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Controversial Film: "The Passion"

Michael Medved
Film Critic
Wednesday, August 6, 2003; 11:30 AM

"The Passion" is a movie detailing the last 12 hours and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It is directed by actor Mel Gibson and is currently in production, scheduled for release next year. Charges of anti-Semitism have been issued by the ADL (Anti-Defamation League) based on an early draft of the screenplay. Gibson says he has altered the script since the early version.

Film critic and former synagogue president Michael Medved has seen a rough cut of the unfinished film and was online Wednesday, Aug. 6 at 11:30 a.m. ET to talk about the movie and the controversy.

Medved hosts a daily three-hour nationally syndicated radio program on politics and pop culture.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


washingtonpost.com: Michael Medved, welcome to washingtonpost.com. You have seen this unfinished movie. First off, how is it as a film? Is it well-done, believable? Second, the controversy. Can you explain what that is all about?

Michael Medved: Yes, I have seen the movie. As a work of film it's remarkable, though flawed. Most Biblical movies are laughable -- reminiscent of "The Life of Brian" -- but "The Passion" is intense, persuasive, believable. The use of Aramaic and Latin (with subtitles) helps avoid goofy dialogue (remember, "Oh Moses, Moses, you adorable fool Moses!" in "The Ten Commandments."
The controversy, meanwhile, centers on charges from people who have never seen any version of the film that it is anti-Semitic. Those charges are unfair and inappropriate, in my opinion.


Laurel, Md.: Maybe I'm forgetting one, but isn't this the first major motion picture about the life of Jesus since The Last Temptation of Christ, which was released 15 years ago?

That film aroused tremendous controversy over whether Jesus had sexual fantasies -- a question that bears a strong resemblance to "Did Adam and Eve have navels?"

Is there a strong preference in Hollywood to avoid religion because you just simply turn more people off than on by depicting anything that challenges their prejudices?

Michael Medved: I think this is indeed the first movie about Christ since "Last Temptation." As I recall the controversy surrounding that film it centered not on the idea that Jesus had sexual fantasies -- but the depiction of him (or Him) having sex in an alternate reality vision he experienced on the cross.
Actually, I wish Hollyweird would avoid religious subjects. The studios seem eager to offend religious believers in a series of films illustrating anti-religious bigotry -- films that almost always fail at the box office (as Last Temptation did). Consider "Dogma" or "Stigmata" among recent releases. I documented this tendency in a PBS Special I wrote and hosted called "Hollywood Vs. Religion."


Washington, D.C.: In the Soviet Union, textbooks were written carefully so as not to offend party leaders. Do you believe any comparison can be made to the Soviet censors, who oversaw the writing of those textbooks, and the ADL's part in persuading Mel Gibson to make his movie less "anti-Semitic" (their words)?

Michael Medved: Not a legitimate comparison. The ADL doesn't operate (at least not yet) with the power of government behind it.


Washington, D.C.: The ADL charged anit-Semitism and Mel Gibson felt compelled to alter the movie. What similarities and lack of similarities do you see between this and the dissatisfaction with Salman Rushdies' work exhibited by the theocracy in Iran?

Michael Medved: Again, not a legitimate comparison. The Muslims threatened to kill Rushdie. The worst the ADL and the Wiesenthal Center have threatened is to boycott Gibson -- a threat which is stupid, inappropriate, and sure to fail, though certainly within the constitutional rights of those protesting the film.


Washington, D.C.: That you have not condemned this film has caused me to say a final kaddish for you. I will not do so again.

Michael Medved: Amazing that you equate disagreement about a movie with moral (physical? spiritual?) death. I'm very much alive, thank God, and enjoying my role in the public discourse.


Washington, D.C.: Does the movie focus exclusively on Jesus' last 12 hours? Or does it use flashbacks to show earlier events?

Michael Medved: brief flashbacks -- very effectively deployed, particularly a scene showing Jesus as a small boy, comforted by his mother.


