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March 03, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Our Town: 'The Passion' hits hard Our Town: 'The Passion' hits hard (March 03, 2004)

by Robyn Israel

As I sat inside the Camera Three Theater in San Jose, waiting to see a press screening of "The Passion of the Christ" before it hit Palo Alto area screens, I struck up a conversation with Pamela Walls, a critic for the Gilroy Dispatch.

"Are you of Jewish background?" she asked after introductions.

"Yes," I replied.

"What do you think of all the controversy surrounding this film?"

She was referring, of course, to allegations that Mel Gibson's movie, which centers on the condemnation and Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, was anti-Semitic.

"I'm going into this with an open mind," I told her.

Of course I had read that Gibson's ultra-conservative Catholic views were driving this project, and there were fears the film could be extremely dangerous were it to assign culpability in Jesus's death to the Jews.

Before watching this film, I knew little about the life and death of Jesus. Watching it did not educate me. Centered solely on the last 12 hours of Jesus's life, the film is a bloody depiction of an innocent man's torture and murder. The protracted scenes of brutality were simply unbearable -- I was so horrified I had to look away repeatedly.

I thought the Jewish priests depicted in the film were Roman clergy, a confusion due to the lack of character development or historical context.

My initial reaction after seeing the film was that it wasn't anti-Semitic. I didn't feel personally offended by Gibson's interpretation of the story, and I saw sympathetic portrayals of other Jewish characters.

But a few days later I began to question the film more vigorously. Who could say for certain that the story depicted onscreen is historically accurate? We are talking about events that occurred more than 2,000 years ago -- is it not possible that history was revised somewhere along the way? What if Pontius Pilate acted alone, without instigation from other parties?

But say, for argument's sake, that the film -- which, controversially, draws literally from the four Gospels -- is historically accurate, and that a group of Jewish priests wanted Jesus dead and played a central role in his trial and condemnation. It is a believable scenario.

The perception of the Jews as "Christ killers" proved enduring, leading to centuries of persecution and anti-Semitism. That bigotry still persists -- I have experienced it personally on more than one occasion, including an incident of swastikas spray-painted outside my high school in Montreal.

My concern is that Gibson's film has the potential to undo the reconciliation between Jews and Christians, a rapprochement that took centuries to achieve. The matter of Jewish involvement in Jesus' death has been addressed on a societal level, thanks to the efforts of the Second Vatican Council in the late 1960s. Why resurrect a deeply sensitive topic? Why not make a movie about Christ's progressive teachings and his loving ways?

The reason is that kind of film wouldn't make it at the box office. Sin, gore and brutality, however, will sell nicely in our time, it seems.

It is the graphic violence of "The Passion of the Christ" that lingers in one's mind, long after you have left the theater. As a human being, I was appalled, and wondered how any person could be made to suffer so, and why any audience should be made to suffer so.

I discussed the film with a Catholic co-worker, who also was deeply disturbed by the sadistic brutality she witnessed onscreen.

"That's not my religion," she insisted. "My religion is about worshipping God and treating others as I want to be treated." All who see the film will probably respond differently, based on their own backgrounds and biases. I came away wanting to know more about the life of Jesus Christ -- it is a good thing to be curious about other faiths and belief systems.

On the first Sunday of 2004, I attended a Catholic mass in Connecticut. I was surprised when the pastor, during his sermon, alluded to the Jews as "the chosen people."

"They are a good people," he said. "And they still suffer, even today."

If that is the kind of teaching prevalent in modern, mainstream Catholicism, I can rest a lot easier.

Robyn Israel is the Weekly's arts & entertainment editor. She can be e-mailed at

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