Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ: A Christian Work of Art Part II

An analysis of the motivations behind the controversy surrounding this epic film.
by Father Jesús Villagrasa | Source:
March 30, 2004 / The phenomenon of The Passion of the Christ could be considered--as in this article--on three levels: one, superficial, goes only into the cinematographic chronicle; another, could stop to analyze the motivations behind the controversy; and, finally, as a profound explanation of the phenomenon, one can delve deep into what is, in my opinion, the reason for being of the originality and beauty of this film: this is a true work of art and, more specifically, a true work of Christian art.

Click here to read Part I of this article.

The controversy before the release

During the summer and autumn of 2003, an initial draft of the film was presented in the United States and Italy to small groups of Catholic and Evangelic audiences, to personalities of the religious and political circles as well as to some of the leaders of the communications industry. The objective behind these screenings was to collect impressions from the Christian groups, calibrate the reactions and get away from the rumors and open accusations about the movie that had already begun to circulate. The producers wished to prove false the accusations of anti-Semitism and lack of historical rigor.

The issue of anti-Semitism

Profoundly offended, Mel Gibson rejects the accusations of anti-Semitic defamation launched against him personally and against the film. Without having seen the movie, Jewish organizations Anti Defamation League and the Simon Weisenthal Center have made declarations of this sort. Both organizations--Gibson points out--have, unfortunately, a long history of confrontation with the Catholic Church; both have devoted efforts to defame the memory of Pope Pious XII, and according to both organizations the Gospel itself is anti-Semitic.

"Anti-Semitism is not only contrary to my personal beliefs but contrary also to the message of my film. I don't hate people and I certainly don't hate Jews; I have friends and partners who are Jewish. The Passion of the Christ is a movie meant to inspire, not to offend. My intent when putting this on film is to create a work of art that can remain and motivate the reflection amongst audiences of different creeds, or of none, for whom the story is familiar," said Mel Gibson, the film's director and co-producer.

Gibson and Jim Caviezel are both Catholic, and the screenplay was written by Catholics, but the cast and production team are comprised of Christians of diverse denominations, as well as Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and even agnostics.

Representative Christian and Jewish voices have come out in defense of the movie: the Romanian actress, Maia Morgenstern, who is herself Jewish and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, plays the role of the Virgin Mary in the movie. She stated to The Jewish Journal that the film is not anti-Semitic.

Dean Devlin, co producer of Braveheart, after seeing the preview screening said "I have found nothing in it that is the least bit anti-Semitic and I am Jewish."

Keith Fournier, constitutional attorney who has participated in important religious rights cases before the US Supreme Court, attended a private screening in Washington, D.C. along with other political personalities, and maintains that the accusation of anti-Semitism makes no sense.

The most vigorous defense of the movie comes from an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi, Daniel Lapin, one of the most respected Jewish community leaders in the United States and founder/director of the Toward Tradition organization, which is devoted to strengthening the good relations between Jews and Christians.

In an article published in Jewsweek (3-X-03), Lapin confronted the campaign that some Jewish organizations have waged against the film and defends the fact that "these protests against The Passion of the Christ are not only morally indefensible but downright stupid." Above all, "they have little chance of achieving changes in the movie. Gibson is an artist and a Catholic of strong conviction of which this movie is an expression. Therefore, the motivation that has lead him to make this movie is not commercial. Besides, anyone who has seen his movie 'Braveheart' can acknowledge the profound identification of Mel Gibson with the hero of this epic story who prefers to be torn apart before he will betray his principles. Does anyone find it likely that Gibson would make a pact with the Jewish organizations?"

Lapin also considers the attacks against Gibson to be mistaken because "even if the anti-Semitic accusations may benefit some of these Jewish organizations in their fund raising tasks or benefit some Jewish New York Times reporter or other journalists attempting to make a name for their careers, it, of course does not benefit at all, the interests of the majority of American Jews who live in comfortable harmony with their Christian neighbors. Many Christians see all these attacks on Mel Gibson either as mere criticism against the film, or, for some reason in my opinion, as attacks against all Christians."

Eugene Korn, director of inter religious affairs for the Jewish Anti Defamation League and one of the "strategists" who designed the campaign to censure the movie with the accusation of anti-Semitism--and perhaps the most boisterous detractor--was forced to offer his resignation to The League in the midst of debate concerning the group's aggressive reaction to the Christian film.

Also against The League's campaign is the Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president and founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, and Michael Medved, a film critic and orthodox Jew.

Cardinal Dario Castrillon, prefect for the Congregation for Clerics and one of the guests to the private screenings of the film prior to its release, declared in an interview with La Stampa newspaper (18-IX-2003): "Anti-Semitism, as any form of racism, distorts the truth in order to denigrate an entire race of peoples. The movie does none of that. Based on the historical objectiveness of the Gospel reports, it generates feelings of forgiveness, mercy and reconciliation. It portrays the horrors of sin, while contrasting with the gentle power of love and forgiveness, without making or even insinuating condemnation against any group. This film conveys the exact opposite. That learning from the example of Christ, there should be no more violence against another human being."

