Talk About the Passions

Looking beyond the culture-war controversies of two Jesus movies
by Joshua Land   posted Apr 9, 2009

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"it's worth noting that Gibson does not embellish the Gospels in this regard. And the Romans fare no better in Passion." I think these observations are broadly accurate. Even ADL director Abraham Foxman has acknowledged that Gibson's PASSION is not antisemitic. That said, I think the film does somewhat skew the biblical record, softening and nuancing the portrayal of Pilate while omitting similar nuances in the figure of Caiaphas. The Gospels attribute remarkably similar motives to Pilate and Caiaphas: Both see Jesus' death as preferable to the likely violent consequences of letting him live. Pilate doesn't want to see a riot start, while Caiaphas doesn't want to see ongoing unreset lead to a Roman crackdown. Gibson's film develops Pilate's inner struggle well beyond what is set forth in the gospels, while omitting Caiaphas's motivations. Caiaphas is simply presented as a villain opposing Jesus for no very clear reason, while Pilate gets angsty scenes pondering the meaning of truth with his wife and such. Had Gibson included the Johannine line of Caiaphas arguing that it was better for one man to die for the people that the nation be saved, perhaps giving Caiaphas a measure of the inner conflict he gave to Pilate, it could have underscored the similarities between Caiaphas and Pilate and helped defuse the issue of antisemitism. OTOH, Gibson does mitigate the issue in some ways, such as the sympathetic portrayal of Simon of Cyrene (not one of Jesus' followers) and especially the manifest ugliness of the antisemitism displayed by the Roman soldier who contemptuously spits the word "Jew!" at Simon. On LAST TEMPTATION, I come down squarely on the "blasphemy" side of the fence. Here are links to my essays on THE PASSION and antisemtism and LAST TEMPTATION and blasphemy (FWIW, both quoted by Roger Ebert in essays on those films):
SDG   posted 13.04.09


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Courtesy 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
The Passion of the Christ, directed by Mel Gibson
Photo Gallery: Talk About the Passions


Martin Scorsese  |  Mel Gibson  |  historical film  |  Hollywood  |  Religion  |  violence  |  Jesus Christ  |  Paul Schrader


Joshua Land is a freelance writer and a founding co-editor of the online literary journal Essays & Fictions. He is currently studying applied economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

More articles by Joshua Land
Author's Website: Pop Tones