The time had come, finally, to see for ourselves, and so we made our way to The Passion of the Christ at one of Manhattan’s less-heralded theaters on Ash Wednesday. When the movie began, we braced ourselves, as if for a new carnival ride with a particularly scary reputation. And when it was over, playwright Tony Kushner, whose quasi-autobiographical musical about growing up Jewish in the deep South, Caroline, or Change, will soon begin performances on Broadway, and Mary Alice Williams, a journalist and Catholic whose expertise in the subject has served her as writer and anchor of many television specials dealing with religion, seemed stunned into a lassitude that wore off only as their cappuccinos took effect.
Mary Alice Williams: I expected to hate it. I expected to be so numbed by the unrelenting violence that I would cease to care, and that’s not what happened. You do get numb to the violence, but I wasn’t wildly offended.
Tony Kushner: It’s not as bad as, say, Braveheart. As a retelling of the story of the Crucifixion, it’s right out of Dürer. The flaying especially was unbearable, the suffering went on forever, but it didn’t quite fit the descriptions, by people who’ve disliked it, as being sadomasochistic. It didn’t feel that way any more than crucifixes I’ve seen in cathedrals in Europe that are gory or horrible. It’s nauseating, but clearly he’s doing it for a reason, which is to say that God chose a particularly ghastly and prolonged way to die.
M.A.W.: You’ve just framed it. It was not first-century; it was post-medieval Europe.
T.K.: The big question for me is, was it anti-Semitic? Gibson does make a couple of almost touching stabs at saying, “Look, they weren’t all bad.” You can’t say that these things are anti-Semitic; they’re a source of anti-Semitism. They’re definitely Jew-hating, but it’s in the Gospels.
M.A.W.: Crucifixion was against Jewish law. The Jews could have never yelled, “Crucify him!” Pilate was so brutal and sadistic a bully that he was actually recalled to Rome—yet he looks like a very sympathetic figure in this. It stuns you speechless, doesn’t it? Great films convey essential truth, and directors have a right to take liberties. But are you allowed to take that much license with a Passion play?
T.K.: John XXIII said, It ends here—the responsibility for the death of Christ is not on Jews. It’s the beginning of an ecumenicism and a new kind of Christianity which Gibson radically rejects. So how does one respond to this? Some parts of the film are well made, some of it is really silly. I’ve never seen anyone mention yet that Herod is clearly a fag. The first thing you see is Herod pulling on what looks like a woman’s wig. Well, it’s pretty clear—I mean, we know what Mel Gibson thinks of gay people, and everybody in the court of Herod is sort of gender-experimental. I don’t think that that’s an accident.
M.A.W.: Mel chose to rely on medieval and Renaissance art. Do we care that Jesus would not have carried the cross but the cross beam, which by itself was 40 pounds?
T.K.: Does Mel Gibson care? Obviously, he doesn’t. The film is clearly a very emotionally overwrought, one might say, testament to this person’s faith, which is shared by a lot of people.
M.A.W.: I was disgusted with it through the whole thing because the horror is so relentless. The thing I think is unforgivable is the lack of grace in it. Jesus had a message of love and forgiveness, and that didn’t really shine through.
T.K.: I actually found that there was this attempt to speak to the idea of grace and forgiveness and love, and although I find Mel Gibson a detestable, misogynistic homophobe—by his own admission!—he was really grappling with that. If he failed, he failed, but I thought he was really struggling.
M.A.W.: Maybe he was trying to leaven it. Because it is a slasher film. Don’t take your children. It would be dangerous to view it merely as a religious exercise.
T.K.: There’s an image in Ben Hur of the rain taking the blood from the cross and washing it down increasingly bigger streams and tributaries until it gets to a river and out to the sea. There are Hollywood images that are not completely laughable. But I think that this film is, in a classic sense, anti-Semitic. It’s a great story; it would be really hard to fuck up. Mel Gibson didn’t entirely succeed in fucking it up, but this film is a symptom of a very dark and troubling time. It’s Oberammergau in Hollywood. It essentially says that Jews are more responsible than anyone else for killing the Messiah.