be criticized (or boycotted) merely for filming Christian scriptures. The question is, does Gibson go beyond the language of the gospels to blame "the Jews" for the death of Jesus?

First, a digression on the passion play, a form of religious entertainment focused on the death of Jesus, originating in the 12th century and performed in hundreds of European communities (and some North American ones) up to the present day. Violent attacks against Jews often followed performances, so that the plays were sometimes banned by local governments.

The most provocative line in a passion play is from Matthew 27:25, in which those present at the condemnation of Jesus are quoted as saying, "His blood be upon us and upon our children." This verse was the basis for the charge that because "the Jews" killed Jesus, all Jews merited eternal divine (and earthly) punishment. (After criticism of earlier drafts of his film, Gibson cut this line from the English subtitles. He did not, however, remove the Aramaic words from the soundtrack.)

The most famous passion play was, and is, performed at Oberammergau, Germany, every 10 years, in thanks for salvation from the plague. Adolf Hitler attended the 1934 performance and commented, "It is vital that the passion play be continued at Oberammergau; for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the time of the Romans." He added, "There one sees Pontius Pilate, a Roman racially and intellectually so superior, that he stands out like a firm, clean rock in the middle of the whole muck and mire of Jewry." Hitler later sent SS troops to see the play – for inspiration. Oberammergau was conveniently close to Dachau. (It wasn't until the year 2000 that the "blood guilt" line was deleted from the Oberammergau script.)

Gibson's view of Pilate is rather in line with Hitler's. He presents the Roman governor as a decent man who makes every effort to spare Jesus, but is forced to condemn him under a threat of insurrection by the bloodthirsty Jews. He portrays the Roman soldiers as sadists who enjoy doing the actual dirty work but who were, after all, only following orders.

(Incidentally, this view of Pilate is wholly unsupported by the historians of his time. Philo wrote that Pilate was an "unbending and recklessly hard character, [known for] corruptibility, violence, robberies, ill treatment of the people, grievances, continuous executions without even the form of a trial, endless and intolerable cruelties." Josephus says that Pilate's massacre of 4,000 Samaritans eventually got him recalled to Rome – which wasn't known for being overly-protective of its Judean subjects.)

Modern religious scholars (and the mainstream Catholic Church) have denounced the notion of Jewish blood guilt and made efforts to put the Gospels in context as sectarian polemics by one group of Jews (who considered Jesus to be the Messiah) against another group of Jews (who did not), at a time when the former was reaching out to potential converts and being careful to avoid offending their Roman overlords.

As part of Vatican II in 1965, the Catholic Church absolved Jews of responsibility for the death of Jesus. In 1988, a committee of Catholic bishops issued a pamphlet that stresses that passion plays must avoid caricatures of Jews and falsely opposing Jews and Jesus.

Gibson, a member of a fundamentalist Catholic sect that rejects Vatican II, seems to have no problem opposing Jews and Jesus. The villain of his piece is clearly Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest (robed in black, of course), and he has the support of all but a handful of the Judeans.

Historians and the Gospels agree that Jesus was an observant Jew throughout his life. Yet in Gibson's film he never says a Hebrew blessing when washing his hands or eating, and he eats leavened bread (in this case, pita) during Passover, when Jewish law requires him to eat unleavened bread (matzah). Jewish Temple guards bribe the Judeans to gather and attack Jesus. Mary appeals to Roman soldiers to save her son – when the Jewish guards haul him away – a scene that appears nowhere in the Christian Bible.

"We have never accused Gibson of being an anti-Semite," said a Feb. 3 statement from the Jewish Anti-Defamation League. Perhaps the ADL let him off too easily.

Lauri Donahue is an award-winning playwright and the rebbetzin of Beth Tikvah Congregation in Richmond.