March 01, 2004

The Passion About "The Passion"

ANY REACTION TO JAMI BERNARD'S most recent column in the New York Daily News, in which she details the slings and arrows sent her way since her one-star review of "The Passion of the Christ," should start out with a spirited defense of her position.

For Ms Bernard writes that some of those responding to her passionate critique of the film went far beyond the boundaries of respectable opinion. She writes that many people who wrote to her assumed that since she did not care for the movie, she was therefore Jewish; and further writes that many of these same people dragged out several vicious canards regarding Jews. As such, we feel it quite important to condemn such hateful and bigoted remarks on the part of these letter writers.

Several years ago, back in our salad days, we once wrote an article with a friend and colleague which drew similar criticism directed against the both of us. So while any right-thinking person should condemn such vicious criticism with immediate effect, we feel we personally have an obligation to doubly condemn it for being not just wrong, but evil as well. Hence, we sincerely empathize with Ms Bernard's position in this regard; we know how painful it is to learn of such uncouth sentiment.

That noted, it is a sincere pity that the rest of her column, to say nothing of her original review of the movie, was not as eloquently written as the one section we have cited. We are not, as readers know, experts on film; but we do like to think that we are somewhat competent at writing. And this is why we must say we were astonished by several things in both works.

For instance, we were astonished at Ms Bernard's sheer hubris in both the latter half of her reaction column and her review of "The Passion" itself. But that was not all. You see, as a writer ourselves, we found it amazing that someone would fire off a truly sharp and nasty essay -- as Ms Bernard did with her review of "The Passion" -- and then not substantively defend it!

Good heavens, Ms Bernard! Stand -- and -- deliver! You hated the film. You had your reasons. You expected you would get a hostile reaction -- not merely from cranks and bigots, but from rational and thoughtful readers. Given all this, why on Earth would you write such condescending, elitist claptrap in response to that latter group? We mean, for someone who writes, "My tools, meanwhile, are words," why do you make the writer's equivalent of chopping off your thumb with a table saw -- to wit:

What interests me as a movie critic is the profusion of people who do not understand or care how to evaluate a movie.

They don't see how film images are juxtaposed to create a desired emotion, that what is left out of a screenplay can be as important as what is kept in, and how constantly and subliminally manipulative a medium this is. They cannot see through filmmaking's beautiful deceptions.

Now look. We're writers. We know these preceding two paragraphs which Ms Bernard has written can be boiled down to one simple sentence: "Those who disagree with me are idiots." Yes, she argues here that people -- in the autocratic sense of the term, i.e. the unwashed rabble -- are too stupid to get, on the gut level, what she writes.

That Ms Bernard should be so unthinking in this matter is appalling. Consider: this is someone who watches movies and writes about them for a living. As such, her work is not merely a luxury, made possible in the macro-economic sense through the sweat and toil and production of millions of men and women in the factories and offices of our great nation. No -- it is an extravagance. Yet, sadly, Ms Bernard has seemingly forgotten this; and in doing so, she has forgotten her audience.

Why do many people not think highly of what critics like Ms Bernard think about certain movies? That's perhaps simpler to answer than one might think, really.

First, the technical expertise that folks like Ms Bernard have in spades means little to them. That's not to say, of course, that most film-goers cannot appreciate new techniques -- they loved them in "The Matrix", for instance. But when most folks see a movie -- and we certainly include ourselves in this group -- they don't scrutinize every single detail; they see it as a whole more than as the sum of its parts.

Second, film critics as a class seem to be a bit pretentious. Actually, we will go further, and say that a few -- but certainly, certainly not all -- professional film critics validate Mao's saying that the more books one reads, the stupider one gets*. They are officially too far removed from reality, as a certain former official for a foreign Government might have said. Now, why this is, we do not know. But it seems to us that there's a noxious combination at work here: writing about cultural works whilst being amazingly out of touch with the culture as a whole.

Of course, this doesn't matter nearly as much if one is writing for a specialized audience, but for a mass-market publication? The mind boggles. Even with the technical training and the study and the learning one has, one must remember to write for one's audience. Ms Bernard has not done this.

As such, it will come as no surprise to learn that Ms Bernard compounds her error as she continues:

There is a famous Magritte painting of a smoker's pipe, under which are the words (in French): This is not a pipe. In other words, the representation of an object should not be confused with the object itself.

Many people mistake a movie for the actual subject, and likewise mistake movie reviews for comments on historical events.

Interesting choice of words here, isn't it? We mean, given her review of "The Passion" and all. The review where Ms Bernard flatly declares "The Passion" is not faithful to history; the review where she compares it to Nazi propaganda films; the review where she sees fit to expound upon her own take on this world. Yes, so very odd people would mistake Ms Bernard's review in this way. Perhaps if she stuck to writing about the movie itself -- as she claims is her job -- instead of denouncing it with a passion, she might have had a case. But she did not; and as such, we are not in the slightest impressed with her argument here.

