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March 4, 2004

Pitt scholars Don’t Share the Passion for Gibson’s Film

passionMel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ” enjoyed almost un-precedented exposure in the press, on TV, on the web — even before its release last week. Box office receipts for the first week show the movie has taken in more than $76 million so far, a large return on the reported $25 million than Gibson put into its making.

Film critics Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper gave the film “two thumbs way up.”

Radio commentator Paul Harvey said, “The film’s producer is a Catholic Christian [who] thankfully has remained faithful to the Gospel text. It’s the kind of art that makes heaven touch earth.”

Other critics, however, have concluded that the film is anti-Semitic in its depiction of the Jews’ role in Christ’s crucifixion and that the brutality displayed in relentless repetition is sadism bordering on pornography.

Hardly anyone who has seen the film is dispassionate about it. The same goes for many who haven’t seen it.

Three Pitt scholars give “The Passion” a thumbs down from a number of perspectives.

Paula Kane, the Marous Chair in Catholic Studies at Pitt, studies religion and history and the New Testament. Currently, she is on sabbatical investigating the phenomena of stigmata — marks resembling Jesus’ crucifixion wounds, impressed on the bodies of individuals in states of religious ecstasy.

Kane said of the film, “I was mostly discouraged, looking at the study of the Gospels and films about Jesus in a continuum, as I do.” The opening frame of “The Passion” is a quote from Isaiah, that the suffering of the Messiah heals us, she noted.

“I see very little healing in this movie, very little message of loving your enemies. This is a movie about vengeance with heavy, excessive, pointless violence, and not a sacred experience. It could have been the story of a black man hanged in this country.”

Kane said Gibson’s painful-to-watch re-enactment of the Passion is a throwback to the days before Vatican II, when the Jews were held responsible for Jesus’ death.

“I was struck by the Jews’ unity of forcefulness in the movie,” Kane said. “The sense we get is that the Romans were depicted as hapless victims, drunk and unnaturally sadistic.”

Kane was particularly disappointed by the Vatican’s response to the film. “The Pope said, ‘It is as it was.’ I think the Vatican missed an opportunity to say, ‘You’re way out of line here,’ and it bothers me that historically the right wing gets support from the Vatican,” Kane said.

Since Vatican II, the Church has taught that the Passion should be viewed as a meditation, Kane said. “When Jesus falls, we fall. We should meditate on the humanness of Jesus.”

Several of the film’s interpolated details vexed Kane for being extra-biblical or apocryphal. “Claudia (Pilate’s wife) giving linen to Mary. Herod, whom we know was one bad dude, as a bumbling idiot. Satan as a character throughout the movie. Judas’s torture by demons. Mary saying, ‘I wish I would die too.’ The resurrected Jesus with stigmata on his hands. If you believe in the resurrection of his body as a whole, why is that there?”

In undertaking a depiction of the Passion, Kane said, “You need to be sure you’re relying on good sources. Gibson claims to be drawing mostly from Matthew, but brings in [material from] Emmerich’s ‘The Dolorous Passion.’”

Kane is studying Anne Catherine Emmerich, a stigmatic from the early 19th century. “Emmerich revives the grossly anti-Semitic stories of Jews killing and eating Christian children — and the devil she supposedly saw in her visions of the Passion, and her visions of herself trying to convert Jews in their villages. It’s a very strange source to rely on, and it plays into evangelicalism: the idea you must convert to be saved.”

Most puzzling of all, Kane said, “In this movie, we never get a sense of why this man’s teachings spread so quickly over the Mediterranean world over the next couple centuries. Why are people drawn to him after his death? We’re almost looking for a sequel to explain that.

“Gibson described himself to Diane Sawyer as having gone through a series of addictions, drugs, cigarettes, whatever you put in front of him. Fundamentalist Christianity seems to be his current addiction.”

Rebecca I. Denova, a part-time lecturer in religious studies, found Gibson guilty of historical and political misrepresentations.

“I think many Christians are unaware of their own history,” Denova said. “The four Gospels, for example, represent four different accounts, written 40 years or more after the Crucifixion, and are dealing with different political realities than when Jesus lived. The early Christians were stuck with the notion that Jesus was a traitor to Rome, which made them, as followers, insurgents and potentially vulnerable to the same fate as Jesus.”

Thus, Mark puts heavy emphasis on the role of Jews in Jesus’ death. He also depicts Pilate, who from all contemporary historical accounts was a brutal governor responsible for hundreds of Jews’ deaths, as a man of conscience who washed his hands of blame for Jesus’ death, Denova said.

The writers of the Gospels also were eager to reconcile Old Testament scripture, where the Messiah is foretold, with their retelling of events, such as Jesus being passed back and forth between the judges Herod and Pilate, she said.

“We have over 30 contemporary accounts about Pilate,” Denova said. “He was chastised by Rome for his inability to control insurrection. In fact, within a decade after the Crucifixion, he was recalled to Rome and stripped of power. We also know Pilate never held trials of the kind Jesus is supposed to have gone through.”

While flogging was a part of its ritual, crucifixion was intended to prolong the agony as long as possible, usually over days, Denova said. “It doesn’t make sense for the Romans to whip Jesus nearly to death as happens in Gibson’s version.”

