Mel Gibson has won the hearts and admiration of millions of fans for his swashbuckling performances in such blockbusters as "Lethal Weapon" and the Oscar-winning "Braveheart."
But his next film project already has some people sitting on the edge of their seats: and not in a good way.
The 47-year-old Hollywood star is in Rome directing "The Passion," which he promises will graphically portray the last hours of Jesus of Nazareth’s life, including his trial, torture and crucifixion. Gibson insists his account is different from earlier film versions because it will present the "true story" based on the Gospel texts: which blame the Jews for Jesus’ death.
This 2,000-year-old charge of deicide formed the basis of Christian anti-Semitism and prompted the murder of countless numbers of Jews throughout the centuries. What concerns some religious scholars, culture watchers and Jewish leaders is Gibson’s religious point of view: He is a fundamentalist Catholic whose sect rejects the landmark changes in Catholic theology adopted in 1965 by the Second Vatican Council.
One of the most significant of those changes is contained in the Vatican document Nostra Aetate, which officially rejects the concept of the collective responsibility of the Jewish people for Jesus’ death. But some fear Gibson’s film will revive the deicide charge, as Passion Plays around the world did for centuries, sometimes triggering anti-Jewish mob violence.
Scholars base their concerns on recent comments by Gibson about the movie, which he is directing, co-writing and personally financing, but not appearing in. They also cite recent anti-Semitic remarks by Gibson’s father, Hutton, a Holocaust denier who rejects the Vatican’s theological reconciliation with Jews.
Hutton Gibson’s remarks were contained in a March 9 New York Times Magazine story that also revealed his son’s financing of a huge new church in Malibu, Calif., for his breakaway Catholic sect.
At a time when anti-Semitism is rising around the world, when radical Arab Muslim clerics are teaching their children to hate Jews, when a U.S. congressman publicly blames Jews for pushing for an invasion of Iraq, some in the Jewish community fear that, given Gibson’s star power, a film resurrecting the ancient blood libel against Jews could perhaps infect a new generation.
"It’s very serious," warns Abraham Foxman, national director of Anti-Defamation League. "The ‘truth’ he is talking about has been used for 2,000 years to buttress anti-Semitism and to give a rationale for persecuting Jews. While he’s not [Steven] Spielberg, he is Gibson, and he has a reputation for being a caring, passionate, serious filmmaker, and therefore he’ll get attention."
Foxman, who said he intends to contact Gibson, also bemoaned the public silence of Christian leaders about the forthcoming film, weeks after the Times article was published.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles said, "If the new film seeks to undo Vatican II … it would unleash more of the scurrilous charges of deicide directed against the Jewish people, which took the Catholic Church 20 centuries to finally repudiate."
Rabbi Hier noted reports that Gibson’s script is based on a mystical book by two 17th century nuns detailing their vision about the death of Jesus. He said he has looked at the book and it is anti-Jewish.
Rabbi David Rosen, director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee, called the film a "scandal." He is particularly worried about the impact of the movie on new American Catholics from Latin America who, according to surveys, continue to believe the deicide charge, despite Nostra Aetate.
Dr. Michael Cook, a professor of Judaeo-Christian Studies at Hebrew Union College, said "Gibson’s film may reverse progress the Christian community has made" in reinterpreting anti-Jewish New Testament passages.
Indeed, Nostra Aetate and subsequent Vatican directives seek to present the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ last hours (written decades after the event) in historical context. They explain the political situation at the time: Jews who believed in Jesus as messiah involved in acrimonious theological debates with their fellow Jews who did not accept the concept.
In addition, the gospel writers, wanting to curry favor with Rome, sought to minimize Roman responsibility for Jesus’ death and magnified the role of the Jews, progressive Christian Bible scholars say.
But Gibson is apparently ignoring these mainstream Christian theological developments.
"This film will show the passion of Jesus Christ just the way it happened," he recently told Zenit, a Catholic news service in Italy. "It’s like traveling back in time and watching the events unfold exactly as they occurred."