However, some people do not share the notion that the movie is faithful to history and have led the second front of controversy.

The issue of historical authenticity

Mel Gibson repeats, convinced that his movie corresponds to the truth of the historical facts, that "it is according to what the gospels of the four Evangelists of the New Testament tell us about the passion and death of Christ," and that whoever expects a faithful report of the life of Christ will not come out disappointed.

At the same time, he doubtlessly admits that for some passages he has been inspired by the visions of some "mystics" of the passion, especially those of a German nun currently in the process of beatification, Sr. Katherine Emmerich (1774-1824), who bore the stigmas of the Passion of The Lord and received extraordinary charisma.

She, herself, described her visions in the book "The Painful Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ." Gibson justifies his choice of depicting the crucifixion on the hands as opposed to the wrists, as it seems most likely historically, by saying that "the possibility that Jesus was crucified at the wrists has foundation, but tradition has represented Jesus with the wounds in the hands and, throughout history, the saints who received the Stigmas of The Lord, have presented them in the hands."

A group of Catholic experts and American Jews, seemingly with some initial backing from a committee of the Episcopal Conference of the US, declared that the screenplay of the movie contained "historical mistakes" and that its vision of the Jewish personalities was incorrect. It is surprising, though, that an inter-religious committee of experts would have based their opinion on a primitive version of the screenplay (a 'stolen' version and very different from the current, according to the producer.)

Paula Fredriksen, writing professor at Boston University, author of Jesus of Nazareth, 'King of the Jews: a historical study of the final twelve hours in the life of Jesus', agrees that the script startled them. "We pointed out the historical mistakes and -as Gibson had proclaimed his Catholicism- his deviations from the magisterial principles of Biblical interpretation. We concluded with general recommendations for some changes in the screenplay (The New Republic, 28-VII-2003)."

On July 21,2003, Mel Gibson held a meeting with Monsignor William P. Fay, general secretary of the Episcopal Conference of the United States, to clear up terms and manifest his good disposition (Inside the Vatican, 16-VIII-03).

A defender of the historical licenses of Mel Gibson uses a fairly weak argument that goes something like this: "from 'Jesus Christ Superstar' through 'The Last Temptation of Christ' we are used to film makers pulling bits and pieces of Gospels to recreate their particular visions of the life of Christ. If anyone is scandalized by this and demands fidelity to the gospel texts, they are labeled as conservative and reminded that the artist's creativity is not tied by the letter of the text. If anyone feels offended by the 'recreation,' they are told that, of course, without being offensive, but that freedom of expression does not admit censure or limits based on bruised sensitivities. But now comes 'The Passion', a recreation of the last hours of Jesus Christ prior to his death on the cross, and that traditional cliché is no longer valid."

The argument is weak because it does not confront the issue of historical authenticity. Certainly, in creating his piece, an artist is free to make many artistic choices. It is still fair, though, to ask why Mel Gibson introduced elements outside of the Gospel or outside of serious historical studies about the time of Jesus if his intent was to present the Passion "as it was." This pretension of historical accuracy, repeatedly declared by Gibson, can justify some critical intervention by the students of the Holy Scripture and of the culture and history of the time of Jesus. Otherwise, it is hard to figure that 'zeal', preoccupation and intervention from the students who are now devoted to judging the "historical orthodoxy" of a movie.

The director has not found himself lacking of renowned defenders in this controversy.

Ted Haggard, president of the National Evangelical Association, whose theologians highly value the precise citing of the Bible, declared that the movie is "the most authentic representation I have ever seen."

The Archbishop of Denver, Monsignor Charles Chaput, considers that "the movie is a work of art and extraordinarily faithful to the Gospel," as well as stating that "for Mel Gibson, making this film has been an act of faith and enormously significant (National Catholic Register, 14-X-2003)."

Augustine Di Noia, undersecretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, after having seen the movie said that "without being a documentary but a work of artistic imagination, Gibson's movie is absolutely faithful to the New Testament: he incorporates elements of the Passion according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, maintaining the fundamental structure common to all four narratives (Zenit, 10-XII-2003)."

In each of these values there are elements of notable interest to make a balanced judgment of the movie: in it come together the fidelity of the facts, the artistic freedom and the depth of the believer into the mystery. The film tells the gospel story in a dramatically beautiful manner. The facts narrated in the gospels correspond to real events. All four gospel writers are aware of telling the historical facts, but even more so the salvation-related events. The gospels are a narrative of a story, penetrated by faith, expressed with faith, accepted and lived in faith.

Mel Gibson is an artist and a Christian; he is not a gospel writer--in the first place because he has not been blessed with divine inspiration--but he shares with the gospel writers their effort to communicate events that faith discovered, recognizes and confesses as leading to salvation.

Gibson feels entitled to the right to tell the story as it happened (arrived at through his convictions), because we are dealing with a message that is of interest for all mankind; and, each one of them has, also, the right to listen to the truth.