But, after a bit, she continues:

My main objection to "The Passion" is that Gibson has used the tools at his disposal to disguise sadism as piety. My tools, meanwhile, are words.

But it takes more words than there is commonly room for in a newspaper to encompass all the fine print. Otherwise, I would have cited Soviet theories of montage to explain how Gibson turned that despicable historical figure Pontius Pilate into a sympathetic character and the Jews into an undifferentiated, bloodthirsty mob.

Due to space limitations, film reviews are like compressed files. Not all readers are able to "unstuff" them.

Ms Bernard? As a matter of fact, we have Mr McLuhan right over here. Gad. Look, we like being pedantic; we admit it; it is a temptation to which we often succumb. This, though, is just light years beyond pedantry -- even educated readers are going to mistake "Soviet theories of montage" as "that scene in that one movie where the baby carriage goes down the steps."

But that's not what really gets us. What really gets us is that we don't see how someone who is as technically skilled and film-oriented as Ms Bernard could honestly draw the conclusions she did from the movie. We just don't. It doesn't make sense.

We will say that we thought Pilate's character in the film was much too soft than we would have preferred. Pilate was not, as others have noted from the accounts of Tacitus and Philo of Alexandria, a sensitive person when it came to religious matters. In short, he was generally a bastard. This, we should add, is why historians say Pilate ended up suppressing rebellions all the time when he was procurator. We do not think history says clearly that Pilate was a complete tyrant, just because there's not that much we have on which to go. We would note, though, that the Gospel of John gives the impression that this was the last thing Pilate wanted to deal with; not because he was kind-hearted, but because he had enough problems of his own making.

But to say the Jews depicted in the movie were an undifferentiated, bloodthirsty mob is to us ludicrous, as we noted in our own chock-full-of-spoilers review. The Sanhedrin were divided; the people were divided; everyone was divided. It's made awfully clear, at least to us, that this was the case. Even in the crowd scenes, Caiaphas was clearly portrayed as the one force behind it all. (Are we missing something? Are we just not getting it? We mean, it just seemed as if this was truly apparent to any movie-goer).

So, naturally, this got us to thinking -- if we were surprised at this interpretation of the film, what else would we be surprised at in Ms Bernard's review? Well, let's have a look.

She starts out by saying that no child should see this movie; a perfectly agreeable sentiment. Then she writes that even adults are at risk -- she doesn't say why they are at risk, but still, that in itself is not distressing. But then she writes this:

Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" is the most virulently anti-Semitic movie made since the German propaganda films of World War II.

What? What? Isn't this ... a bit harsh?

Good heavens. We assume that Ms Bernard, a student of film, has seen those films. Hence, we assume that she knows how hateful, how vile, how awful they were. How can one make such an implicit comparison? Factually, of course, it's not true -- MEMRI has more on this -- but the whole premise is not true. That's to say nothing of trivializing just how brutish and horrible those Nazi films were, in the process of making such a premise. There are some things one ought not argue about "The Passion" -- and Ms Bernard's third sentence is one of them.

But she continues:

It is sickening, much more brutal than any "Lethal Weapon."

The violence is grotesque, savage and often fetishized in slo-mo. At least in Hollywood spectacles that kind of violence is tempered with cartoonish distancing effects; not so here. And yet "The Passion" is also undeniably powerful.

We should note we have no complaint with this argument, and find it entirely reasonable. But then, Ms Bernard flips back into maddened-critic mode!

Because of all the media coverage of this movie and the way it was shown only to handpicked sympathizers until yesterday's screening for movie critics, many questions hang in the air: Is it historically accurate?

Of course not. As with any movie, even a documentary, this one reflects the views of its filmmakers, who are entitled and expected to use their art persuasively. Gibson has been up-front about his own religious agenda.

What? How can one flatly say it is "of course not" historically accurate? We can see quibbling with certain parts, or noting where artistic license is taken. But to dismiss the whole thing out of hand is either clumsy or disingenuous; we don't know which.

And then, Ms Bernard reverses into standard-critic mode:

But is it any good?

"The Passion" - once you strip away all the controversy and religious fervor - is a technically proficient account of the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

The movie is sanctimonious in a way that impedes dramatic flow and limits characterizations to the saintly and the droolingly vulgar.

That said, there are many things in its favor - a heroic physical effort by star Jim Caviezel; stunning cinematography by Caleb Deschanel, and the chutzpah to have the actors speak in the dead language of Aramaic (with some subtitles).

