"The Passion" - a Forthcoming Movie

by Lynn Ballas

SpaceNot in recent memory has a movie, yet to be released, generated as much controversy as "The Passion," actor-director Mel Gibson's dramatization of the crucifixion of Jesus.

SpaceLately, not a day goes by without the appearance of another newspaper or magazine article, op-ed piece or statement, denouncing or praising the film, which Gibson has financed himself, at a cost of $25 million, through his production company, Icon Productions.

SpaceCritics say the "The Passion" is historically inaccurate, deviates from the official teaching of the Catholic Church, and at worst, perpetuates the centuries-old falsehood that the Jews were the killers of Christ.

SpaceBut others have found Gibson's effort to be an artistic expression of the Gospel truth that Christ underwent his passion and brutal death for our sins so that we might be saved. Rather than fuel anti-Semitism, the film inspires contemplation on Christ's love for us and our own sinfulness, admirers of "The Passion" say.

SpaceOver the summer Gibson gave private screenings of a cut of the film. Political commentator Peggy Noonan, who is Catholic, was among a group invited by Gibson to a screening in Washington, D.C. in July. Noonan had this to say to Compassion:

"Gibson's movie is the story of a Jewish man with a Jewish mother and Jewish followers who was killed by Roman soldiers on the order of a Roman governor bowing to pressure from local Jewish leaders. The Jewish man was also God, something that wasn't understood by all of his followers or any of his foes.

"The movie encompasses the story of Christianity --- which comes from the Jewish people. It is no more likely that movie-goers will leave this movie feeling inspired to anti-Semitism than it is that they will leave the movie hating Italian soldiers and wanting to hurt them. (And believe me, the Italian soldiers are portrayed as very bad guys.)

"It's not about 'They killed Christ,' it's about, 'We killed Christ.' I think people who see this movie will walk out thinking: 'We did that. And he forgave us.'"

Biblical Scholars Team

SpaceBut Jewish and Catholic Biblical scholars who reviewed a leaked script of "The Passion" found what they read more troubling than inspiring.

Space(The leaked script has been at the center of an unfolding drama that involves the scholars, Icon Productions, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Icon maintains that the script was illegally obtained by the scholars and does not reflect the final movie. The USCCB became involved because the associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the USCCB, Eugene Fisher, helped to organize the ad hoc committee of scholars.)

SpaceOne of the scholars, Rev. John T. Pawlikowski, OSM, Professor of Ethics and Director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies Program at Catholic Theological Union, discussed the findings of the team with Compassion. Pawlikowski has extensively studied the Nazi Holocaust and is a leading figure in the Christian-Jewish dialogue.

Space"The overwhelming major problem that all of us had with the main story line is that it moved along the path that a large cabal of angry, vengeful (and in the script the term 'bloodthirsty' was used) Jews pursued Jesus to the point where Jesus would be put to death by the Romans. Pilate is shown as threatened by blackmail by the Jewish cabal.

Space"First of all, this runs counter to Catholic (teaching) that the Jews were not the primary instigators or power brokers…Pilate was a tyrant in firm control, with no fear of his being blackmailed. The (script) repeats the pre-Vatican II canard that the Jews were the killers of Christ."

SpaceAccording to Pawlikowski, Gibson and his publicist, Alan Nierob, have referred to the evaluation of the scholars as reflecting new-fangled theory. "It shows contempt for modern Biblical scholarship," Pawlikowski said.

Space"What has disturbed me is that people defending Gibson don't ask serious questions about Vatican II teachings and Gibson's general opposition to Vatican II," Pawlikowski added. "It is the obligation of Church leaders to repudiate any implication that Jews were the primary instigators of Jesus' crucifixion. It must be made clear that Pilate and the Roman imperial government he represented were the chief agents in putting him to death," he said.

SpaceIt has been reported that Gibson has financed construction of a traditionalist Catholic church not affiliated with the Los Angeles Archdiocese in an area northwest of the city. The church reportedly rejects the Second Vatican Council and the papacy since that time.

Vatican II Teachings

SpaceWhat exactly are Church teachings in the matter of responsibility for Christ's death? First of all, the Church declared its "absolute rejection" of the charge that the Jews killed Christ in the Second Vatican Council Declaration, "Nostra Aetate" (1965), (4) which in part stated: "Even though the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ, neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during his passion."

SpaceThe Church's traditional interpretation of Christ's death is also stated in Nostra Aetate. "Christ in his boundless love freely underwent his passion and death because of the sins of all, so that all might attain salvation."

