‘Passion’ movie inspires greater religious debate

    There was no way “The Passion of the Christ” could escape becoming a must-see. A Catholic taking on a story with definite potential for anti-Semitism, Mel Gibson brought history’s most famous crucifixion, the foundation of the Christian faith, into the theaters — what about the film doesn’t scream controversy?

    Gibson had difficulty even finding a producer, but loads of research, even more filming and a few political edits later, the film has set new records in ticket presales and has sold out theaters nationwide. On opening night March 3, the film’s revenue was an impressive $26.3 million. It has generated far more than that in terms of debate and it has revisited an interesting question: Are religious subjects appropriate for the film industry to touch?

    Well, yes. Absolutely, definitely, categorically so, and for several reasons.

    A single good, thought-provoking movie that forces viewers to forget about the trans-fat in their popcorn and how much they just paid for a ticket and instead question their views about something that matters is worth ten million movies like “Eurotrip.” (But then, what isn’t?) Films, while entertaining, have the power to provoke thought — it’s hard to deny the potential power of the medium in the interest of sweetly inoffensive entertainment.

    Assuming there is a great universal truth about God, there are also, by definition, going to be fallacies therein. Consequently, there will be movies that perpetuate them, movies that, depending on one’s perspective, might border on the blasphemous, the overtly preachy or the sinfully agnostic. But such, it would seem, is life. There will never be a universally accepted belief about God, and a director has the right to express his own view. By that same token, (would-be) filmgoers reserve their right to avoid seeing the movie. Hopefully somewhere in the middle, the truth will make itself known.

    Meanwhile, however, it’s ridiculous to censor every perspective that may be wrong. A God whose omnipresence or holiness or power or love depended on our view of him would hardly be worth making any kind of a movie about. If God was weak enough to be changed and redefined each time a film offered some new perspective on him, then why should we even worry about how we portray him, let alone whether to believe in him?

    If anything’s foolish, it’s the idea that we shouldn’t acknowledge anything that has the power to offend. This is a nation where even pronouns must be carefully chosen to stay politically correct — it’s impossible for any relevant topic to be inoffensive to everyone, but that’s no reason to avoid confrontation. An unchallenged idea is a dangerous one, and blind belief in anything is an even more dangerous precedent to set.

    You wouldn’t think so, though, based on the uproar that ensues whenever a film tries to push some undefined boundary, religious or otherwise. “Passion” definitely doesn’t comprise a new genre — “Latter Days,” for example, recently released in maybe five cities nationwide, has been blacklisted because it deals with a Mormon boy who is seduced by another man. A good segment of the more conservative Mormon population has fought this one — but to what end? To try to say that there are no Mormons tempted by homosexuality? There’s a critical difference between filming a topic and endorsing it, and people miss that point all too often.

    This resembles what happened in 2002, when director Jimmy Bean won the Sundance Award for “The Believer,” an exceptionally thought-provoking story about a volatile neo-Nazi named Danny who was also a closet Jew. “The Believer” made $157,487 in the box offices, and Blockbusters tend to carry one copy of it (if any); yet many people cried foul. The major criticism of “The Believer” was that the anti-Semitic arguments the character of Danny made were simply too convincing.

    Yet, film is a safe way for the public to be exposed to such ideas, process them as intelligent viewers, and — in some cases — formulate a stance. One could, of course, contend that even an idea negatively portrayed in a film, such as Danny’s neo-Nazism, can still influence people against the director’s wishes (Complaints arose despite the fact that Bean called “The Believer” “embarrassingly philo-Semitic”). But if society can be that easily swayed by any form of media, a film’s content is the least of our problems.

    As with “The Believer,” the most heated criticism of “Passion” is that it’s flagrantly anti-Semitic, but that argument is a weak one. The movie showed many Jews who registered the horror and compassion befitting of witnessing such a violent death (which, for the record, is far more than can be said about the Roman soldiers). And we must give Gibson some credit: It’s hard to come up with a flattering portrayal of a crowd of Pharisees crying for the crucifixion of any man, let alone one who loved humanity enough to sacrifice his own life.

    The larger problem with complaining about the film’s depiction of the Pharisees — or claiming that we shouldn’t film things like gay Mormons, neo-Nazis, the graphic violence inherent in the crucifixion, or any sort of unpleasant notion that might disturb people — is that some Jews really did want Christ crucified. It’s entirely legitimate to honestly film that historical truth, in the same way it is legitimate to film the white Americans who cruelly enslaved blacks and the Nazis who broke every moral code during the Holocaust. Yes, an audience is repulsed by such historical characters, as well it should be. But that does not mean that a previously unprejudiced viewer will assume that, because some Jews 2,000 years ago were zealously inhumane, all Jews everywhere are the same. To sugarcoat history is to lie.

    Our world is not a G-rated Disney movie, no matter how much we contest every disturbing subject matter treated in film. Marks on the past and similar contemporary issues will remain whether or not we use movies as an outlet to discuss and understand them. Our questions about God will not go away if we deem them too controversial for Hollywood.

    If those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, then those who deny it are simply doomed.

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