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Posted February 21, 2004

When is too much focus on the Passion too much when done American style? Is The Passion of the Christ and all the controversy around it diminishing or enhancing evangelization?

'Passion' (Contd): A Timid Debate

By Alessandra Stanley
Published: February 20, 2004
In the New York Times



Anyone who cannot bear to wait one more day to hear Aramaic in a movie theater should be assuaged by "The Making of `The Passion of the Christ,' " a behind-the-scenes look at Mel Gibson's much-discussed film.

On Sunday on PAX TV, viewers can see snippets of dialogue in Aramaic and Latin, with subtitles. There are interviews with the director and crew members as well as scenes of Mr. Gibson clowning with extras on location in Italy.

The word "Jews," on the other hand, is not uttered in this documentary, which was made for Mr. Gibson's film company, Icon Distribution Inc. Mr. Gibson does not allude to the fierce debate over his depiction of Jews that engulfed his film long before its release date. "The Passion of the Christ" is scheduled to open next week on Ash Wednesday. The film's R-rated violence is shown only fleetingly on PAX, a network devoted to religious and family programming that was founded by Lowell (Bud) Paxson, the creator of the Home Shopping Network and Christian Network Inc.

But there is a demonstration of how a nail was pounded into a fake hand for a close-up of the Crucifixion.

The one thing missing from the documentary about the making of the film are the passions that "The Passion of the Christ" has aroused.

This is not surprising promotional behind-the-scenes documentaries rarely look too closely behind the scenes. And in that sense, "The Making" fits in with the elliptical approach the rest of television has taken to l'Affaire Gibson. No other recently released movie has received as much attention and free publicity on television news programs, on talk shows, in newspapers and even at sports events. (In last weekend's Daytona 500, Bobby Labonte drove a car painted with a "The Passion of the Christ" logo.) Yet television discussion about the "The Passion" has remained oddly muted.

For those who want an investigative take on the events surrounding the Crucifixion, tonight NBC plans to devote an entire edition of "Dateline" to the debate over "The Passion" by sending the show's anchor, Stone Phillips, to Jerusalem to uncover what really happened in the last days of Jesus's life.

Network and cable television usually come under fire for going too far, like showing Janet Jackson's bare breast during the Super Bowl. But the treatment of "The Passion" underscores the timidity with which television handles tricky subjects.

"Who killed Jesus?," the query now being posed to scholars, religious leaders and movie producers, is not at the real heart of the controversy. In this latest battle in the nation's culture wars, the unspoken question is, "Who controls Hollywood?" Critics worry that Mr. Gibson's film, which has already been embraced by Christian preachers as a tool of evangelization, will reawaken old prejudices not that Jews are guilty of killing Christ, but that Jewish liberals control the entertainment and media industries and have imposed a secular, left-leaning bias on movies and television.

Mr. Gibson says he spent about $30 million of his own money to make "The Passion," a film that no studio would contemplate. (The subtitles alone would be viewed as box-office poison.) He has said repeatedly that the movie represents his own artistic vision and religious sensibility, which includes a firm belief in the literal truth of the Gospel. But his film has been embraced by Christian leaders not just as a faith-affirming experience, but also as a backlash against a permissive, godless world of media and entertainment.

Mr. Gibson has argued that he is just an artist expressing his personal vision, and certainly he is entitled to make any kind of film he likes, even if it offends some Jewish groups. (Offensive films are not exactly unusual: dozens of movies are released each month that are deeply denigrating to women, and nobody seems to object very strenuously.)

Yet at the moment Mr. Gibson is viewed not as an artist flouting convention and mainstream Hollywood orthodoxies, but as a lobbyist for the fundamentalist religious movement in the United States at a time when its clout is unmistakably on the rise. Under pressure from right-wing groups that threatened a boycott of advertisers, CBS last November was driven to cancel "The Reagans," a biographical mini-series about President Ronald Reagan and his first lady, Nancy.

In the same way that right-wing groups rose up to protest what they predicted would be an unfair portrait of Mr. Reagan, some Jewish groups and liberal organizations complained about Mr. Gibson's message long before they had a chance to see his film.

Those touchier subjects are taboo on network television, where the debate has mostly stayed frozen on the topic of Jewish responsibility for Jesus's execution 2,000 years ago. In her hour long talk with Mr. Gibson on ABC's "Prime time" last Monday, Diane Sawyer stuck to the obvious. "Are you anti-Semitic?" she asked her guest, which is about as useful an interview technique as asking about wife-beating.

Mr. Gibson solemnly replied, "No, of course not." But at times he could not resist a touch of levity. When Ms. Sawyer asked him if Jews killed Jesus, the director replied: "There were Jews and Romans in Israel. There were no Norwegians there."

Just who was there and what they were doing is explored by "Dateline's" Mr. Phillips on "The Final Days of Jesus." "What forces triggered Jesus's death?" Mr. Phillips asks in the same portentous tone used to introduce segments on insurance fraud or criminal charges against Michael Jackson. "Who was ultimately responsible?"

At the risk of ruining the suspense, "Dateline" concludes that the culprit was Pontius Pilate.

And that is the interpretation endorsed by ecumenical groups and scholars seeking to defuse old biases and fears that were fanned throughout history, among other places in traditional passion plays. Mr. Gibson has made it pretty clear he has no patience for political correctness in Bible studies, or even much faith in contemporary Roman Catholic thought. A traditionalist Catholic who built his own church so he could attend Latin masses near his home in Malibu, Mr. Gibson was forthright in the interview with Ms. Sawyer about his dislike of many of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. "I'm just Roman Catholic, the way they were up until the mid-60's, you know."

Mr. Gibson's precise differences with Rome are not well known, however. Ms. Sawyer did not ask her guest if his rejection of Vatican II includes the "Nostra Aetate," the declaration issued by Pope Paul VI in 1965 formally repudiating collective Jewish guilt for the Crucifixion of Jesus and condemning anti-Semitism. (Perhaps having anticipated the question, however, Mr. Gibson supplied his own answer, saying, "It goes against the tenets of my faith to be racist in any form.")

Instead, much of the ABC interview was spent on Mr. Gibson's return to his boyhood faith after years of substance abuse in what he called the "secular utopia" of movie-star fame. Mr. Gibson's antic, teasing manner with Ms. Sawyer ("What flaws shall I expose to the world here?" he asked her. "Like to hear another one?") was disarming and also a little alarming suggesting that the semi-crazed cop he played in "Lethal Weapon" was not that much of a stretch.

With so much left unsaid on network television, the documentary on PAX TV provides a few insights. There, Mr. Gibson does not temper his evangelical fervor to suit a cool medium. Explaining why the film so graphically depicts Jesus's suffering, the director said he was careful to make the violence "bearable; just bearable," so viewers understood the nature of his sacrifice.

He added, "However, even with that, I want to push you over the edge, push you right over the edge so you stay there and hang out with it, and get to a higher plane to something, through the pain."