Jesus’ original followers thought that his death and resurrection meant the end of the world was near, Denova said. “But after they began dying off, they needed a new justification for Christ’s death, one which, by the way, wasn’t codified [by the Catholic Church] until the 1534 council: that Jesus died for everybody, not just his disciples.

“If Jesus suffered the punishment for all sins at the time of the Crucifixion, why can we still sin?” she asked.

Through Paul’s epistles and later Christian writings, the message instead became that since the punishment for Adam’s sin was death, Jesus died and rose to conquer death, so that there would be eternal life.

“In the Gospel of John, Jesus accepts death because he has a place to be, he has to go to heaven to be with the Father.”

Are there examples of anti-Semitism in “The Passion”?

“Yes,” Denova said. “Evangelical groups not used to Passion plays might not see anti-Semitism in the movie’s presentation, but Jews can recognize this stuff for what it is.”

Infighting among Jews over the interpretation of Scripture was commonplace, and unlikely to result in mass demands for crucifixion, Denova said.

She said there are other historical “glitches” that jump out. “Under Jewish law, to eat the Passover meal, one must not have corpse contamination, meaning no contact with the dead. They couldn’t even bury their family members,” Denova said. “The High Priest would never be at the foot of the cross, and Jews would not be covering the hillside looking on; they avoided crucifixions.”

Like Kane, Denova believes infiltrating the film with the message of Anne Catherine Emmerich does even more damage.

“Emmerich’s visions depict Jews as devils, with Jews rotting in corruption in hell, and visions of the Passion, where she said she saw Jewish soldiers beat Jesus up and had visions of the devil himself at the Passion. Gibson purportedly doesn’t accept the Vatican II admonishment to not blame the Jews for the Crucifixion.

“Even more than the anti-Semitism, what I’m concerned most about is the way this film could end up dividing Christians, polarizing them on the meaning of the Passion.”

Robert W. Matson, professor of history at the Johnstown campus, teaches courses in history as visual literacy — that is, assessing film (and other visual media) as documentary evidence of society’s political and cultural history at the time the film is made.

Matson said “The Passion” is distinctly a product of the early 21st century when, for one thing, extreme violence in films is commonplace.

“It’s open to question whether this film should be seen as part of the genre of ‘film treatments of Jesus’ or the ‘Mel Gibson film’ genre,” Matson said. “You could easily inter-cut a shot here or there from [Gibson’s] ‘Braveheart,’ and no one would know it.”

Matson said the film succeeds in portraying conflict, beginning with Jesus’ internal struggle and extending outward to the soldiers and the Jewish leaders and people. “I’ll take a leap and suggest, as a historian, that a larger meaning of this struggle is the struggle Gibson and others of his outlook see occurring now between faith and ‘secular humanism,’” Matson said.

“Gibson identifies himself as a Catholic traditionalist. It’s no accident that this film appears in the era of Pope John Paul II’s efforts to curb the influence of ‘liberals’ in the Church,” as well as the public revelations of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy and the controversy over gay marriage and openly gay clergy.

“If anti-Semitism can be discerned there, it’s incidental to this struggle,” he added.

Jesus as a historical figure is largely absent here, Matson said. “This is the ‘Christ of faith.’ He knows in the Garden of Gethsemane what is going to happen to him, which is why he is in such torment as the film opens,” Matson observed. “This is theological, not historical, per se. It reports teachings Christians subsequently put forward about what they believed had happened.”

Other modern touches include Pilate’s musing on “What is truth?” Matson said.

“Gibson’s Jesus is victim, not teacher of wisdom, Palestinian mystic or personal friend,” he said. “In our era, victimization is a major interpretive schema for many ills.”

Among the film techniques Gibson employs, the most important is his use of “impact montages,” quick cutting from shot to shot accompanied by loud sounds, such as drumbeats. “Impact montage technique is used to hurry the viewer along, to drive home a point and to disengage — even forbid — the objective mind from analyzing what’s going on,” Matson said.

Other frequently used visual devices include:

• Extreme close-ups of characters. “This is the visual equivalent of the exclamation point,” Matson said. • Frequent cuts between wide-angle shots and extreme close-ups, a form of visual overstatement. “This amounts to something like writing in all caps — or shouting.”

• Lighting effects and high-versus-low camera angles used when Jesus confronts the High Priest, indicating who is powerful and who is vulnerable.

“These devices are used competently but not in a sophisticated or subtle manner,” Matson said. “They do what they’re supposed to, but it’s a little like painting by the numbers. It should not result in nominations for any awards for best cinematography.”

The overall feel of the film is dictated by two features, Matson said. “The use of dialogue in Aramaic and Latin, with English subtitles, gives a pseudo-documentary air to the film, as though this is a ‘historical’ or ‘realistic’ portrayal,” Matson said. “I have to ask, historical and realistic according to what?”

Secondly, the film’s use of subtitles elevates the importance of the visual language, which in turn puts even more emphasis on the violence and brutality.

When pressed about his personal, non-analytic views of the film, Matson said, “My first thought was: What is all the fuss about? It’s a film,” Matson said. “But afterward I also felt confused. When I watch a film, the two most important things are what are the establishing scenes asking us to feel, and what is the conclusion asking us to think about. I have no answer to the second question.

“If this movie is cited in 10 years, it will be in the context of what it stood for as a symbol of the state of cultural values today. It’s not a very good movie.”

—Peter Hart

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