Gibson's seedy version of Orientalism
The Passion of the Christ Written and directed by Mel Gibson With James Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern and Monica Bellucci Showing at major cinemas
Review By Sol Salbe
Let me start by laying my cards on the table. I am an atheist Jew, and an Israeli to boot. I am also a universalist who rejected tribalism nearly 40 years ago. That means that the first question I ask is not "Is it good for the Jews?" (or Palestinians, or footy fans or whatever) but "Is it good for humanity?"
I can also admit to not being well versed in the early history of Christianity. Jesus did not rate a mention in my first nine years of Israeli education, and when I got to Australia, everyone my age already knew all the arguments backwards. Thus, the biggest item of baggage I took to the film was a healthy dose of scepticism.
There was even a reason to look forward to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Gibson chose to let his protagonists speak mainly Aramaic. I was wondering if a native speaker of Hebrew could follow it. (For the record, when enunciated slowly and clearly, the answer was yes.)
The film's message is simple: the Romans reluctantly crucify a man who led a revolt against the ideology of the local temple. It is a violent and cruel death, but the Romans had no choice in the matter.
Come again? Imperial Rome is lording it over Judea. A leading troublemaker gets killed by the powers that be and it's all the natives' fault? Change the scene to Imperial Britain ruling over the Raj. Would anybody take seriously a story blaming the Indians for the death of one of their leaders? No imperial manipulation? No one carrying out the ruling power's will?
I don't know who was responsible for the death of Jesus of Nazareth. I have no idea of to whom the blame should be allocated. My understanding is that there is a great deal of variance among scholars, both Jewish and Christian. Other than the Gospels, accounts of what happened are not exactly thick on the ground. Frankly it doesn't really matter. Whoever killed him, there is no legal, moral or logical reason to blame it on their descendants.
What I do know, however, is that history is written by the victors. Rome not only succeeded in subjugating and exiling the Jews, it later adopted a religion based on theirs. Of necessity it would have most likely sanitised the historical account.
There's a lot to object to in Mel Gibson's movie. There's the interminable violence. There's the stereotyping of the Jewish leaders who are not only bloodthirsty, manipulative and cruel, but look so "Jewish". (Jesus, Mary and Mary Magdalene and even Peter, on the other hand, may not be blonde as in the usual European rendition, but could definitely pass for "European").
This film is anti-Semitic. Anyone not inoculated beforehand cannot fail to be moved by Jesus' suffering. When you watch the film, it seems endless: beating, flagellating, torture, and finally crucifying. It makes you angry. If you want to blame anyone, Gibson gives you only one choice: the Jews, who with a few exceptions are seen braying for Jesus' crucifixion.
But it's the contrast between the civilised Romans and the "inferior' natives that really got me ropeable. The Passion's racism has a broader scope than "just" anti-Semitism. The contrast between the natives and their rulers couldn't be greater. Mel Gibson's Pontius Pilate seems to have been modelled on former Australian Governor-General Sir William Dean. He is so gentle and caring, he even takes his wife's opinion seriously!
The Romans are so civilised and so much above the violence of native politics that you would almost expect their conversation to concentrate on refined aspects of life such as how the fish from the Sea of Galilee goes so well with Margaret River Chardonnay!
Naturally, the Roman soldiers don't fit this bill. They are mean and cruel. When they administer a beating, they act like proper savages. But this is a theme that has recurred in Western literature and film for a long time. From Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness to Mel Gibson's Passion, it's the story of the noble westerners who get corrupted by the dark influence of the primitive natives. The cruel treatment of the subjugated by their masters is the fault of the victims. Edward Said observed that kind of attitude years ago in Orientalism.
This carries a powerful political message. After Lieutenant Calley's troops massacred the innocent in the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai, Time magazine put the headline "An American Tragedy" on its front page. The dead were Vietnamese ... but the tragedy was American. Former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meier was reputed to have said that she hated the Arabs for "what they made our boys do to them".
The universal racist message of this film can make it anti-Palestinian (as well as anti-Iraqi etc.). It doesn't take much imagination to replace the Jews shouting "Crucify him!" with Muslims shouting "Allah akbar". They are more or less already dressed for the part. Pontius Pilate's clean-shaven image could easily be replaced by that of US administrator of Iraq Paul Bremer. You can make your own selection as to who can replace the Roman soldiers.
You cannot ignore the political context in which this film is being shown. The United States and its allies, including Australia, have already fought two wars against people who were very much un-Christian. The term "clash of civilisations" has been bandied about. A movie like the Passion reinforces Western and Christian superiority.
Gibson's family is also significant. His father is a Holocaust denier. Mel has been unwilling to denounce his father's unsavoury views. Jews, of course, are not in any imminent danger of a repeat of the Holocaust in countries like the United States and Australia, but there is no point in being complacent either.
Jews could easily become the scapegoats for the failure of the Afghanistan and Iraq adventures. It may be my paranoia, but the anecdotal evidence is that those in the Bush administration with Jewish-sounding names are being mentioned more now as war architects than they were a year ago.
Passion is a nasty film that may haunt us for years to come.