Passion ploy &mdash Gibsons bloodthirsty film indicts Jews first, then Romans

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

An unrelentingly bloody and brutal slog through the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life, “The Passion of the Christ” is tinged with neither spiritual enlightenment nor religious inspiration.

But then it’s not intended to engage the cerebrum or the soul. This is a movie designed to work purely on an emotional level, from the first ominous notes of foreboding on the soundtrack to the final shot of Jesus’ hand-wound as he rises from the dead.

And that is the most worrying aspect for Jews.

Director, producer and co-writer Mel Gibson knows perfectly well that every horror movie or thriller requires a villain who threatens the hero — and here the primary bad guys are the Jews. This telling of the Christ story does not abound with shades of gray, and its depiction of the Jews is simplistic, visceral and unflattering.

Yet I confess to some ambivalence. With the exception of a couple moments, I did not feel uncomfortable as a Jewish viewer. So it would be unfair to offer a blanket denunciation of the film as an anti-Semitic screed.

But the more I think about the movie — and I write this a few hours after leaving the theater — the greater my impression that it is a nasty piece of work.

The power of movies sometimes lies in a single memorable image, and sometimes it derives from the gradual and subtle accretion of impressions. “The Passion” skillfully makes use of both.

For starters, all of the Jews (or Pharisees, to use the press kit’s euphemism) are dark, bearded and not to be trusted. The stout high priests are wealthy and cunning, while ordinary Jews are scraggly and mean-spirited.

With the exception of two scenes between the high priests and Judas — where the disciple reveals Jesus’ location for a fee and, later, desperately recants his actions and returns the money — the Jews are shown as a frothing mob eager for Jesus’ blood. Indeed, at one point the Roman governor Pilate refers to them as a “filthy rabble.”

In a stab at historical accuracy, Gibson has the Jews speak Aramaic and the Romans use colloquial Latin. (“The Passion” is subtitled.) Although Latin isn’t heard much on the street these days, Aramaic bears more than a passing resemblance to Hebrew. The effect is to greatly reduce the distance, if not completely erase the centuries, between the Jews who clamored for Jesus’ life and contemporary Jews.

Whether that will register with the average non-Jewish moviegoer on a subliminal or subconscious level is a matter of conjecture.

As long as I’m cataloguing Gibson’s offenses, it’s worth noting that he chooses to give screen time only to the two weakest (Jewish) disciples: Judas the betrayer and Peter, who lacks the courage to stand with Jesus after the latter’s arrest.

The most worrisome “artistic flourish,” however, is the recurring appearance of Satan, creepy and silent, in the crowd of Jews. These are the uncomfortable moments I alluded to earlier.

Satan is introduced in the film’s opening scene as a menacing, seductive presence who senses the vulnerable Jesus’ impending doom and crisis of faith. Jesus rejects Satan’s overtures, but the hooded figure reappears from time to time in the course of Jesus’ pain-wracked journey to crucifixion.

And Satan is always shown gliding among the Jews.

This creepy image, this association of Jews with evil incarnate, is what I fear will stick with some viewers more than any other image or line of dialogue.

I should note that, in the gruesomely graphic scene where Pilate’s soldiers take sadistic delight in whipping and flagellating Jesus, Satan’s stroll through the Jewish observers ends with him standing with the soldiers. Gibson would no doubt cite that shot as proof that he doesn’t hold Jews solely responsible for Jesus’ suffering, nor view them as the devil’s brood.

Indeed, the Roman soldiers are shown as far more sadistic than the Jews. They take great pleasure from Jesus’ pain (not only during the whipping scene, but during Jesus’ long trek with the cross). The Jews, on the other hand, seem scared or threatened by Jesus, and seemingly find more relief than delight in gaining the upper hand.

But when all is said and done, I can’t shake the unsettling feeling aroused, deliberately, by Gibson’s placement of Satan among the Jews.

Here’s some good news, at last: The theatrical release of “The Passion of the Christ” — or at least the print that was screened for the press Monday, Feb. 22, in San Francisco — does not include the freighted line, “His blood be on us, and on our children.” (It will be interesting to see if Gibson restores that line for the DVD release. If so, it would give new and offensive meaning to the term “director’s cut.”)

It would be presumptuous of me to imagine the effect that Gibson’s opus will have on non-Jewish audiences, or on Christian-Jewish relations. To the degree that Christian moviegoers identify with Jesus’ tortured journey, and strive for a more profound connection to what he supposedly went through for them, their thoughts about both Jews and Romans will be secondary.

But those who relate to “The Passion” only as a movie about a good guy and his venal enemies may be ruled by their baser emotions, and take the low road of despising those portrayed as persecuting the hero.

Given the blood-spattered way in which Jesus’ last hours are depicted, and the over-amped soundtrack that pushes the movie past melodramatic to hysterical, and the lack of philosophical, metaphysical or intellectual discussion, viewers are encouraged to a large degree to do just that.

So it is incumbent on ministers and priests to use “The Passion” as a starting point for deeper and more complex discussions of faith.

The rest of us can take some comfort in the fact that it is just a movie, a stone skipping across the fast-moving river of American pop culture that will soon be supplanted by a celebrity arrest, campaign snafu or natural disaster.

The Passion of the Christ” is now playing at the Metreon, 101 Fourth St., S.F., and at other Bay Area theaters.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.