The Passion

Nobody should be surprised that a film depicting the last 12 hours of the life of Jesus Christ, and the moments 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. But even veteran Hollywood observers have been blindsided by the vehemence of feelings over Mel Gibson’s film The Passion, which is not due for release until next Easter. No film since Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, in 1988, has provoked such a furore.

The £15m project stars Jim Caviezel as Jesus and Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene. Gibson, an ardent member of a traditionalist Catholic breakaway sect that rejects the current papacy as heretical, financed the film himself through his company, Icon Productions. He shot the film at Rome’s famous Cinecittà studios and in the southern Italian town of Matera, where Pier Paolo Pasolini shot The Gospel According to St Matthew (1964). At Cinecittà, Gibson built a 2-acre 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. The film shows Jesus’s 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, I believe there will be many who can’t take it and will have to walk out,” said Caviezel, a devout Christian himself. “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. Fabulous stuff.” Gibson, who had Latin Mass said every morning during the shoot, believes that in some way the filming was divinely blessed. “There is an interesting power in the script,” he told an interviewer on the 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 counterattacks in the press. The row began on May 2, when an ad hoc committee of nine respected Catholic 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 promote 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 I hate anyone, certainly not the Jews. They are 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.” Gibson 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.”

Perhaps 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, for instance 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 United States. “The Holy Ghost was working through me on this film,” Gibson told the assembled clerics, “and I was just directing traffic. 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,” said the scholars’ group that reviewed the early draft of Gibson’s script. “Given this history 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.”

But 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. Indeed, Gibson was hardly reassuring when asked in a radio interview whether The Passion would upset Jews. “It may do,” he said. “It’s not meant to.”

First, obviously, 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 are still in the current version of the film.) Second, Gibson has noted in interviews that the script had been inspired not just by the Gospels, but also by The Dolorous 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 Jews strangled Christian children and used their blood in religious rituals.

Emmerich’s visions of the Passion include a number of elements not found in the 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 the evils of alcohol and extramarital sex, among other things. For more than four decades, in books and newsletters with such shrill titles and messages as The War Is Now! and The Enemy Is Here!, Hutton 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 learnt that he had paid £1.8m to build a church, Holy Family, on a 16-acre 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 specific concern, however, in the context of the row about The Passion, are Hutton Gibson’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 6m Jews were exterminated in Nazi death camps. “Go and ask an undertaker or the guy who operates the crematorium what it takes to get rid of a dead body,” he said to the paper. “It takes one litre of petrol and 20 minutes. Now, six million?” He also insisted there were more Jews in Europe at the end of the war than before.

After the New York Times interview was published, Mel Gibson gave a radio interview in which he said the attacks on him were being orchestrated. “When you touch this subject, it does have a lot of enemies,” he stated. And he suggested the reporter had been “harassing” his elderly father, who is 85. But neither Gibson 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.”

At the end of June, despite the continuing controversy over his views and possible anti-semitism in his son’s film, Hutton was a featured speaker at the annual conference of The Barnes Review, the leading anti-semitic, Nazi-apologist think-tank in the USA. It is run by Willis Carto, one of the co-founders of The Institute for Historical Review, a Holocaust-denial group based in California. The Barnes Review 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 Gibson as speakers at the conference were Dr Frederick Toben, an Australian who spent several months in jail in Germany for “hate speech”, and Russ Granata, a notorious Holocaust-denier.

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 Holocaust-denying views. But what is then 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.