Anti-Semtic charges: But you admit that Mel Gibson has not allowed Jewish leaders (Foxman, etc.)-- who have specifically requested to see it -- to be at a screening?

Nobody would confuse them for film critics, if that is what Gibson is worried about.

Michael Medved: He has excluded people who have condemned his film publicly before they even saw it. That makes sense to me. I don't see that Abe Foxman and Co. have displayed the least bit of open-mindedness or good faith.


Washington, D.C.: The movie, JFK, was contrary to fact (to name just one example). No special accommodations were made by Oliver Stone to his detractors. Is there a historical accuracy/scholarly argument for changing "The Passion" before release, and if so, why should this movie be treated special?

Michael Medved: The argument concerning "The Passion" centers on the history of anti-Semitism. No people have ever been murdered as a group because of accusations that they killed Kennedy. Millions of Jews have, in fact, suffered death and persecution because of accusations that they were "Christ-killers." If the movie irresponsibly recycled those old, poisonous accusations I believe that people of good faith would appropriately condemn it. It's obvious, however, that Mel Gibson has tried to avoid echoing ancient charges of deicide and has gone to some lengths to stress that Jesus and his disciples, as well as his primary accusers, were Jewish.


Washington, D.C.: What concessions were made in order to find a distributor? Rating?

Michael Medved: I know of no concessions that have been made or will be made. Mel is trying to make the greatest film he can, with uncompromised and uncompromising integrity.


Washington, D.C.: Well how does the film portray the Jews? Specifics, please?

Michael Medved: For specifics, read the Gospels (particularly John and Matthew). The term "the Jews" is never used in the film since nearly all its characters are, of course, Judean (with a few brutal Romans in the mix as colonial oppressors). It's very important, as I made clear on my radio show (aired daily on DC Radio 700 (AM), from three to six pm) that he avoided identifying the Temple authorities with contemporary Jewish symbols -- prayer shawls, skullcaps, side curls, etc. -- as did previous cinematic treatments of Jesus (like the genuinely anti-Semitic work of D.W. Griffith, for instance, in "Intolerance.")


Toledo, Ohio: Does the film portray the Mother of God as a passive bystander or does it show her having some role in the future?

Michael Medved: She is a sympathetic bystander -- no indication of an important future role.


Washington, D.C.: Did Gibson change the movie in response to his critics or independently of them?

Michael Medved: Mel is still working on his film, and taking some constructive advice from scholars of various backgrounds and orientations. The changes have been minor, as far as I know.


New York, N.Y.: The charge against "The Passion" is that, like Passion Plays in the Middle Ages, it inflames anti-Semitic feelings by blaming Jews for killing god. How does this "Passion" differ from those traditional passion plays?

Michael Medved: It stresses the Jewish nature of Jesus Himself. It never connects the Temple authorities in the First Century with today's Jews in any way.


Washington, D.C.: Why did Gibson decide to make this movie?

Michael Medved: He's a devoted Catholic, the father of seven. He wanted to use his fame, celebrity and power for a higher religious purpose.


Washington, D.C.: You say that you wish Hollywood would avoid religious subjects -- are you saying you wish The Passion hadn't been made? Don't you think that there can be POSITIVE presentations of religious subjects?

Michael Medved: I don't want to see religious subjects avoided. I want to see attacks on religion avoided. Unfortunately, the movies released in the past twenty years treating religious themes have overwhelmingly showed hostility to traditional faith. The Catholic church has been a special target. Remember the vicious Miramax film, "Priest"?


Tinseltown: Which is more offensive, "The Passion" as an offense towards Jews, or "Gigli" as an offense towards the filmgoing public?

Michael Medved: You know the answer to that. Gigli isn't just an offense to moviegoers -- it's a crime against humanity.


Columbia, S.C.: In his column "Hollywood Elsewhere," Jeffrey Wells detailed how the crucifixion scene in "The Passion" is not historically accurate, but rather more a portrayal of how Catholics in particular view the crucifixion. Yet Gibson has been quoted as saying he thinks these scenes are more accurate than in any other film. Wells' comments were based on his viewing of a trailer/preview for the movie.

