Ultimately, any portrayal of a divinity's life is fraught with controversy. Firstly because the first criterion of worthiness is how close the portrayal is to the 'original' or 'accepted' version of the story and secondly what issues or hidden agendas emerge from such a portrayal. Kazantzakis for example was accused of being a freemason and an anti-Christian by portraying Christ on the Cross imagining what it would be like if He forsook the Cross and went home, got married and had children. This was an exploration of faith rather than a narrative of faith and was thus condemned.
Mel Gibson's recent work, "The Passion," also purports to be a work of faith. It certainly is a most powerful piece of cinematography that tries and provokes the emotions. By focusing on the last twelve hours of Christ's earthly existence, Gibson parallels the approach taken by Kazantzakis in many ways. His is also an exploration, not so much of the humanity of Christ per se, but the suffering that Christ endured for our sake. Thus while the viewer is constantly bombarded with horrific images of Christ being tortured, mocked and mutilated, this appears to be consistent with the Gospels and it has a most singular effect. For it is one thing to read in the Gospels that Jesus was whipped, mocked and spat upon and another thing to see a plausible version of the events before your eyes. If anything, Gibson's movie allows the viewer to appreciate how much Christ suffered and what that suffering really entailed. It is an appreciation of that suffering that is the main effect and thrust of the movie. It certainly is effective. Rather than being the crass horror movie designed to tittilate, it succeeds in providing an insight into the depths of human brutality and suffering.
Of course as a narrative, it is not perfect, though it purports to be close. There are many 'defects' including Satan's personification as an androgynous being and his temptation of Christ during the harrowing ordeal of His last hours. There is nothing in the Gospels to suggest that this in fact did occur but nevertheless, the presence of evil, its gloating at suffering and final vanquishing with the sacrifice of Christ is central to the Christian message, and arguably acceptable. Other defects can be found. Christ speaks in Latin to Pilate when there is no evidence for this, the sign on his cross is written only in Latin and Hebrew rather than also in Greek, as is attested to in the Gospels and much license is taken with the earth tremor which in the movie not only causes the veil in the Temple to be torn in two, but the entire Temple itself.
These small explorations do not detract from the central message of the film. It is one replete with raw power and I doubt that anyone who has ever seen it will view Easter in the same way again.
The ramifications of the film of course are manifold, with various 'hidden agendas' being postulated. The movie has been said to have been motivated by a Jesuit view of Christianity. There is no evidence for this. More importantly, the film is claimed to be anti-Semitic. This is a most serious charge, for if true, then the movie flies in the face of the central message of Christ, love. A determination of this sort rests directly on the interpretation of the word anti-Semitic. Does this mean that it is a movie whose message is that Jews are disreputable and/or portrays them in a bad light or does it mean that this movie may incite feelings of revulsion towards Jews as a whole?
I would hesitate to ascribe it to the first of these definitions. The movie does show a crowd of Jews shouting for the death of Christ. It also shows Jews mocking Him on the cross. Yet it does not say that all Jews clamoured for the death of Christ. It even shows some of the Jewish priests defending him. Even the famous phrase "may His blood be on us, and our children" uttered in the movie by Caiaphas and not subtitled is misunderstood. For years thiswas quoted by priests as a justification for pogroms against the Jews. This is wrong. All it means is that it was uttered by some persons at that time, if we accept, which Christians do, that the Gospel is the Word of God. Ultimately, in this respect all the movie does is tell the story of some Jews who felt threatened by Christ's message and considering it blasphemous, asked the Romans to crucify him, which they did. Per se, it would be hard to say that the movie sends a message against Jews or their descendants, though Christians believe that the condemnation of an innocent man and God Himself is reprehensible. Nevertheless, Christ did forgive his tormentors from the Cross.
Whether the movie can give rise to anti-Semitic feelings is a vexed question. Presumably it can, because certain people lack the sophistication of subtlety to understand that the crucifixion was the work of a small group of people two thousand years ago. While watching the movie, I heard movie-goers around me make comments like: "Bloody Jews," and "Jewish Scum." This of course stems from the highly emotional subject matter of the story of Christ and a misunderstanding of the events of His death and His life and is thoroughly reprehensible. Of course the Jewish nation cannot be held to account for the crucifixion of Christ two thousand years ago, simply because it was not the work of the Jewish nation. Yet whether a movie should be banned just because some people may misunderstand it, is a question that deserves to be posed. In this instance, I would venture to say it shouldn't, not only because of the movie's didactic purpose but because bigots are always a minority and the probability of a manifestation of anti-Semitism as a result of the movie is low.
at any rate, such censorship sets an ugly precedent. Do we ban discussion of the Armenian genocide in fear of Anti-Turkish behaviour? Of course not. Turks are not responsible for the works of some of their ancestors any more that today's Greeks can be blamed for that heinous act of cultural genocide, the desecration of the Jewish temple during the reign of Antiochus. Ultimately, the solution is simple. See the movie yourself and make up your own mind. Oh, and don't bring popcorn into the theatre like a view of my fellow movie goers did. Not is this only disrespectful but a waste of money, as you surely won't be able to eat it.
first published in NKEE on 15 March 2004