The Magazine

Passion Play

From the August 25, 2003 issue: The controversy over Mel Gibson's forthcoming movie on the death of Jesus Christ.

Aug 25, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 47 • By MICHAEL NOVAK
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The sounds of the unfamiliar tongue put the viewer outside any one time or place, in a kind of timeless, universal space. The mood "The Passion" generates is meditative and contemplative. The tone is awe. One finds one's emotions hushed. For minutes after the film ended, the audience at the showing I attended did not speak or move. We felt part of an indescribably important human moment. We had been drawn into an axial point of silence and wonder.

Such is the power of a genuine work of art--and in its artistic integrity, "The Passion" dwarfs any previous biblical film.

BUT THE MAKING of a film about the death of Jesus Christ is a public event, and it has public consequences that need to be considered. Before I saw "The Passion," I was sympathetic to the worries about the film strongly expressed by the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish organizations. History is not reassuring concerning dramatic treatments of Jesus' Passion, and there has been considerable negative talk about Mel Gibson ever since his project was announced, much of it related to the schismatic views attributed to his father, who is ninety-two.

More important, ours is a particularly nasty time for Jews around the world. Taboos that had seemed firmly in place since 1945 have suddenly dissolved. Jewish cemeteries are being desecrated in France, horrible slogans are shouted in public throughout Europe, acts of violence against Jewish passers-by are caught on film, and "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," which we thought discredited forever, is welcomed with a new credulity in the Arab world.

Gibson's film, however, is simply not part of this horrendous trend. On August 8, representatives of the Anti-Defamation League attended a private screening of the rough cut in Houston and, on August 11, released a new statement that still attacks the film "in its present form." Their interpretation of the movie does not square with the film I saw. Gibson omits some of the New Testament texts most painful for Jewish readers, such as "His blood be upon us and our children!" He also adds such moderating scenes as some of the Pharisees walking out in dissent from the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin and, later, one member of the Sanhedrin, Joseph of Arimathea, helping to lift the lifeless body down from the cross.

MOST IMPORTANT, Gibson's narrative shows that Pilate alone has the power to put Jesus to death, and the film's full narrative weight assigns responsibility to Rome and the Roman soldiers. The Anti-Defamation League is wrong to assert that the Jewish authorities are "forcing the decision" and that the Jewish high priest is "controlling" Pontius Pilate. The Jews had no such power, and they say so in the film. Pilate tries to shift the responsibility, first to Herod, then to the high priests. And he pretends that the decision is not his--but he knows it is, and he gives the orders that only he can give. His soldiers enjoy their brutal sport, as obviously they have done before: Historians suggest they performed this gruesome work about 150 times in crucifixions under Pilate.

There is no doubt that the trial of Jesus was not, in the Christian telling, the best moment of the high priest and his council. But the first two generations of Christians were nearly all Jews. They still thought of themselves as Jews, and they were at first astonished to see how they were rejected and persecuted by Jewish officials. The accounts by the evangelists are plainly written to convince believing Jews that Jesus fulfills the biblical anticipations, and nearly every word they write in criticizing the Jewish leaders of their generation was an allusion to condemnations of earlier Jewish leaders by the Jewish prophets.

The early Christians thought their criticisms of the Jews were of the sort one makes within one's own community, and therefore had a different edge than they would have had if they had come from pure outsiders. Only gradually, and with something of a shock, did Christians come to see that, even if they thought of themselves as serious Jews, they belonged to a new community.

Though visually powerful in the way only movies can be, Gibson's film recognizes that Christian criticism of the Jewish leaders has different valences today than it did in the first years after Jesus' death, and on the whole the movie softens the Jewish elements of the gospels' story and with the New Testament places the onus on the Romans.

Still, Jews will not agree that Jesus as the Messiah took the sins of all upon himself in self-sacrifice. That makes a movie about the Passion not only a memory of a painful separation between communities, but also a story with dramatically different meanings for Christian and Jewish viewers--and for that there is no immediate solution, short of banning all attempts to make films about the death of Jesus.

BUT GIBSON'S VERSION is not divisive or dangerous for Jews. Without preachiness, without external commentary, this cinematic reenactment has the potential to be transformative in powerful, mysterious, and quiet ways. When "The Passion" is released on Ash Wednesday its effect around the world will almost certainly be conciliating, quieting, and calming, for it induces awe at the suffering we inflict upon one another.

Through the film, the viewer is forced to see a single human being's passion. A man who claims to be the Son of God knows in advance, as the film shows, the unbounded pain he is about to suffer, the mere thought of which makes him sweat blood. But he willingly accepts this burden, and he perseveres through every shock to his flesh in order to open up a new way of living for the entire race.

Gibson's achievement springs not solely, not even mainly, from a cinematographer's art. Whether he intended it this way or not, perhaps because he puts on film the unadorned directness of the gospels, "The Passion" is a meditation and a prayer.

Michael Novak holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair of Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.