Michael Medved: I haven't read Jeffrey's commentary. Of course, there are conflicting accounts of Christ's Passion and Crucifixion, even within the Gospels. Mel has tried to weave together those accounts to create a dramatic and plausible whole.


Washington, D.C.: Why did Gibson let some of the film to be screened and put on the Internet when the whole thing's not even done yet? Publicity?

Michael Medved: The only part of the film on the internet, as far as I know, is a trailer. I don't think Icon Productions (Mel's company) needs any more publicity this far in advance of the movie's release (It's coming out in April, 2004.).


Washington, D.C.: Um, you sound really dimissive of the ADL (a snarky comment about not having government control "yet") and really chummy with "Mel". I think you should admit that you are not perhaps an objective resource for concerned citizens of all faiths who are worried about the implications of this kind of film. Please be aware that Mel Gibson funds a church that decries the ruling of the Pope Council that cleared the Jews of Christ-killing. Anyone who bankrolls a church like that needs to be looked at carefully on issues like that. And sadly, you sound like you are more interested in being pals with a movie mogul than in being a concerned man of faith. (Self-hating Jew?)

Michael Medved: I served fifteen years as a synagogue president, and I'm on the board of a half dozen national Jewish organizations. I've addressed the ADL frequently -- once as a keynote speaker for their national convention. When it comes to charges that I'm a "self-hating Jew," I don't think they will stick. (By the way, both my father and my brother made Aliya more than a decade ago and live their lives as patriotic Israelis). I admire Gibson (okay, Mel) for his work and his courage. In his recent film choices (The Patriot, We Were Soldiers, Signs) he has taken risks on behalf of some of the conservative and patriotic values that I've endorsed for years as a film critic and public figure.


Washington, D.C.: If Gibson was upset because his critics condemned his movie before they saw it, why not just let them see it to show them they are wrong? If I remember correctly, the ADL condemned the movie "Max" before it came out, but after seeing it, they retracted their comments. Couldn't the same thing happen here?

Michael Medved: Perhaps. But the levels of distrust because of the public nature of the controversy are much higher than with "Max." I greatly admired that movie, by the way, and wish that it had drawn bigger audiences. Noah Taylor was remarkable as Hitler.


Washington, D.C.: Has Mel weighed the wisdom of releasing a religiously divisive film in the current world climate? No matter how good or realistic the film is, is this the right time for this sort of thing?

Michael Medved: Strong statements of faith -- Christian, Jewish, Buddhist or Muslim -- could always and forever be viewed as divisive.


Bowie, Md.: Mr. Medved, as a Catholic Christian I am appalled by Mr. Gibson's attempt to resurrect medieval notions that have no place in my faith tradition or ecumenical efforts. Is it possible for concerned groups to publicize the fact that Mr. Gibson's father, Hutton, is a well-known Holocaust denier?

Michael Medved: Of all aspects of this controversy, the most despicable is the attempt to smear Mel Gibson by reference to his 84-year-old father, Hutton Gibson. My father lives in Jerusalem and maintains ties with the extreme right wing in Israel. I still love and admire him -- he's my dad, and one of my personal heroes. I profoundly disagree with some of his political ideas. Should I be tarred with my father's sentiments just because I still love and admire my parent? Mel Gibson has given not the slightest indication at any time in a long, productive career, of anti-Semitic sentiments of any kind.


Louisville, Ky.: When you mention Gibson's sincerity etc as a Catholic, do you in any way contrast that with Scorsese's in making Last Temptation? Everything I read back then indicated that his impulses to make his movie were just as spiritually driven.

Michael Medved: Scorsese was (and is) a failed seminarian, with open hostility to mainstream or traditional Catholicism. Yes, he may have made his movie as a means of exorcising some of his personal demons, but you could hardly describe "Last Temptation" as an act of homage.


