Tuesday, July 29, 2003

The Passion, again

This piece by Paula Fredriksen in the New Republic (which can be read for free if you sign up for a four week free trial) about Mel Gibson's the Passion is quite damning, suggesting that rather than being historically accurate, the film reflects some of the worst prejudices of post-medieval Catholicism, and is indeed unpleasantly anti-Semitic

That script--and, on the evidence, the film--presents neither a true rendition of the Gospel stories nor a historically accurate account of what could have happened in Jerusalem, on Passover, when Pilate was prefect and Caiaphas was high priest. Instead Gibson will apparently release what Christopher Noxon, in his article for the Times, had correctly described already in March: "a big-budget dramatization of key points of traditionalist theology." The true historical framing of Gibson's script is neither early first-century Judea (where Jesus of Nazareth died) nor the late first-century Mediterranean diaspora (where the evangelists composed their Gospels). It is post-medieval Roman Catholic Europe. Fulco could have spared himself a lot of trouble and just put the entire script into Latin. Not pagan Roman Latin, but Christian Roman Latin. For that is the true language of Gibson's story.


Those four of us have posted a review of these events on the Boston College website. We have also posted there an analysis of the mystical writings of Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774- 1824), one of the visionary nuns whose writings Gibson used for his script. Emmerich wrote in her diary that she had "seen" the high priest ordering the cross to be made in the courtyard of the Temple itself. The high priest's servants, in her visions, bribe Jerusalem's population to assemble in the Temple at night to demand Jesus's death; they even tip the Roman executioners. Emmerich's Pilate criticizes the high priests for their physical abuse of Jesus, but finally he consents to crucify him, because he fears that the high priest wants to start a revolt against Rome. And so on.

Emmerich was not writing history. She was having visions. But--as The Wall Street Journal, the film's unofficial website, and numerous news articles since have all mentioned--Gibson used Emmerich's fantasies for his supposedly "historical" script. Since the Boston College posting has brought this piece of the story forward, Paul Lauer, Icon's director of marketing, has denied that Gibson used Emmerich's writings. But he had: the nun's lurid images figured prominently in the version of the screenplay that we read and that Gibson was concerned about as recently as April 24.


The prognosis does not look good. While he has continued to insist upon his personal piety and his commitment to historical truth-telling, Gibson has just executed what looks like a very cynical marketing end-run. As The Washington Times reported on July 7, Gibson "is shopping his film to a more receptive audience: evangelical Christians, conservative Catholics, and Orthodox Jews." Orthodox Jews, I can say with authority, tend to know next to nothing about the Gospels (unless, of course, they are scholars of the field). Conservative Catholics are Gibson's set-point to begin with. But evangelical Christians, in my experience, know their Scriptures very, very well. Their biblical literacy may yet cause Icon's spinmeisters to stumble. I certainly hope so.

Anti-Semitism is not the problem in America that it is in the rest of the world. (The hateful e-mails that we have received have been balanced by others, from church leaders of inter-faith efforts across the country, expressing their support and their concern.) But I shudder to think how The Passion will play once its subtitles shift from English to Polish, or Spanish, or French, or Russian. When violence breaks out, Mel Gibson will have a much higher authority than professors and bishops to answer to.

Doesn't sound good.

(Link via Andrew Sullivan).

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