Is Risen the New Passion of the Christ?

January 26, 2016

Is “Risen”, the new faith film about the aftermath of Jesus’ Resurrection, the new “The Passion of the Christ”? It’s being billed that way by those hoping to repeat “The Passion’s” great success. The answer is no, it’s not. Because if it were, you’d have heard about it already, in the way that “The Passion” had almost a year’s worth of marketing, publicity and – yes – controversy, prior to its release on 25 February 2004. “Risen” rises on 19 February 2016 both here in Australia and internationally. We can only assume the closeness of these two release dates – late February – is no coincidence.

From the Jewish perspective, the concern about any New Testament film is how Jews are portrayed. There is a long history of film’s showing a direct or implied guilt cast on the Jews for the death of Jesus, despite efforts of the Catholic Church from the 1965 Nostra Aetate onwards.

In a January 22, 2016 interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), Rich Paluso, Senior Vice President of Affirm, Sony’s faith-based production arm (which financed “Risen”), says of “Risen”:

They are intrigued by the story of what happened, the birth of Christianity and the fact that the infrastructure of Judea, both the Sanhedrin and the Jewish leadership and the Roman leadership were all about crushing this man and crushing His followers. So that automatically lends them credibility.

The official Sony website avoids references to “Jewish leadership”, describing this film as:

“Risen” is the epic Biblical story of the Resurrection, as told through the eyes of a non-believer. Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), a powerful Roman Military Tribune, and his aide Lucius (Tom Felton), are tasked with solving the mystery of what happened to Jesus in the weeks following the crucifixion, in order to disprove the rumours of a risen Messiah and prevent an uprising in Jerusalem.

“Risen” is directed and co-written by Kevin Reynolds, known for his collaborations with Kevin Costner (“Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”), followed by a major falling out over “Waterworld”. This caused Reynolds famously to say, “”Kevin should only star in movies he directs. That way he can work with his favourite actor and director”.

Trivia: Rich Paluso’s “three success habits” , according to an interview with The Door Post:

1. Always take notes.
2. Always return everyone’s phone call even if you don’t know them.
3. Always do what you say you are going to do.
(DP comment: good habits, those.)

(image from the film below)

Risen


More on the moment of inequality: the wealth divide continues to fascinate us

July 6, 2014

Rather than decreasing in number, the flood of information on the “moment” of attention to inequality of wealth and the class divide seems to be growing.  As I write this, Thomas Piketty’s 696 page economics book Capital in the Twenty-First Century still maintains its #22 position in book sales on Amazon’s US website (along with an astonishing 799 user reviews), just ahead of Gone Girl.

Here in Australia, Oxfam has weighed in, with a webpage devoted to inequality issues and a new (June 2014) publication, entitled Still the Lucky Country? The Growing Gap Between Rich and Poor is a Gaping Hole in the G20 Agenda.  (Australia will be hosting the G-20 Leaders Summit in Brisbane on 15-16 November 2014.)

The Oxfam report’s key points:
– Extreme inequality poses a growing threat to global security and economic growth.
– Inequality is on the rise in Australia, with the richest 1% of Australians now owning the same wealth as the bottom 60% (you read that one correctly).
– The richest 85 people in the world own the same amount as half the world’s population – some 3.5 billion people.
– Australia’s richest person owns more than the bottom 10% of the population (2.27 million people), and the nine richest Australians own more than the bottom 20% (4.54 million people).
– Income inequality has been on the rise in Australia since the 1990s: in 1995, Australia had an average inequality level compared to other wealthy OECD countries. By 2010, Australia has become much less equal (based on the Gini co-efficient), even though we have had such a high-performing economy.  And this is not just left-wing assertion: it is based on the Australian Government’s Treasury report from 2013, entitled Economic Inequality in Australia by Michael Fletcher and Ben Guttman.

Clearly these trends have been evident for some time – the Treasury data covers the 15 year period to 2010.  So why now?  What is it about this point that appears to be capturing attention, not just in Australia but in the USA and in other places around the world?

In his article “Piketty v. Marx” (The New Republic, June 2014), UCLA history professor Russell Jacoby examines this phenomenon, and likens it to Allan Bloom’s 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, which also “unexpectedly capture(d) the zeitgeist”. In reviewing the book for The New York Times at the time, Roger Kimball described it as filled with “pathos, erudition and penetrating insight”.   (Bloom, as we recall, was a close friend of Werner Dannhauser, and Saul Bellow wrote the introduction to his book.)

But that’s not enough.

As Jacoby writes, “Few read all of Bloom’s volume – for the good reason that it was mainly turgid – but it spoke to a moment in which many felt that liberals and leftists were wrecking American education, if not American itself”. Jacoby feels that these two books come from the same “force field”, but that “the terrain has shifted from education to economics”.

But that would not be enough to explain the popularity of this issue outside of the USA, as Bloom’s book did not have near the same impact beyond American shores.  More to the point, Jacoby writes that Piketty speaks to “the palpable upset that … societies seem increasingly rigged; that inequality is worsening and darkening our future”.

From my own PhD research on what makes a “cultural moment” – in which I investigated the reasons behind the unexpected but profound success of Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ – I concluded that a “moment” arises from a series of factors that come together at a certain point in time and build it up, almost like a wave can be exaggerated when two or more combine.  In the case of the Gibson film, the combination of the rise of political power of American evangelical Protestants (witness the 2004 re-election of George W. Bush); the concentrated, muscular and focussed influence of certain right-wing media and religious commentators; the unwillingness of the Catholic Church in the USA to criticise the film, in part a reaction to the child sex scandals that the church had been dealing with; an excellent and superbly targeted marketing campaign; and a clever publicity use of the antisemitism controversy (“see the film that the Jews don’t want you to watch”) all came together at a certain moment.  But that “moment”, as my thesis showed in depth, was primarily one in the USA, with much diminished effects outside its borders, even in Canada and certainly in Australia.

So what constitutes this “moment” of inequality? And why does this moment – unlike Bloom’s book and unlike Gibson’s film – seem to extend so fully outside of the USA? These are questions that we cannot yet answer fully.

The Closing of the American Mind book cover


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

April 18, 2014

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.