New York, N.Y.: Has there been any word from scholars on how well the Aramaic language is presented? If this film appeals to every one on Earth who speaks the language, it will still need a few more viewers to break even. It is interesting, though, that the film attempts to capture the original language. Did you find this brought anything to the movie that the audience could appreciate, or is it just something of interest to note?

Michael Medved: I study in Aramaic several times a week, of course, because that is the language of the Talmud and of many prayers in the traditional Jewish liturgy. The pronunciation of Aramaic in the film is wildly uneven. Some of the actors seem to speak the language with authority, others seem to struggle with it and to garble the words. A few dozen movie goers may notice this but I'll plead guilty to being one of them.


Washington, D.C.: Barbara Nicolosi described Passion by saying "It is a devout, act of worship from Mel and his collaborators -- in the way that Handel's Messiah and Notre Dame were artistic acts of worship in previous times."
Do you agree with that assessment?

Michael Medved: Handel's "Messiah" is a timeless masterpiece that will live forever. Gibson's movie is a superior and emotionally devastating work of cinematic art. Is it on the same level as "Messiah"? Probably not, but I can't think of a movie (certainly not a Biblical movie) that is.


Silver Spring, Md.: I find it interesting that "Dogma" offended you so much. As a practicing Christian, I found it to be remarkably religious and thought-provoking.

I think Mr. Gibson could have shown his critics a true Christian attitude by inviting them to see the film. By deliberately excluding them, he gives credence to their worst fears.

Michael Medved: He's not deliberately "excluding" anybody. He's "including" people at this point who, he believes, can play a constructive role as he finishes and fine tunes his film.


Somewhere, USA: How is the film physically structured, meaning, is the dialogue in English, or is it in subtitles?

Michael Medved: Subtitles.


Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: I saw you recently on the box, I recall you saying you'd seen the rough cut of the movie. Is that correct?

From your screening and what biblical knowledge/authority you might possess, what's the fuss about? Did you attend the same screening with "Talmudic Scholar" Matt Drudge? Do you know his take on the row over this movie?

Also I've read this movie is in Latin and Aramaic ostensibly with subtitles in a modern language. Did all of the actors have to go to the Berlitz Academy of Languages No Longer With Us in order to read for their parts? And are the speaking roles convincing, linguistically that is? How would we know?

Thanks much. On with the show.

Michael Medved: Matt loved the movie. He saw it several weeks after I did. At the screening I attended in LA, the only other attendees were members of clergy. Matt, to my knowledge, is not ordained.


Southern Maryland: While I believe the ADL erred in criticizing the film based only on a rough draft, I can appreciate the groups's concerns.

Why? After a screening of the movie in D.C., the Post quoted Laura Ingraham saying the movie would "drive the anti-Christian entertainment elite crazy." I felt that was clearly an anti-Semitic code phrase.
It invokes ugly stereotypes and myths about the supposed cabalistic nature of Jews.
Fundamentalist leaders like Pat Robertson and Donald Wildmon have used those myths for years when attacking Hollywood, the media and academia.

Now, I would certainly agree that those institutions are more liberal than the rest of America. But that doesn't amount to some conspiracy to undermine traditional values, as Robertson and Wildmon claim.

Michael Medved: I share your concern. I wish that my friend Laura Ingraham had spoken more precisely. To say Hollywood is "anti-Christian" is misleading and inaccurate. Hollywood is "anti-religious." Those of us who try to live our lives as observant Jews also experience contempt and dismissal and hostility from the entertainment establishment, which isn't overwhelmingly "Jewish" -- it is, however, overwhelmingly, almost exclusively, secular -- and anti-religious.


Minneapolis, Minn.: Can you recap some of your reasons why you believe a number of people in Hollywood are so anti-religion? We have seen the proof -- they constantly fund movies mocking religion (most of which are failures) but spitefully attack anything which attempts truth or honesty.

