My friends had one question for me after I saw Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ: Is it anti-Semitic? It's a testament to Gibson's public relations genius that this is an open question. In the endless run-up to opening day, Gibson drove assorted Jewish spokespeople so wild with his absurd claims of persecution that pooh-poohing charges of anti-Semitism became a badge of professional cool; who wants to sound like Abraham Foxman, choleric head of the Anti-Defamation League? Except for David Denby, whose scathing review in The New Yorker should have set the tone, and of course the indefatigable Frank Rich, whose intestines Gibson has said he would like to have on a stick, early high-end reviewers like the New York Times's A.O. Scott and Newsweek's David Ansen have given Gibson a pass on a movie that could safely be shown at the Leni Riefenstahl Memorial Film Festival.
You'd think it was impolite to make anything of the fact that Gibson's father is a Holocaust denier who claims the European Jews simply moved to Australia. True, we don't choose our parents, but Mel Gibson has not only not dissociated himself from his father's views but indirectly affirmed them ("The man never lied to me in his life," he told Peggy Noonan in Reader's Digest; pressed to affirm that the Holocaust was real, he replied that many people died in World War II and some were Jews--the classic Holocaust-revisionist two-step). Nor would it do to dwell on the "traditional" (i.e., ultra right-wing) Catholicism Gibson practices, which specifically rejects the reforms of Vatican II, presumably including its repudiation of the belief that "the Jews" are collectively responsible for the death of Christ.
So how anti-Semitic is The Passion? Gibson claims that there are good Jews and bad Jews in the movie, as in the Gospels. This is true, but disingenuous: In The Passion, the high priest Caiaphas and his faction are not just bad, they fit neatly into ancient Christian stereotypes: They are rich, arrogant and gaudily dressed; they plot and scheme and bribe; they cleverly manipulate the brutal but straightforward Romans; they are gratuitously "cruel" and "hard-hearted," to quote Anne Catherine Emmerich, the nineteenth-century German nun whose visions of the Passion Gibson relied on for some of the more disgusting tortures he inflicts on Jesus. Physically, they are anti-Semitic cartoons: The priests have big noses and gnarly faces, lumpish bodies, yellow teeth; Herod Antipas and his court are a bizarre collection of oily-haired, epicene perverts. The "good Jews" look like Italian movie stars (Magdalene actually is an Italian movie star, the lovely Monica Bellucci); Mary, who would have been around 50 and appeared 70, could pass for a ripe 35. These visual characterizations follow not just the Oberammergau Passion Play that Hitler found so touching but a long tradition of Christian New Testament iconography in which the villains look Semitic and the heroes, although equally Jewish, look Northern European.
Gibson claims he's only telling the story as written in the Gospels, which he calls …