“This is a film about something that nobody wants to touch, shot in two dead languages [Aramaic and Latin]. In Los Angeles they think I am insane, and maybe I am.”
Mel Gibson decided to undertake the production of his movie about the Passion of the Christ, along with the script and the direction (with the collaboration of the Holy Spirit, as he said). He received early negative reactions during filming and when he finished it, it was deemed anti-Semitic. The studios denied distributing the film, leading Gibson to undertake its promotion and distribution, with little mainstream media coverage. The film was recommended by priests in their churches, since some thought it was a good way to proselytize the non-religious. As a proselytizing tool, however, it might not be so effective, since there is hardly any mention of Jesus’ message in the film, but only his torture during the last hours of his life, making the spectacle a rather morbid affair for someone who is not already familiar with the content of the New Testament. For Gibson, these moments are “the most intense part” of Jesus’ life.
The use of Aramaic and Latin in the movie, as well as the ultra violent depiction of the protagonist’s torture, gives it the semblance of realism; the movie offers itself almost as a documentary. Beyond the obvious objection that all Jews (at least the good ones in the context of the story) are played by white Europeans (like Monica Bellucci in a role completely empty of purpose), the movie is not an accurate depiction of history; and not even a loyal representation of the Bible narrative. Of course, every dramatization of facts and every book adaptation has to be selective, but what the filmmaker selects from his source does betray his character. Moreover, Gibson adds elements that do not appear in the Bible, such as Satan as an “androgynous figure” (inspired by the traditional Catholic depiction of the devil), Jesus inventing the modern type of tall tables (in his time the tables were made to be very close to the ground) and Judas being hounded by demons and children with monstrous faces before he ends up committing suicide (Gibson keeps repeating in interviews that his faith revolves around forgiveness, but since Judas repented for his betrayal why won’t Gibson forgive him?).
Aside from these planted scenes introduced by the creator, through the selective depiction of the Bible story he makes the Romans appear as if they are the pawns of the Jewish priests. The Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate, is shown to be prey to circumstances, as someone who wants to do the right thing (or, in the least, who does not want to partake in the events), but has no power to do so. The movie’s emperor has already warned him that another riot by the Jews will end his role as a prefect. When the Pharisees present him with a fait accompli and demand the execution of a blasphemous pseudo-prophet, Pilate is at a dead end since, if he won’t execute him, the rabbis will rebel and, if he won’t, Jesus’ followers will. So he decides to punish him only by flogging and not by execution, and then asks the Jews what they want. The Jewish people unanimously decide the killing of Jesus, and Pilate washes his hands. The Rabbi says “Let his blood be on us and our children” (Matthew 27:25), the mob agrees cheering, and Jesus is led to his crucifixion. This line was originally removed from the theatrical version, but only from the English subtitles. It remained in the spoken Aramaic dialogue, contrary to what Gibson had promised, and is therefore fair play for subtitling in regions where anti-Semitism consists of more than some vague threats, like in Syria, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries. Gibson is participating in a dangerous game that spans several centuries, wherever there are Jews.
This phrase, along with another that Jesus says to Pilate and remained in the picture –“it is he who delivered me to you who has the greater sin“ (John 19:11)-, is the cause that led to persecutions and violence against Jews for 2,000 years and to what has come to be named “anti-Semitism”, climaxing in the Holocaust. It was Christian priests who accused the Jewish people collectively of deicide from the pulpits of their churches. But even the Catholic Church officially retracted the accusation of deicide; even though it waited almost 20 years after the Holocaust to do so (a bit late, one might think). What should be obvious to every thinking person –that the modern Jews should not be considered liable for what some of their ancestors did- had to wait 20 centuries to be declared. And Mel Gibson retracts it, leaving the phrase in the mouth of the Jews, because “that’s what the Bible says”. The Bible, of course, says a whole lot of things, including all those bening things that any modern Christian takes pride in believing, but the screenwriter Gibson leaves them aside. The only thing that interests him is to depict hyper violent images, which we are called to see in reverence since they show us what Jesus experienced “for us”. He wants to make the believing viewers into blood voyeurs, since their minds should not hold the wish to stop the torture, not only because they know how the story ends, but because the worse Jesus’ torture is the greater his sacrifice, and therefore their gratitude and hope of salvation as well.
In reality, Jesus was crucified because he constituted a threat to the status quo –both of the Roman establishment and the powerful among the Jews. He did not constitute a danger to the Jewish people as a whole, neither was there a “Jewish people as a whole” as we mean it today. Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes of the time disagreed with each other on the religious laws and the rituals of their religion, as well as on the matter of accepting Greek and Roman traditions. Gibson discards all that and illustrates an image of the entirety of the Jews denouncing Jesus (apart from his family and friends). Gibson also belongs in a Christian sect that denies the power of the Pope and, therefore, the retraction of the accusation against the Jewish people that he made.
Of course, the Bible is as much a historical text as much as Paulo Coelho’s works constitute philosophy. For example, everything we know about Pilate is contrary to the above narrative, which to a large extent can also be found in the Bible. Pilate was not an instrument for the rabbis’ use, nor can historical evidence be found to support the claim that he ever gave the right to the Jewish people to choose a prisoner to be discharged (like they supposedly chose to liberate Barabbas instead of Jesus). He was not as merciful as that. To the contrary, the emperor Tiberius had berated him for his atrocities against his Jewish subjects. For a Roman emperor to say that one of his prefects is too violent is, in the least, indicative of Pilate’s disposition concerning him accommodating his subjects. But, watching this film, one would think that Pilate is a slave in a Jewish empire, where the Jews openly mock him in front of him during the trial. Pilate seems to do everything to help Jesus escape his martyrdom, but it is the Jews that insist on it. But we should not forget that it was not the Jews who killed Jesus. It was the Romans, with the accusation of sedition -because he challenged their status quo. Besides, they killed him in the same manner in which they killed every accused of this same crime. So, he was executed for breaking a secular law, not a religious one (not for blasphemy, but for insurgency).
Towards writers and journalists who were critical against his film, Gibson showed his real face, saying about New York Times columnist Frank Rich “I wanted to kill him. I want his intestines on a stick. I want to kill his dog.” For this, he later “apologized” saying “I would never hurt a dog”. Many more racist, sexist, homophobic and other over-the-top remarks can be found here. He told of Wynona Ryder (who is Jewish) that she was an “oven dodger”. And there are many more here. In Israel, the movie has not been released due to “lack of interest”.
As for the rest of Gibson’s directorial efforts, this is not the first time he distorts history for the sake of the box office (nor is it the first time he uses cinema to justify his extreme political and religious sensitivities), but that’s another story…
- Christopher Hitchens – The Gospel According To Mel
- Mel Gibson and The Jews
- Two Archaeologists Comment on “The Passion of the Christ”
- Who Killed Jesus?
- Is The Passion Historically Accurate?