Comment: Mel Gibson’s Jesus movie sparks controversy

THE PASSION, Mel Gibson’s much-hyped movie about the events leading to the death of Christ, won’t be coming to theatres near us for nearly a year; Gibson plans to release it in time for Easter 2004. But the controversy over his film is already under way — and people are taking sides in the debate even though no one has yet seen the finished film.

Paula Fredriksen, a historian and a member of the ad hoc group of mostly Catholic and Jewish scholars who analyzed the film’s screenplay, writes in the latest issue of The New Republic that Gibson’s film, which is said to be the goriest Jesus movie ever made, takes some of its more “lurid” elements from the visions of an 18th-century nun. Fredriksen warns these elements could promote anti-semitism, whether they are meant to or not.

Four of Fredriksen’s colleagues, who are all members of the Catholic church’s advisory committee on Jewish-Catholic relations, have also posted their concerns regarding the screenplay on the website of Boston College, a Jesuit institution.

Others have lined up to defend the film, a rough cut of which Gibson has shown to conservative politicians, pundits and religious leaders like Rush Limbaugh, David Horowitz and Matt Drudge. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, told the Colorado Springs Gazette the film depicted Jesus “more accurately than any other film,” and Focus on the Family president Don Hodel called the film “historically and theologically accurate.”

Similarly, Gibson has said his film will be the most accurate depiction of the death of Christ ever made — he told one reporter that watching it would be like “travelling back in time and watching the events unfold exactly as they occurred.” He has even claimed a measure of divine inspiration for his film, telling his audience in Colorado Springs, “The Holy Ghost was working through me on this film, and I was just directing traffic.”

Who should we believe? Everyone who has seen the film or read the script has had to sign a confidentiality agreement, so very few specific details have leaked out. And of course, the editing of the film is not yet complete.

But now that the trailer for The Passion has been released on the internet, we know that the film is not quite as authentic as many people have said it is. In some ways, it’s a step backwards for Jesus films, many of which, over the past three decades, have gone out of their way to get as many of the details historically accurate as possible.

In 1977, Franco Zeffirelli’s mini-series Jesus of Nazareth depicted Jesus carrying a crossbeam, and not the entire cross, through the streets of Jerusalem. In 1979, Campus Crusade’s Jesus had the nails go through his wrists, not the palms of his hands. And in 1988, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ showed how the Romans crucified their victims naked — a fact that was recognized by the early church, even if later religious art tended to cover it up. (St. Cyril of Jerusalem said early Christians were baptized in the nude partly in imitation of Christ’s death.)

But in Gibson’s film, Jesus carries the whole cross and is crucified with a cloth around his loins and nails through his palms. In addition, the film’s Pontius Pilate pronounces his Latin as though he were a modern Catholic and not an ancient Roman — and never mind that the historical Pilate almost certainly would have spoken to the Jews in Greek.

What does come through in the trailer is that Gibson’s film will be very violent, but that is to be expected from an actor and director whose career, from the Lethal Weapon franchise to the Oscar-winning Braveheart, has tended to dwell on scenes of pain and torture more than most. Gibson, who belongs to a traditionalist Catholic sect that rejects the authority of the Pope and practises its liturgy in Latin, seems to be interested not so much in historical accuracy, but in making the bloodiest medieval passion play of all time.

We will have to wait to see how Gibson makes use of this violence in his film. Still, just as some critics have expressed concern over the fetishization of explicit violence in increasingly gory war movies like Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down and Gibson’s own We Were Soldiers, we too should be cautious about praising a Jesus film just because it gives us more blood and guts.

Already I have heard someone say that, based on the trailer, The Passion is not grisly enough, and no doubt some other director will try to out-do it some day. If Gibson’s film is to be any good — and I do hope it is — it will have to be more than simply the goriest Jesus ever made . . . so far.

– A version of this article was first published in BC Christian News.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).


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