We find these perfectly reasonable analyses of the movie, even if we don't fully agree with them entirely; and especially so given Ms Bernard's work as a professional film critic. This is what she is supposed to do. And then comes the next few paragraphs:

Is Gibson devout, or is he mad?

Had Gibson claimed Napoleon helped him direct, instead of divine spirits, the answer would be clear. Even so, a touch of madness is often a good thing in a director.

But "The Passion" feels like a propaganda tool rather than entertainment for a general audience.

OK, this is just getting ridiculous. Now, it's as if Jekyll and Hyde are writing the review. On a technical level with the writing, one would think one could separate the dispassionate review of the film with the enraged parts.

Ms Bernard continues:

Is it anti-Semitic?


Jews are vilified, in ways both little and big, pretty much nonstop for two hours, seven minutes.

Gibson cuts from the hook nose of one bad Jewish character to the hook nose of another in the ensuing scene.

Unless we're really not remembering things right, we don't recall that the slave who got his ear cut off, the Twelve Apostles, Mary, Mary Magdalene, the dissenting priests, the wailing people along the crucifixion route, Simon of Cyrene, the good thief next to Christ, the kids who found Judas Iscariot a bit strange, and many others were vilified in the movie. We didn't even think the crowds were vilified either. Caiaphas, yes. A few of the priests, perhaps. But we honestly don't see how one can make such a blanket statement.

He misappropriates an important line from the Jewish celebration of Pesach ("Why is this night different from all other nights?") and slaps it onto a Christian context.

Most unforgivable is that Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov), the Roman governor of Palestine who decreed that Jesus be crucified, is portrayed as a sensitive, kind-hearted soul who is sickened by the tortures the Jewish mobs heap upon his prisoner.

Back to rationality again. Now, we do see how people might get offended at this, and it is Ms Bernard's job to point something like this out. We can see where it fit in this film, but we have no doubt that might annoy some people; just as if someone appropriated Christian verse and applied it to a movie promoting, perhaps, Buddhism. And, as we've said, we don't agree with the portrayal of Pilate.

The most offensive line of the script, which was co-written by Gibson with Benedict Fitzgerald, about Jews accepting blame, was not cut from the movie, as initially reported. Only its subtitle was removed.

Would readers fluent in Aramaic kindly raise their hands? OK, that would be no one -- or at least not many of you. (We have a lot of university readers). Removing the subtitle is, for all intents and purposes, the same as removing the line; because only a few scholars would be able to tell the difference. The average viewer is not going to follow the Latin, much less the Aramaic. They just aren't.

"Passion" assumes the audience already knows Christianity 101, and plunges right into the aftermath of the Last Supper. Taunted by an effeminate, seductive Satan and anticipating betrayal, Christ suffers.

Oh, does He suffer.

The movie is a compendium of tortures that would horrify the regulars at an S&M club. Gibson spares not one cringing closeup to showcase what he imagines Jesus must have endured.

The lashings are so brutal that chunks of flesh go flying and blood rains like outtakes of "Kill Bill."

And back again we go! This is something that many viewers have said; without a religious background, a viewer would have no context. And it's a legitimate argument. Of course, this did get Christians to go back and study the New Testament again, so perhaps that's a good thing. Also, we think the description of the violence ... well, it's crudely expressed, but we see no fault in that description.

One quibble, though. Satan was not seductive. Satan looks, as one friend of ours noted, like Marilyn Manson. Ick.

The Romans capture their prey with the help of a terminally regretful Judas, then haul Him around to be whipped, beaten, spat upon, mutilated and finally crucified - all with the cheering encouragement of a ghoulish mob of Jews. No one in the crowd speaks up for Jesus, not even, strangely, his mother (Maia Morgenstern).

Religious intolerance has been used as an excuse for some of history's worst atrocities. "The Passion of the Christ" is a brutal, nasty film that demonizes Jews at an unfortunate time in history.

Whatever happened to the idea that the centerpiece of every major religion is love?

This isn't a movie review. It's a Tilt-a-Whirl. A clumsy Tilt-a-Whirl, too.

We must ask -- what exactly did Ms Bernard want out of "The Passion?" Did she want it to appear like a debate in the General Assembly of the United Nations? Did she not want any of the violence in it? What?

We ask, because if we knew this, we would know why she so disliked it. As it stands now, we can't understand why she did; because she finds fault with the movie that we can't see. And this really bothers us. It bothers us because both our natural conclusions in the matter are so disagreeable: either we are completely missing a whole lot that we ought not be missing, or Ms Bernard has allowed her outlook on life to obscure the truth of what this film was, and what it meant to viewers like us.

In the film, of course, Pilate asks Christ, "What is truth?" It seems that nearly two thousand years after Pilate spoke those words, we as a society -- as human beings -- are still arguing that question. Perhaps we will do so until the end of time. But it seems such a pity that we must.

