My friends had one question for me after I saw Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ: Is it anti-Semitic? It’s a testament to Gibson’s public relations genius that this is an open question. In the endless run-up to opening day, Gibson drove assorted Jewish spokespeople so wild with his absurd claims of persecution that pooh-poohing charges of anti-Semitism became a badge of professional cool; who wants to sound like Abraham Foxman, choleric head of the Anti-Defamation League? Except for David Denby, whose scathing review in The New Yorker should have set the tone, and of course the indefatigable Frank Rich, whose intestines Gibson has said he would like to have on a stick, early high-end reviewers like the New York Times‘s A.O. Scott and Newsweek‘s David Ansen have given Gibson a pass on a movie that could safely be shown at the Leni Riefenstahl Memorial Film Festival.
You’d think it was impolite to make anything of the fact that Gibson’s father is a Holocaust denier who claims the European Jews simply moved to Australia. True, we don’t choose our parents, but Mel Gibson has not only not dissociated himself from his father’s views but indirectly affirmed them (“The man never lied to me in his life,” he told Peggy Noonan in Reader’s Digest; pressed to affirm that the Holocaust was real, he replied that many people died in World War II and some were Jews–the classic Holocaust-revisionist two-step). Nor would it do to dwell on the “traditional” (i.e., ultra right-wing) Catholicism Gibson practices, which specifically rejects the reforms of Vatican II, presumably including its repudiation of the belief that “the Jews” are collectively responsible for the death of Christ.
So how anti-Semitic is The Passion? Gibson claims that there are good Jews and bad Jews in the movie, as in the Gospels. This is true, but disingenuous: In The Passion, the high priest Caiaphas and his faction are not just bad, they fit neatly into ancient Christian stereotypes: They are rich, arrogant and gaudily dressed; they plot and scheme and bribe; they cleverly manipulate the brutal but straightforward Romans; they are gratuitously “cruel” and “hard-hearted,” to quote Anne Catherine Emmerich, the nineteenth-century German nun whose visions of the Passion Gibson relied on for some of the more disgusting tortures he inflicts on Jesus. Physically, they are anti-Semitic cartoons: The priests have big noses and gnarly faces, lumpish bodies, yellow teeth; Herod Antipas and his court are a bizarre collection of oily-haired, epicene perverts. The “good Jews” look like Italian movie stars (Magdalene actually is an Italian movie star, the lovely Monica Bellucci); Mary, who would have been around 50 and appeared 70, could pass for a ripe 35. These visual characterizations follow not just the Oberammergau Passion Play that Hitler found so touching but a long tradition of Christian New Testament iconography in which the villains look Semitic and the heroes, although equally Jewish, look Northern European.
Gibson claims he’s only telling the story as written in the Gospels, which he calls eyewitness accounts (historians say no). That the film is entirely in Aramaic and Latin underscores this bid for authenticity: “It is as it was,” as his publicist falsely claimed the Pope had said. Thus Gibson, the literalist, presents himself as bending over backward to placate the you-know-who by removing from the subtitles (but not the soundtrack) the line from Matthew in which the crowd condemns itself: “Let his blood be on us and our children.” Yet when called on his inaccuracies and distortions, Gibson claims artistic license. Thus, Pontius Pilate is upright and sensitive; too bad for Josephus, the first-century historian who described him as savage and corrupt. Most improbably, the temple priests tell their Roman overlord what to do. The Bible’s brief mention of Jesus’s flogging–one sentence in three Gospels, nothing in one–becomes a ten-minute homoerotic sadistic extravaganza that no human being could have survived, as if the point of the Passion was to show how tough Christ was.
Gibson adds considerably to the Gospels in ways that emphasize Jewish villainy. The Gospels contain no scene in which the Jewish guards who arrest Jesus whip him with chains, throw him over a bridge and dangle him over the water, choking, for fun; or in which Caiaphas and his most Fagin-resembling sidekick show up to watch Christ’s scourging by the Romans; or in which Satan (played by a woman, for a nice touch of misogyny) flits among and merges with the crowd as it shouts, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Why does Gibson dress Mary and Magdalene in what look like nun’s habits, if not to turn these two Jewish women into good Catholics avant la lettre? And why does he show an earthquake splitting the temple interior as Christ expires (in the Bible, a curtain is torn), if not to justify as God’s vengeance the historical destruction of the temple by the Romans a few decades later and all the sufferings of the Jewish people since?
It’s a mystery to me why the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has given this crude and kitschy film a thumbs up (“deeply personal work of devotional art…the Jewish people are at no time blamed collectively for Jesus’ death”). Gibson has violated just about every precept of the conference’s own 1988 “Criteria” for the portrayal of Jews in dramatizations of the Passion (no bloodthirsty Jews, no rabble, no use of Scripture that reinforces negative stereotypes of Jews, etc.). Even stranger is the enthusiasm for the film among Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists, who seem not to realize how specifically Catholic Gibson’s theology is. A generation ago, “Bible-believing” Protestants would have been up in arms over, among other “popish heresies,” the quasi-divine role given to Mary and the reverence for Christ’s blood (in one extra-biblical scene, Mary on her knees mops the floor where he has been scourged, using some towels given to her by Pilate’s kind and thoughtful wife). Do evangelicals not have theology anymore–anything goes as long as it’s “conservative,” and puts Jesus on top?
The Passion is nondenominational bigotry: Jesus wept.