As an artist, Gibson feels entitled to create a work of art that could communicate his "artistic inspiration." Inspiration is not foreign to the life of an artist. Gibson has confessed that ever since he was 35 years old the passion of Christ has hounded him. At that age he had the grace of penetrating in the mystery of divine love revealed in the passion. This mystery can illuminate the life of men, especially the darkest and most mysterious dimensions such as his pain and suffering and the defeat of sin. The pain of Christ in his passion, the wounds on his face and body, so callous at plain sight, are revealed extraordinarily beautifully when they are discovered as suffered and endured voluntarily for love.

Is the film historically accurate?

Closely related to the controversy regarding historical accuracy is the issue of the violence of the scenes. Jim Caviezel, the actor who portrays Jesus, in an interview with the daily Globe and Mail assures us that the suffering endured by Jesus was much worse than what is shown on the film. There is a lot of blood; one cannot lie about that fact. And yet, the veracity regarding the events cannot move the audience away from the message.

"We won't get to a point where people get so impacted by what they are seeing on the screen that they miss the point of the story. We don't want that," concludes Caviezel. The violence reveals both the evil of sin and the greatness of the love of God.

The violent scenes will not provoke hatred and spite amongst the spectators because "one of the greatest accomplishments of this movie is its ability to precisely show both the horror of sin and selfishness as well as the redeeming power of love. As the movie is being viewed, feelings of compassion and love arise within audiences. It makes the spectator desire to love more, forgive, be kind and strong, regardless of obstacles; as Christ was even during his terrible suffering," said Cardinal Castrillón (La Stampa, 18-IX-2003).

Perhaps this is one of the biggest accomplishments of the movie: that in the horror of the passion, love can shine brighter than blood itself, and that before He, from whom one would hide one's face, can be contemplated with gratitude and love.

Rabbi Lapin cites some of Cardinal Castrillón's declarations to respond to those who accuse Gibson of incurring errors about the true bearers of responsibility of the death of Jesus: "Gibson has had to make many artistic choices to build up his portrayal of the characters and events that come together during 'The Passion', and he has completed the gospel narrative with the perceptions and reflections of saints and mystics throughout centuries. Mel Gibson not only rigorously follows the gospel story, but he gives the spectator a new appreciation of these bible passages. Thanks to his esthetic choices, he has made a film faithful to the meaning of the Gospels, as interpreted by the church (Jewsweek, 3-X-2003)."

The liberty of a believing artist, who wished to remain faithful to the gospel, resulted in a piece of work that all can appreciate. But it will be appreciated in a very particular way by the spectator who is in tune with the faith that has inspired this work of art. While watching an unfinished version of the film, Cardinal Castrillon said he experienced "moments of profound spiritual intimacy with Jesus Christ. It is a film that drives the spectator to prayer and reflection, to a contemplation that touches the heart. As a matter of fact -and I said this to Mr. Gibson after the screening- I would gladly exchange some of the homilies I have given regarding the passion of Christ for some of the scenes from the movie (La Stampa, 18-IX-2003)."

A few words from an exceptional spectator have stirred a long debate in the media. Did Pope John Paul II pronounce--or not--the phrase "it is as it was" after watching the film. The director of the Press Office at the Holy See, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, to clear the issue published on January 22nd of 2004 an official statement: "After consulting with his personal secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dzawisz, I can confirm that the Holy Father has had an opportunity to see the movie The Passion of the Christ ." The statement also positively describes the film as "a cinematographic adaptation of the historical event of the passion of Jesus Christ according to the gospel narrative." This description is relevant, considering that one of the controversies surrounding the movie had been its fidelity to the historical events and to the gospel report. And yet, the statement points out that had the Pontiff said the phrase "it is as it was," this should not be taken as an official endorsement: "It is the Holy Father's custom

The statement from Navarro-Valls "has a dual purpose: it seems to respond to the evident pressure to distance the Pope from any direct connection to the movie, while at the same time loaning it limited support (Inside the Vatican, 22-I-204)." The statement makes it very clear in its main portion that the Pope does not make public judgments about "works of art," because as they are of an esthetic nature, and not moral or doctrine, the judgment of works of art, such as movies, is outside of the papal competency.

History, faith and art seem inseparable in this movie. The specialist in Holy Scripture, oriental culture, spiritual theology or cinematography, will be able to make a detailed analysis of the movie and perhaps, especially of the historical loyalty, finding deficiencies or making objections. An analysis of this type is not hard.

What is notable is the artistic synthesis, the creative work of the artist. The Passion of the Christ is an extraordinarily beautiful work, if we understand beauty as "the sensible manifestation of idea (Hegel)."

One objection seems inevitable though; was it necessary to resort to the visions of a mystic that do not necessarily reflect historical truths to communicate the experience of faith? I would have preferred that Gibson not use those. But, on the other hand, was it that grave that he did? As a matter of fact, it does not take away from the artistic merit of the piece and it will not detract, possibly, from the results that the director, producers and members of the cast have set out to achieve. Perhaps those are the liberties that artists can allow themselves.

Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ: A Christian Work of Art Part I

Part III to follow.

Father Jesus Villagrasa is a professor of metaphysics at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.

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