…you shall find him still,
In all his projects, a sound Machiavill;
And that’s his character. He that hath past
So many censures is now come at last
To have your princely ears: grace you him; then
You crown the action, and renown the pen.
the prologue spoken at Court, from ‘The Jew of Malta’ by Christopher Marlowe
Mel Gibson first made a name as Mad Max, the road-raging hero of a desolate post-nuclear Armageddon. Then later he was Riggs in Lethal Weapon, with a mullet and anarchic methods he was the arch-typical ‘crazy white guy’ of mid-’80s LA. Next he led the bonny Highland clans against the cruel abuses of the English, demanding ‘Freedom!’ while stretched on the rack of his martyrdom in Braveheart. Then he was The Patriot, organizing white as well as black rebels of colonial South Carolina against the Redcoats; so far as Gibson was concerned, the reality of slavery wasn’t a good fit for his patriotic color scheme. Where next, then, for this idol of libertarian sloganeering? Turns out he went for the gusto and decided to reenact the medieval passion plays by making a movie about the last hours of Jesus’s life, called The Passion. Though not actually acting in this one, as producer and director he was the certainly the prime mover. God, if you will.
So far few have actually viewed The Passion, which, despite this, is undergoing a maelstrom of pre-release debate. On top of nobody having seen it, few would have actually comprehended it, as Gibson originally intended to use only Latin and Aramaic languages—and without subtitles. Though he’s since reconsidered such a move, he’d originally hoped the story was so well known that modern languages needn’t be included. And he believes similar things of the traditionalist Catholic chapel he built in Malibu, which offers mass in Latin rather than the vernacular (perhaps a good thing considering southern-Cal speech patterns). A traditionalist himself, Gibson belongs to an offshoot of Catholicism that decries the reformist Second Vatican Council (1963–1965) as a mistaken path toward the wayward. Other goals of the Council were to establish dialogue with Protestant denominations and increase participation within the community laity. In other words, Protestants would not be considered automatically Hell-bound, while it was the Church’s responsibility to make itself accessible to parishioners, not the other way around.
Gibson’s personal views aside for the moment, as well as those of his crackpot, anti-Semite father—a Holocaust denier who believes the Second Vatican Council was a heretical Masonic plot guided by Jews—the unreleased film has already caused serious concerns regarding its portrayal of Jewry. After being allowed to review the film, the Anti-Defamation League issued a statement saying, ‘We are deeply concerned that the film, if released in its present form, will fuel the hatred, bigotry, and anti-Semitism that many responsible churches have worked hard to repudiate.’ The ADL also stated, ‘The film unambiguously portrays Jewish authorities and the Jewish mob as the ones responsible for the decision to crucify Jesus.’ Rabbi Eugene Korn, ADL Director of Interfaith Affairs, says the film contained a number of troubling themes and images, all raising the specter of ‘deicide,’ or Jewish complicity in the death of Jesus.
‘Sadly, the film contains many of the dangerous teachings that Christians and Jews have worked for so many years to counter,’ says Rabbi Korn. ‘This is not a disagreement between the Jews and Mr. Gibson. Many theologically informed Catholics and Protestants have expressed the same concerns regarding anti-Semitism, and that this film may undermine Christian-Jewish dialogue and could turn back the clock on decades of positive progress in interfaith relations.’
Gibson himself has told the Italian news portal ZENIT.org where his intentions for the film came from: ‘It’s been slowly coming on for about 10 or 12 years now. I’m a pretty old guy, but if you go back 12 years I was 35. That’s when I started to investigate the roots of my faith. I had always believed in God, that he existed, and I was brought up to believe in a certain way.’ He has also told a news conference in Italy, where the movie was filmed: ‘I think this is a pretty timeless and timely story to tell, involving an area where there’s turbulence now just as there was turbulence then because history repeats itself.’
