Cross Purposes

Films about Christ's death are always controversial but

Mel Gibson's The Passion has caused an almighty ruckus

before its release, reports Christopher Goodwin

The Weekend Australian, Review section, July 26-27, 2003

 

 

 

NOBODY should be surprised that a film depicting the last 12 hours of

the life of Jesus Christ, and the moment of his greatest suffering,

should be controversial. What happened to Jesus of Nazareth has been the

source of religious controversy and social conflict for the best part

of two millenniums - yet even veteran Hollywood observers have been

gobsmacked by the vehemence of feelings over Mel Gibson's film The

Passion, which is not due for release until next Easter.

 

The $40 million project stars Jim Caviezel as Jesus and Monica Bellucci

as Mary Magdalene - and no film since Martin Scorsese's The Last

Temptation of Christ in 1988 has provoked such a furore.

 

Gibson, an ardent member of a traditionalist Catholic breakaway sect

that rejects the current papacy as heretical, financed the film through

his company Icon Productions. And he shot the film at Rome's famous

Cinecitta studios and in the southern Italian town of Matera, where Pier

Paolo Pasolini shot The Gospel According to St Matthew in the early

1960s.

 

At Cinecitta, Gibson built a 1 ha scale replica of parts of biblical

Jerusalem, including the temple and Pontius Pilate's palace. The film is

in Aramaic - the language spoken by Jesus - and Latin. Although Gibson

had hoped to release it without subtitles, they were included at a

recent screening of the unfinished work to a Christian group. It was a

matter of pride for Gibson that the film should be as realistic as

possible, not just in its language and settings but also by accurately

portraying the intense violence inflicted on Jesus. And so the film

shows Jesus' flesh flailed during whippings, blood spurting as nails are

hammered into his hands and ribs protruding from his chest.

 

"By the time audiences get to the crucifixion scene," says Caviezel, a

devout Christian, "I believe there will be many who can't take it and

will have to walk out. And I believe there will be many who will stay

and be drawn to the truth."

 

One person who saw an early cut at a screening in Los Angeles said the

film is strongly eucharistic. "There is a beautiful juxtaposition of

images that cuts from the stripping on Calvary to the unwrapping of the

bread to be used at the last supper," the viewed said. "Fabulous stuff."

 

Gibson, who had Latin mass said every morning during the shoot, believes

that in some way the film was divinely blessed. "There is an interesting

power in the script," he told an interviewer on set. "a lot of unusual

things have been happening - good things, like people being healed of

diseases. A guy who was struck by lightning while we were filming the

crucifixion scene just got up and walked away."

 

But the film, which still does not have a distributor, has provoked

blistering attacks and counter-attacks in the press. The row began in

May when an ad hoc committee of nine respected Catholics and Jewish

scholars privately submitted to Gibson an 18-page report on a draft of

the screenplay, asking him for changes - a report that was leaked to the

press.

 

"A film based on the present version of the script ... would provoke

anti-Semitic sentiments," they wrote. Viewers without extensive

knowledge of Catholic teaching about interpreting the New

Testament will surely leave the theatre with the overriding

impression that the bloodthirsty, vengeful and money-hungry

Jews had an implacable hatred of Jesus."

 

The scholars particularly objected to scenes they say are not

consistent with gospel accounts showing Jews having the cross built in

the temple at the direction of Jewish officials, paying "blood money"

for the crucifixion and physically abusing Jesus beforehand.

 

One leading Catholic theologian in the group said the script was "one

of the more anti-Semitic documents most of us have seen for a long

time".

 

Gibson responded , swiftly and fiercely. "Neither I nor my film are

anti-Semitic," he said in a statement. "Nor do 1 hate anyone, certainly

not the Jews. They are Jews my friends and associates, both in my work

and my social life. Anti-Semitism is not only contrary to my personal

beliefs, it is also contrary to the core message of my movie."

 

He and Icon also threatened to sue the committee that evaluated the

script. "Nobody has a right to publicly critique a film that has not

even been completed," said Gibson's colleague Steve McEveety, "let

alone base their critique on an outdated version of the script."

 

Surprisingly, Gibson did not appear to make any attempt to allay the

fears of mainstream Catholic and Jewish groups about potential

anti-Semitism in the film by showing it to them. At the end of June,

however, he screened the film for a group of evangelical Protestant

ministers in Colorado. According to a local paper, Gibson, who attended

the meeting in Colorado Springs, had arranged the screening "to make

sure its depiction of the Gospel was acceptable to leaders at Focus on

the Family and to hundreds of church leaders."

 

Focus on the Family is an ultra-conservative evangelical group that has

been at the forefront of campaigns against homosexual rights in the US.

 

"The holy ghost was working through me on this film and I was just

directing traffic," Gibson told the assembled clerics. "I hope the film

has the power to evangelise."

 

The row over The Passion has raised important issues. The first is

whether anyone has a right to voice concerns about a work of art before

its release or publication. In this case mainstream Catholics, Jews and

others seem to have a right to be worried in advance about whether a

big-budget film about Christ's Passion (the word is derived from the

Latin passio, meaning "suffering") might promote anti-Semitism. "We know

the dramatic presentation of Jews as 'Christ-killers' triggered pogroms

against Jews over the centuries and contributed to the environment that

made the Shoah possible," the scholars' group that reviewed the early

draft of Gibson's script said. "Given this story and the power of film to

shape minds and hearts, both Catholics and Jews in the ad hoc group are

gravely concerned about the potential dangers of presenting a Passion

play in movie theatres."

