By Marianne Dacy (NDS)
Mel Gibson?s twenty five million dollar saga, The Passion of the Christ is a deeply disturbing film. The focus is on an unrelentlessly brutal portrayal of the sufferings of Jesus. More disturbingly, it reinforces the anti-Semitic stereotypes of the Jews that have been developed in Christianity over the last two thousand years. The tone of the film is one that bypasses the reconciliatory nature of the statements of Vatican II, and the efforts at reconciliation that have followed since that day. Vatican II?s landmark document of 1965, Nostra Aetate, declared that ?the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God.? The film is deeply offensive to Jews, who are drawn in black and white as unremittingly harsh and without humanity and as ?Christ killers?. On the other hand, Pontius Pilate is shown sympathetically, and the Romans, though cruel and brutal, are not without redemption.
The Passion of the Christ is, as it were, caught in a time warp. Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene could have stepped straight out of a Caravaggio painting. The film strongly reflects Gibson?s fundamentalist stance. Emphasis on the passion was made popular in medieval passion plays. Gibson?s embellishments of the gospel stories add touches of melodrama. The devil is personified as a woman who appears at crucial moments dressed in a dark cowl, sometimes with fiendish children. During his agony in the garden, Jesus crushes the head of a snake, recalling in a somewhat bizarre interpretation, the Genesis curse. After Jesus is brutally scourged and reduced to a bleeding mass in a particularly prolonged scene, Pilate?s wife supplies both Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene with a white towel. In a macabre twist, each mops up the pools of Jesus? blood from the stone pavement of the praetorian. The fourteen stations of the cross, a devotion originating in medieval times are interwoven throughout the drama.
This is not a film for the squeamish. The overwhelming emphasis is on the sufferings of Jesus. The atmosphere of the film is dark and heavy, the costumes are sombre, the landscape, filmed round Rome and parts of Italy, is dry and inhospitable. Jesus is shown as a skilled linguist, switching from Aramaic to Latin when speaking with Pilate, and Herod speaks Greek. After the long drawn out gory depictions of the atrocities enacted against Jesus, one is left completely exhausted. The resurrection scene comes as an anti-climax, a very small ray of light on that overwhelming dark canvas depicted in Gibson?s portrayal.
Fr John Pawlikowski. the current President of the International Council of Christians and Jews has said that rather than spend energy condemning the film, it should be used as an educative tool. It is up to Christian leaders to speak out against the negative stereotypes it portrays and educate Christians on the difficult passages in the New Testament. As Rabbi Marvin Hier, Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center has said: ?As we have said many times, our disagreement is not with Christian churches, nor with the Gospels. Our disagreement is with Mel Gibson whose own personal embellishment of the Gospels stereotype and denigrate the masses of Jews who were not followers of Jesus…?
Dr. Marianne Dacy, NDS, is the National Secretary of the Australian Council of Christians and Jews and Archivist of Australian Judaica at Sydney University.