In early December, 2003, several people involved in the production of Mel Gibson's "The Passion," arrived in Rome. The mission was to get the Vatican to endorse the movie's version of the last hours of Jesus Christ's life. The film was shot in Rome, at the Cinecitta studios, and the Gibson delegation apparently had some contacts.
I was in Rome at the same time as Gibson's delegation, and met someone who attended one of the screenings they had set up. He was an American actor in town shooting a movie, and he had been invited to a special screening of The Passion the day before. When he showed up he was surprised to find himself in a small room occupied exclusively by priests in their robes. The audience totaled about twenty. The actor talked about how it was difficult to watch a movie in the company of priests. "I had some arm-rest issues with the guy next to me," he said. "I was like, 'What, just because you're a priest you get the arm-rest?'"
We were both guests at a dinner party and to a table full of candle lit faces he described the movie as follows:
"It's mostly Jesus getting the shit beat out of him," he said in his matter of fact, cowboy deadpan. "At one point the Jews take Jesus to the Romans and demand that he be crucified," he continued. "So they beat him. Just whip him really hard, and eventually the Roman emperor is like, 'Are you satisfied?' And the Jews are like, 'No! We want him crucified!' And this is after twenty minutes of him being beaten."
At this same dinner party I met a man named Armando, a gentle, portly, sad eyed accountant who seemed very interested in exactly how famous Monica Belluci, an Italian actress (who happens to be in "The Passion") might be able to get in America. He was funny, I liked him, and we got to talking. He said that he was a "Roman Jew."
I asked him about the Roman Jews.
"We're the only Jews who never moved!" he said. "I can trace my family back eighty generations. But no one knows about us! We're the only Jews who aren't powerful! All the other Jews run the world."
"George Bush is not even slightly Jewish," I pointed out.
"But he is responding the Jewish lobby," said Armando, in all innocence. "All over the world the Jews are powerful, except the Italian Jews," he lamented. "And most of them are here in Rome and have never left."
"What about Primo Levi?" I said. "He's not Roman, and he's dead, but…"
"Yes, OK, he is a good writer, but does have power like Steven Spielberg? Can he get a movie made?"
I was stumped by the notion of Primo Levi trying to get a Hollywood movie made. Instead I pointed out that his comments about Jews running the world sounded very much like anti-Semitism. This made no impression on Armando, who was shortly telling me of his plan to send his children, which he didn’t yet have, to Hebrew school. Later he and his wife took me to a late night pastry shop near the Piazza Navonna, and bought me some tiny, sea-shell shaped pastries filled with cream. We parted with hugs in the chilly Roman night.
On December 17th, about two weeks after that evening in Rome, the nails-on-chalkboard pundit Peggy Noonan began her Wall Street Journal column: "Here's some happy news this Christmas season, an unexpected gift for those who have seen and admired Mel Gibson's controversial movie, "The Passion," and wish to support it."»
The happy news was that the Pope had endorsed the film.
When she breathlessly divulged the Pope's praise it sounded suspiciously like something from a Monty Python skit, merged with a Talking Heads lyric: "It is as it was." Thus spake the Pope.
A week and many columns later, the Vatican issued a denial. The Pope quote, it turns out, was a fiction.
A lot of ink has already been spilled on the subject of Gibson's movie. Some of it refers to the significant demand there is for the movie, which is scheduled to open on 2,000 screens at the end of February. And there has been some gratifying criticism.
Frank Rich wrote an astute column in which he puts the film in a larger context of “Spiritual McCarthyism." The phrase is a catchy and an accurate assessment of the ways evangelical Republicans equate piety and patriotism, and pretend that seperation of church and state was something imposed on the country by crazy liberals (a correct assesment, if you acknowledge that these crazy liberals were the founding fathers).
Christopher Hitchens, writing in the March Vanity Fair, takes Gibson to task for his biblical scholarship, and makes a nuanced case for the ways Gibson is either naïve or dishonest. He remarks, "The lacerating detail in which the torture of Jesus is portrayed in the film, it seems to me, is a way of diverting attention from these alarming elements of reactionary propaganda."
The day after my Roman dinner party, I found myself in a church: the Santa Maria in Aracoeli, at the top of the 124 steps of the Aracoeli staircase, in the center of town. After catching my breath and taking in the view, I went inside, and peered at the many faces carved into the pillars and ceilings. The element of physical pain that is woven into nearly all the images of Jesus I saw that day reminded me of the erotic element of suffering that the Catholic Church has, inadvertently or not, always specialized in. Gibson, though Australian, seems to belong to that particularly American tradition of puritanical sensibility in which depictions of sexuality are seen as totally degraded, while extreme violence, such as that found in “The Passion”, is intrinsic to its supposedly spiritually galvanizing message. The feeling of suffering exuded by the Crucifixion imagery around me was intrinsic to its beauty but possessed a certain raw fearfulness, nonetheless.
That someone with so much money and clout as Mel Gibson would promote “alarming elements of reactionary propaganda,” was what got me focused on the movie in the first place, but that conversation with Armando had illustrated how tricky and convoluted the subject of anti-Semitism can be. It was the violence of the film, however, the visceral experience of a body being maimed, that stuck in my imagination. Such violence in a movie is, I think, a threat.
"The Passion" is a thinly veiled form of bullying. It intends to evoke the response kids often have to the spectacle of another kid being beaten up: a simple gratitude that they are not the ones getting abused. And we all know what kids do when they want to avoid trouble: they keep their heads low and try to stay out of sight. It’s for that reason that Peggy Noonan and her cohorts find the arrival of “The Passion” such “Happy news.”