He said the actors would speak Aramaic (as the Jews did in those days) or Latin. There will be no subtitles.
Asked how he can be so sure his version is so accurate Gibson replied: "I’m telling the story as the Bible tells it. The Gospel is a complete script, and that’s what we’re filming."
Asked if bringing the Gospels to life won’t be offensive to Jews, Gibson replied: "It’s true that, as the Bible says, ‘He came unto his own and his own received him not.’ I can’t hide that. The struggle between good and evil, and the overwhelming power of love go beyond race and culture.
"I didn’t invent this story. I do happen to believe it."
A spokesman for Gibson told The Jewish Week it was "way too premature" to discuss the film. "You never know what ends up in the film," said Gibson publicist Alan Nierob. He said Gibson would not answer specific questions because "he’s busy trying to finish the film," slated for a 2004 release.
But Catholic scholars contacted by The Jewish Week said Gibson would be seriously mistaken if he rejected the post-Vatican II changes and accepted the Gospel accounts as literally written.
"As a member of the Catholic Church, I regard [his] thinking as bizarre and dangerous, and suggest that Jews judge them similarly," declared Sister Mary C. Boys, a theology professor at Manhattan’s Union Theological Seminary.
"We seem to have at best fringe Catholics [if not heretical] with … a tragically twisted understanding of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. It is compounded by the arrogance great wealth makes possible in producing a film that will reopen wounds of history."
Father John Pawlikowski, director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies Program at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union, said he is "naturally quite upset at the prospect of this film. … Those who might see the film without much or any background in recent biblical interpretation will be terribly misled."
Dr. Philip Cunningham, executive director of Boston College’s Center for Christian Jewish Learning, said "it is impossible to do a film based strictly on the Gospels because they disagree with one another on some essential details. Was Jesus crucified on Passover or on the day of preparation? Was there a morning hearing before Temple authorities or not?"
Cunningham wonders how Gibson will decide to include or exclude scenes that occur in only one gospel, such as the problematic account of Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate symbolically washing his hands of any responsibility for Jesus’ death, found only in Matthew.
Cunningham also notes there are relevant historical facts not mentioned in the Gospels that would need to be included, "for instance that Caiaphas the [Jewish] high priest was appointed by Pilate."
Citing recent Vatican directives barring interpretations of scripture that suggest a collective guilt of Jews, or that lead to animosity against Jews, Cunningham said:
"If the film violates these norms, I would anticipate a clear and explicit criticism of it from the Catholic magisterium throughout the world. It would also certainly demand a strong response from all Christians committed to Jewish-Christian rapprochement."
But one person eagerly awaiting "The Passion" is Columbia University professor James Shapiro, author of "Oberammergau: The Troubling Story of the World’s Most Famous Passion Play."
Shapiro says that like a canary in a coalmine, the film will reveal the Christian world’s true feelings towards Jews.
"I think this is a litmus test that will reveal cultural shifts and attitudes about how society views Jews, and as a cultural critic, that’s what I’m interested in seeing."
And as a Jew, he said, "We need to know that."
Given that the movie, filmed in two dead languages, will have to rely on strong visuals, Shapiro said one way to evaluate the film’s anti-Semitism will be in how Gibson portrays Jews calling for Jesus’ death.
If the Jewish crowd is large and bloodthirsty, he said, "that will be very powerful and scary."
Also revealing will be whether Gibson puts Jews in funny, dark costumes while Jesus and his followers wear white. Another indicator is whether Gibson includes the verse, which only appears in Matthew, where Jews say Jesus’ blood is upon them and their children.
Gibson says he aims to present the film to the widest audience possible.
"Gandhi was a blockbuster hit, but it wasn’t just for Hindus," he told Zenit. "This film is for everyone; for believers and non-believers. The story has inspired art, culture, governments, kingdoms and countries. It has influenced the world in more ways than you can imagine."
But Professor Cook has another take: "Were Jesus today to witness the hatred exuded and directed against fellow Jews by this film, might Jesus not construe the theaters showing it as modern ‘temples’ most in need of his cleansing?"