This is exactly the problem, though: Putting aside the ADL’s justifiable concern with the film, whether the piece is actually anti-Semitic or not is almost impossible to say since almost no one has actually seen it. Rather, it is Gibson’s claim to historical relevance that is a very large concern. He has played fast and loose with history before, shaping both The Patriot and Braveheart to fit his own interpretation of historical events. This is fine, and nothing else can really be expected of a filmmaker or artist with a specific agenda. But to make the stance that now is the right time to tell such a story—‘because history repeats itself’—is deeply irresponsible of Gibson.
For one, passion plays have historically fanned anti-Semitic fires. Easter was the traditional time to perform such plays. Inspired by these reenactments of the supposed complicity of Jews in the death of the Christ, violence often accompanied such performances. Along with the vicious idiocy of blood-libel claims—that Jews killed unbaptized babies and used their blood for black rituals—the charge of deicide and accusations of ‘Christ-Killers’ toward Jews have been prime excuses for pogrom. These accusations took such root that another aspect of the Second Vatican Council was to officially repudiate the deicide myth and anti-Semitism as a whole. Of course, Gibson and fellow traditionalists have officially repudiated the Second Council, so…
Another extremely worrisome issue with The Passion is exactly as Gibson stated: the timing of the film. After September 11, 2001, numerous organizations have currently stated that anti-Semitism is a growing problem. Earlier this spring the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Centre said attacks on Jews had reached the highest level since World War II. In June of this year 400 officials from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe gathered for an unprecedented two-day meeting following a rash of anti-Jewish incidents in Europe. France has experienced a six-fold increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the space of a year, while the Polish delegate, former Polish Foreign Minister Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, warned that anti-Semitism had ‘mutated’ in Poland since the Holocaust, which then wiped out nearly all of Poland’s pre-war Jewish population. It wasn’t a coincidence that the conference opened a day after the Romanian Government retracted an earlier claim that ‘there was no Holocaust’ on Romanian soil. This despite the fact it is documented (in Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts) that fascist Romanian gangs sent live Jews down the line of a meat-processing factory during the Second World War. Though extreme, the example is hardly isolated.
Yet Gibson seems to have pointedly ignored the past and present horrors. The debate swirls around whether the film is actually anti-Semitic, not what the outcome of its release will portend, Gibson’s intentions or not. If he is going to stand on history as the raison d’être for the film, his stance is one-footed at best. Had Elie Wiesel made such a film, the charges and counter-charges regarding intent would have been much, much different. However, like it or not, when a man whose father is a notorious anti-Semite, and who himself ascribes to a deliberately antiquated—perhaps medieval—form of Catholicism, makes such a movie, questions are going to be asked. Some have insinuated that Gibson shares his father’s beliefs, but there’s no real proof of that, and perhaps it’s best to currently allow Gibson the benefit of the doubt and chalk any reluctance to disclaim his father’s views as filial allegiance. It would be even more unfair to try to rake an unseen movie over the coals. What isn’t unfair, however, is to expect Gibson to address possible violent scenarios inspired by the film. This he hasn’t done, resorting instead toward a kind of group guilt trip, telling Bill O’Reilly: ‘I think it’s meant to just tell the truth. I want to be as truthful as possible. But when you look at the reasons why Christ came, why he was crucified—he died for all mankind and he suffered for all mankind. So that, really, anyone who transgresses has to look at their own part or look at their own culpability.’ This is not dissimilar to President Bush’s supposed support of gays when he claimed everyone is a sinner. The implication is clear: the main group in concern is indeed guilty but so are all of us, a little bit. So much for removing the onus.
The Passion may be a beautiful, extraordinary achievement, but when the crowning point could very well result in desecrated graves, smashed storefronts, and physical beatings, Gibson should have the courage to confront such possibilities. As for seeking renown, Gibson hasn’t been shy. Asked about the lack of subtitles, Gibson told Italian reporters, ‘They think I’m crazy, and maybe I am. But maybe I’m a genius.’
Genius or no, there is a lot of smoke surrounding a film that Gibson claims has no fire. Perhaps he doth protest too much. Sadly, the more he speaks on behalf of his intentions, the more it reflects Marlowe’s self-serving insistence on the veracity of his anti-Semitic caricature of the Jew of Malta. Is Art worth the price of a beating? As possible audiences, that is our own crowning decision.