* Just for the record: we detest Chairman Mao and consider this quote to have the same intellectual gravity as Ford's outlandish saying that "history is bunk." But in this one isolated example, it serves our purpose.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at March 1, 2004 06:51 PM | TrackBack

Nice job, Ben. To expand on one point, Mary's quoting of the Pesach is hardly some slam at Judaism. It serves two points, as far as I can tell:

1) To drive hom the point that Mary -- the most sympathetic character in the film, save Christ Himself -- is a Jew. In other words, it undercuts the spuriours charges of anti-Semitism.

2) It's making a theological point. Jesus is the lamb of God. It is now His blood that spares us from death. If Passover celebrates the Jews' freedom from Egyptian slavery, the Passion heralds all mankind's freedom from the bondage of sin. Such language and symbolism run throughout the New Testament.

Take care,

Posted by: Chris Weinkopf at March 1, 2004 07:31 PM

Just because the line isn't subtitled doesn't mean that it isn't there. Subtitles can easily be altered at a future date, and the movie will certainly be released in other countries with different subtitles. Do you have any reason to know that that the film will not be released in, say, France, with the line translated? How about Malaysia? What about Egypt or Iran?

Mel Gibson's dad is an obsessed Jew-hater. Mel Gibson is equivocal on the subject, as though there were something honorable in not condemning antisemitism if it comes from someone close to you.

Then, as Ms Bernard points out, Mel goes ahead and makes a fictionalised presentation of the Gospels which is more brutal than the original texts; which changes the events depicted in the original texts; changes which are acknowledged to be historically innacurate. And those changes tend to maximise the depiction of Jewish bloodlust and hatred.

It is hardly a defense to the movie that some Jews were depicted sympathetically. Of course they were: the sympathetic Jews were, by and large, Jesus' followers and those who were to become Jesus' followers. It's as if it were inconceivable that someone could be decent and *not* become a Christian. That you're either baying for Jesus' blood, or blessedly immersing in it.

The film is a nasty piece of propoganda using stereotypes originating not in the Gospels, but in the last fifteen centuries of Christian Jew-hatred. How else can we explain the demonic children, and the shots of Satan walking around as if he himself were one of the JEws?

Posted by: Joe in Australia at March 7, 2004 03:30 PM


As it happens, the movie will not be released in France because the distributors refuse to carry it. I would also find it rather unlikely that the Governments of Egypt, Malaysia and Iran would allow such a Christian movie to be screened in their majority-Moslem nations. Especially Iran, which is a theocratic state; their power rests on keeping other religions out of sight and out of mind. Ask the Baha'is about that.

So I don't think we shall need to worry about that particular subtitle ending up back in the movie. Furthermore, Mr Gibson's company will control distribution of the film; and given the global media environment, I can't see why they would put the subtitle back in. They would be found out if they did.

That said, Joe, I question whether you really saw this movie with an open mind. Your remark about decency seems to give that away. I am sure you are a decent person, of course; don't get me wrong! But what I took from your comment was that you didn't care for the core ideas of the movie; and are thus attacking it because of that.

The Satan issue you mention falls short because Satan looked like Marilyn Manson; he looked nothing like the other people in the film. As for the demonic children, it seems clear to me that by this time Judas Iscariot had gone mad, like the man who thinke he is a spark plug or a poached egg, and thus suffering delusions.

In short, there were messages in this film, but not where you were looking for them. I don't deny the film is propaganda -- that's kind of the point. But it is not conveying the ideas you took from it.

As for the issue of artistic license, you should know that there HAS to be a bit of that in any telling of the Passion. Sadly, the historians of that era didn't know what we would be looking for today; and as such, they skimped at places where we'd want more elaboration. The stories about that time are also different; any layman who reads the Gospels can see that, to say nothing of other histories. That said, I thought Mr Gibson did a good job of things and largely stayed true as to what happened, given the knowledge we know about the time.

Finally, as to your comment regarding Mr Gibson's father and the father's reported anti-Semitism. It reminded me of a comment John F. Kennedy made when he was told that Martin Luther King Jr.'s father wouldn't vote for Kennedy, because Kennedy was Roman Catholic (King Sr later changed his mind). Kennedy's response was this:

"Well, we all have fathers, don't we?"

In short, I'm not about to condemn Mr Gibson because his father happens to hold some reprehensible views. They're not Mr Gibson's views, they're his father's; and his father is thus the one who ought to be held accountable for them. Furthermore, Mr Gibson has shown through his actions in this life that he certainly does not share his father's views.

To shift blame for the father's error onto the son is unwarranted. Given the point you made above about the subtitles, Joe, you of all people ought to recognize that!

Posted by: Benjamin Kepple at March 10, 2004 07:04 PM