 

There is a further concern. Despite Gibson's disavowals, do Catholics,

Jews and others have reason to fear that, once finished, The Passion

might contain "objectionable elements that would promote anti-Semitism"?

The answer, unfortunately, appears to be yes. Gibson was hardly

reassuring when asked in a radio interview about whether The Passion

would upset Jews. "It may do," he responded. "It's not meant to."

 

According to the unanimous report by the ad hoc group, there were a

substantial number of elements in an early version of the script that

they believed could provoke anti-Semitism. (It is not clear whether

these remain in the current version of the film.)

 

Gibson has also noted in interviews that the script had been inspired

not just by the Gospels but also by The Dolorus Passion of Our Lord

Jesus Christ written by the 18th-century mystic Anne Catherine Emmerich.

Gibson has said his original inspiration for the film came when the book

literally fell into his hands one day while he was reaching for another

on his library shelf.

 

Unfortunately, and perhaps unknown to Gibson, Emmerich has long been

considered anti-Semitic, claiming visions such as one in which she

rescued from purgatory an old Jewish woman who confessed that Jews

strangled Christian children and used their blood in religious rituals.

Emmerich's visions of the Passion include several elements not found in

Gospels - such as the building of the cross in the temple of the high

priests - that appear to have found their way at least into the early

version of the script seen by the scholars.

 

Jews, Catholics and others also have a right to be worried about The

Passion because of Gibson's intensely felt religious and social beliefs.

He has acknowledged that his father, Hutton, has been the dominant

spiritual and intellectual influence in his life. Hutton Gibson brought

up his 11 children in line with his strict and conservative religious

and social views, banning television and preaching against evils of

alcohol and extramarital sex among other things. For more than four

decades, in books and newsletters with such shrill titles as The War Is

Now! and The Enemy Is Here! Hutton Gibson has railed against the

mainstream Catholic church and other objects of his ire. In common with

all so-called Catholic traditionalists, including his son, Hutton

believes all popes since the Second Vatican Council of 1962-5 have been

"anti-popes", and that the reforms put in place during Vatican II are

the origin of the ills of today's mainstream Catholic church.

 

The council did away with the tridentine mass, which was conducted in

Latin, and also finally repudiated the charge that the Jews had been

responsible for the death of Jesus, a belief many feel informed the

European anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust.

 

Mel Gibson says the reforms of Vatican II "corrupted the institution of

the church", while Hutton says the Council was a "masonic plot backed by

the Jews". Mel Gibson has become the most prominent member of his

breakaway Catholic sect and its most generous benefactor. It was

recently revealed that he had paid $4.5 million to build a church, Holy

Family, on a 6ha plot in the hills behind Malibu, in California. There,

he, his family and 70 others practise their religion with the original

Latin mass and listen to fiery sermons against the "heretical" papacy.

 

Of most concern in the context of the row about The Passion are Hutton's

other extreme right-wing views, shared by many sedevacantists (people

who do not recognise the pope). Hutton has long been a Holocaust denier

and openly associates with some of America's leading anti-Semites and

Nazi apologists.

 

In an interview earlier this year with The New York Times Magazine, he

disputed historical accounts that 6 million Jews were exterminated in

Nazi death camps. "Go and ask the undertaker or the guy who operates

the crematorium what it takes to get rid of a dead body," he told the

paper. "It takes one litre of petrol and 20 minutes. Now, 6 million?"

 

He also insisted there were more Jews in Europe at end of the war than

before.

 

After the New York Times interview was published, Mel said in a radio

interview that the attacks on him were being orchestrated: "When you

touch this subject, it does have a lot of enemies." He also suggested

the reporter had been "harassing" his elderly father, who is 85. But

neither Mel nor his father has seen fit to repudiate what Hutton said

about the Holocaust. Indeed, when asked about the New York Times story,

rather than denying what he had been quoted as saying, Hutton said: "You

expect to get the shaft when you're doing anything good. There are just

too many devil-worshippers out there."

 

Despite the continuing controversy over his views and the possible

anti-Semitism in his son's film, Hutton was late last month a featured

speaker at the annual conference of The Barnes Review, the leading

anti-Semitic, Nazi apologist think-tank in the US.

 

It is run by Willis Carto, one of the co-founders of The Institute for

Historical Review, a Holocaust-denial group based in California, and

raises money by selling anti-semitic and Nazi propaganda on its website,

including laudatory books on Hitler, Hess and other Nazi leaders, and a

video called Epic: The Story of the Waffen SS.

 

Joining Hutton as speakers at the conference were noted Australian-raised

Holocaust revisionist Fredrick Töben, who spent several months in

jail in Germany for "hate speech", and Russ Granata, a notorious

Holocaust denier. [and also Germar Rudolf!]

 

Such are the people Hutton Gibson openly associates with, even after

coming under intense public scrutiny because of the controversy over his

son's film. There is nothing to suggest Mel Gibson shares his father's

Holocaust-denying views, but what is surprising is that despite

opportunities to do so, he has neither repudiated his father's views

about the Holocaust nor sought to allay the fears many people, Jews in

particular, have about what may be the message of The Passion. It is

time he did so.

{sourced from the London} Sunday Times

 

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