Michael Medved: People who have rejected religion in their own lives often feel guilty and insecure about their decisions. After all, if you bet wrong on the non-existence of God the consequences could be serious -- in this life and the next. I'm scrupulous about Sabbath observance. People of Jewish ancestry who simply ignore the demands of the Sabbath must dismiss or even ridicule my commitments and practices, or else they most question why -- given our common backgrounds -- they don't honor them with their own kids. You see the point.


Columbia, Md.: Two weeks ago in the Style section of the Washington Post, there was a long article on Mary Magdalene and how her role with Christ was altered and destroyed in the Bible by the Catholic Church. Many scholars call the removal of her involvement with Christ (other than the resurrection) is one of the greatest cover ups in World History. (Read the latest best seller, "The Da Vinci Codes" to know what I'm talking about)

If I believe this, am I a fallen Catholic like Martin Scorcese who has scorn for the main stream?

Michael Medved: Yeah, The Da Vinci code is nonsense. Read an analysis of its neo-feminist silliness in that bastion of reactionary Catholicism, the New York Times this past Sunday.


Fairfax, Va.: The movie trailer looks a bit scary and stark and bloody. Will it appeal to a broad audience?

Michael Medved: The movie is definitely for adults only. It's one of the most brutal, disturbing pieces of cinema ever made. The violence is horrifying -- but I think inaccurate -- nest approach to the suffering described in the Gospels.


Somewhere, USA: "Mel Gibson has given not the slightest indication at any time in a long, productive career, of anti-Semitic sentiments of any kind."

Except with the aforementioned bankrolling of a church sect that veers dangerously close to out-and-out Holocaust denial.

Can't it be so that "Mel"s choices in entertainment are business-savvy, and his choices in faith and church are truly heartfelt? How many entertainers come right out and admit their racist or otherwise abhorrent beliefs? Their publicists would kill them ... but they can quietly throw money at those causes, can't they?

Michael Medved: This characterization of Mel's personal church is unfair, inaccurate -- a smear! He works every day with Jewish people. At a time when real life anti-Semites on the Left regularly use code words like "neo-conservatives" to publicly condemn Jewish influence, Mel has never spoken out in such terms. Isn't it ironic that he's criticized because he uses his money to build a church in Malibu -- rather than using it for cocaine, women, fast cars, or to buy an island in the South Pacific.


Bethesda, Md.: I would just like to commend you for your own courage in speaking to this issue. If more of us could be tolerant and open-minded concerning sincere expressions of faith, artistic and otherwise, the world would be a lovlier, safer place.

Michael Medved: Thank you. I'm grateful for your support.


Washington, D.C.: Perhaps we can improve on our understanding of just what is the ADL's influence. No one is saying that they are a government agency exercising prior censorship. On the other hand, they don't just meet and have poetry readings. What is their influence?

Michael Medved: The ADL is a huge organization that receives broad support from the Jewish community and does much good work -- monitoring potentially violent organizations on the racist and anti-Semitic fringe, for instance. However, like any big bureaucracy with hundreds of employees (or perhaps even thousands, if you include all the branch offices) they must find new causes to engage their energy. I wish they'd find another cause rather than attacking an actor-director who's a good man and first class artist.


Michael Medved: This has been great -- I do welcome the opportunity to talk about this movie and the issues it raises. Let me emphasize that I have no business or professional relationship in any way with Mel Gibson or Icon Productions. But I do think that the more openly we can discuss all aspects of the current controversy, the more likely it will be that the more extreme and irresponsible charges will die before the film's release. I hope the movie can be viewed as a work of cinema, deserving or respect and acclaim for its power and artistry. I also hope that the ADL and other organizations can go back to the work of confronting the real enemies of the Jewish people -- and God knows we have them. If we can refocus, and demonstrate more fairness and open-mindedness in our response to Mel and his movie, it will be good for the Jews, good for Hollywood and, most importantly, good for America. Thanks for the opportunity to chat on-line!


That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

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