SpaceSubsequent Vatican and episcopal conference documents expound on Nostra Aetate. Among them, the Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion (1988), specifies standards to be used in assessing whether dramatic presentations of the crucifixion conform to Roman Catholic teaching. This document is one of the criteria that the scholars used in reviewing the script.

SpaceAnother problem that the scholars found with the script was that it contained material external to the four gospels. In an interview that appears on the "Inside the Vatican" web site, Gibson said that the script was based on the writings of two mystics, Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824) and Mary of Agreda (1602-1665). Visions Emmerich had of the crucifixion are recorded in the "The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ."

SpaceThe scholars found 13 elements from the Emmerich book that if added to a passion play would "intensify the responsibility of Jewish characters for the crucifixion." One such element --- Jesus' cross being constructed at the orders of the high priest in the courtyard of the Temple --- appeared in the script that the scholars reviewed but was subsequently removed, Pawlikowski said.

Icon's Response

SpaceWhen contacted in August, Gibson's publicist said the actor was not available to speak to Compassion, but provided a June 13th press release that contains a statement from Gibson that has been often quoted in articles about the movie. "To be certain, neither I nor my film are anti-Semitic," said Gibson…"They (Jewish people) are my friends and associates, both in my work and social life.
The statement goes on to say "'The Passion' is a film meant to inspire, not offend."

SpaceWhen asked if the film today reflects the script that the scholars reviewed, Nierob said "the movie is not final at this point," adding that Gibson is continuing to work on the film in preparation for release next Easter.


SpaceThe buzz about the project began in January when Gibson appeared on television to discuss the film. Gibson has said that the movie fulfills a decade-long desire of his to bring Christ's Passion to the screen in the "most authentic way possible." To that end the dialog is in Aramaic and Latin. (Critics have noted that the Jewish high priest and the Roman prefect would have spoken Greek to each other.)

SpaceRev. William Fulco, S.J., a professor in the Department of Classics and Archaeology at Loyola Marymount University, in California, did the translation. In initial interviews, Gibson said he did not plan to use subtitles, but comments made subsequently by Fr. Fulco indicate that Gibson might be reconsidering that decision.

The film was shot primarily in Sassi de Matera and Craco, both towns in southern Italy. American actor Jim Caveziel plays Christ. Scenes of Christ's scourging and crucifixion are reported to be extremely graphic.

Leaked Script

SpaceAccording to Pawlikowski, sometime in the spring someone from Icon leaked a copy of the script to him, which he forwarded to Dr. Fisher at the USCCB. Fisher and Rabbi Eugene Korn, Fisher's counterpart at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), assembled an ad hoc committee of New Testament scholars to review the script with them.

SpaceThe committee read the script in April and sent the report of its unanimous findings to Icon Productions on May 5th with the understanding that its report would remain confidential.

SpaceWriting in the July 28th issue of The New Republic, scholar Dr. Paula Fredriksen, Aurelio Professor of Scripture at Boston University, said the first part of the report explained "the historical connection between passion plays and the slaughter of European Jews, the dress rehearsals for the Shoah."

SpaceThe report also pointed out historical errors, deviations from magisterial principles of biblical interpretation, and general recommendations for certain changes in the script, Fredriksen said.

SpaceFredriksen described the sideline drama that ensued. On May 16th, the scholars received a fax from a Gibson lawyer stating that the scholars were in possession of a stolen draft of the screenplay and that the team was attempting to force Gibson to alter the screenplay "to suit your own religious views. Icon demanded that the scholars return all copies of the script to Icon.

SpaceThe USCCB apologized to Gibson for the misunderstanding, but not the contents of the scholars' report, as has been reported. On June 11th, the USCCB issued a statement that the Conference did not establish the scholars' group, authorize, review, or approve its report. In July, Gibson paid a conciliatory visit to the USCCB Secretariat in Washington.

SpaceIn response to the Icon charges and the media attention that followed, the four Catholic scholars on the team issued a June 17th statement that is posted on the Boston College Center for Christian-Jewish Learning web site http://www.bc.edu/research/cjl/. The scholars said that the team was always aware that the script it reviewed was not necessarily the final script, that it acted independently of the USCCB, and never intended its report to be public.

Up to Movie-Goers

SpaceAs the drama of the making of this movie plays out in the media, one is left to wonder -- will "The Passion" be an authentic rendering of Christ's suffering and death that moves viewers to reflection or just a modern-day incendiary passion play set to film? It will be up to movie-goers to judge next Easter.

Lynn Ballas is a writer and a member of St. Mary's Parish in Colts Neck, NJ.




also in this issue:
Mel Gibson's "The Passion of Christ" | "Seeing" the Passion of Jesus
Christian Mystics and the Passion | Dramatizing the Passion
Act with Compassion

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