The Passion of the Christ ten years on: are things any different now?

It’s been just over ten years since “The Passion of the Christ”, the Mel Gibson blockbuster film about the death of Jesus, opened in cinemas worldwide to great controversy.

The film was controversial for three reasons: excessive violence, the inclusion of “extra” (non)-Biblical events and themes and its suggestive portrayal of Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus. Of these three issues, it was the last one – Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus – that was the most profoundly unsettling. The film’s directorial auteur Mel Gibson exacerbated this issue by conducting long-running public arguments with a series of media commentators and Jewish religious leaders in the USA. By the time the dust had settled, the film had grossed many hundreds millions of dollars, made Gibson a wildly wealthy man who never had to consider working again, and turned most Jews – along with a large part of American film-makers – against Gibson.

Even now, when the “passion” has faded from the controversy, the mention of Gibson’s name causes ripples of concern in many quarters.

This coming Saturday night – 19 April 2014 – here in Australia, SBS Television is broadcasting “The Passion of the Christ” on its primary channel at 9.30pm, it’s best movie spot. For some years, one or other of the commercial channels – Nine or Seven – broadcast the film, and now the broadcast rights have moved on. Whereas the commercial channels approached the broadcast in a commercial-with-religious-angle way (as they will), SBS is missing the opportunity to engage in some significant community debate about this film.

Just because “The Passion of the Christ” controversy has virtually disappeared does not mean that the film’s content has changed: the same violence, the same extra-Biblical elements and – most importantly – the same negative portrayals of Jews all remain. It was these elements that specifically do not follow the United States National Conference of Catholic Bishops 1988 document “Criteria for the Evaluation of the Dramatizations of the Passion”.

Don’t believe me? Here’s what Sr. Rose Pacatte wrote in “The National Catholic Reporter” wrote on 22 February 2014:

Gibson made a film that confirmed many stereotypes of the Jews, such as depicting the moment when the bag of silver was tossed to Judas in slow motion and Judas looked at it lovingly; the “bad” Jewish men with fang-like teeth and the “good guys” with nice teeth; the sneering hatred from the high priest when he questions Jesus; and Pilate calling the Jews “filthy rabble.” Certainly not the first to do so, Gibson uses stereotypes, some more subtle than others, to create a group of “bad” Jews to confront the “good” Jews consisting of Jesus, Mary and their followers who would be thought of as aligned with Christians today.

It’s a strong film, well-made, and has been very moving for many people. Unfortunately, as Sr Pacatte also found out, most who watch it believe that it is a totally literal interpretation of the Bible.

The Biblical blockbuster “Noah” (by Jewish film-maker Darren Aronofsky) is currently screening in our cinemas. And guess what? It too has excessive violence and loads of extra-Biblical elements. (See my review for more details.) But what it does NOT include are screen images that reinforce ancient prejudices towards Jews – or any other group.

Come on, SBS, get with it. Are you just a commercial television channel with no community responsibility? Doesn’t your status as a national broadcaster and your multicultural charter lead you to attempt to create proper discussion around the significant and misleading elements of “The Passion of the Christ”? From what I can see, apparently not.

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