THE POPE'S THUMBS
UP FOR GIBSON'S 'PASSION'
By FRANK RICH
Published in The New
York Times on January 18, 2004
John Paul II, frail with Parkinson's at age 83, is rarely able to
celebrate mass. In recent weeks, such annual holiday ceremonies
as the ordination of bishops and the baptism of children in the
Sistine Chapel were dropped from his schedule. But why should his
suffering deter a Hollywood producer from roping him into a publicity
campaign to sell a movie? In what is surely the most bizarre commercial
endorsement since Eleanor Roosevelt did an ad for Good Luck Margarine
in 1959, the ailing pontiff has been recruited, however unwittingly,
to help hawk "The Passion of the Christ," as Mel Gibson's
film about Jesus's final 12 hours is now titled. While Eleanor Roosevelt
endorsed a margarine for charity, John Paul's free plug is being
exploited by the Gibson camp to aid the movie star's effort to recoup
the $25 million he personally sank into a biblical drama filmed
in those crowd-pleasing tongues of Latin and Aramaic.
"Mel Gibson's `The Passion' gets a thumbs-up from the Pope,"
was the incongruously jolly image conjured up by a headline over
Peggy Noonan's column for the Wall Street Journal Web site as she
relayed the "happy news this Christmas season" on Dec.
17. Daily Variety, a day earlier, described John Paul as "a
playwright and movie buff," lest anyone doubt that his credentials
in movie reviewing were on a par with Roger Ebert's. Mr. Gibson's
longtime producer, Steve McEveety, told Ms. Noonan that "The
Passion" had been screened "at the pope's pad," after
which John Paul declared of its account of the crucifixion, "It
is as it was."
That verdict was soon repeated by virtually every news outlet in
the world, including The New York Times. In Ms. Noonan's view, the
pope's blessing was likely to settle the controversy over a movie
that Jewish and Christian critics alike have faulted for its potential
to reignite the charge of deicide against the Jews. It was also
perfectly timed to boost the bookings of a movie scheduled to open
nationally on Feb. 25, Ash Wednesday.
I am one of the many curious Jews who have not been invited to press
screenings of "The Passion," I have no first-hand way
of knowing whether the film is benign or toxic and so instead must
rely on eyewitnesses. In November, The New York Post got hold of
a copy and screened it to five denominationally diverse New Yorkers,
including its film critic. The Post is hardly hostile to Mr. Gibson;
it is owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose Fox film studio has a long-standing
deal with the star. Nonetheless, only one member of its chosen audience,
a Baptist "Post reader," had kind words for "The
Passion." Mark Hallinan, a priest at St. Ignatius Loyola Catholic
Church, found the movie's portrayal of Jews "very bad,"
adding, "I don't think the intent was anti-Semitic, but Jews
are unfairly portrayed." Robert Levine, the senior rabbi at
Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan, called the film "appalling"
and its portrayal of Jews "painful." On Christmas Day,
Richard N. Ostling, the religion writer of The Associated Press,
also analyzed "The Passion," writing that "while
the script doesn't imply collective guilt for Jews as a people,
there are villainous details that go beyond the Bible."
And so, John Paul's plug notwithstanding, the jury remains out on
"The Passion." What can be said without qualification
is that the marketing of this film remains a masterpiece of ugliness
typical of our cultural moment, when hucksters wield holier-than-thou
piety as a club for their own profit. For months now, Mr. Gibson
and his supporters have tried to slur the religiosity of anyone
who might dissent from his rollout of "The Passion." (And
have succeeded, if my mail is any indication.) In The New Yorker
last fall, the star labeled both The New York Times and The Los
Angeles Times "anti-Christian" newspapers for running
articles questioning his film and, in this vein, accused "modern
secular Judaism" of wanting "to blame the Holocaust on
the Catholic Church," a non sequitur of unambiguous malice.
This game of hard-knuckle religious politics is all too recognizable
in our new millennium, when there are products to be sold and votes
to be won by pandering to church-going Americans. At its most noxious,
this was the game played by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson on Sept.
13, 2001, when they went on TV to pin the terrorist attacks of two
days earlier on God's wrath, which Mr. Falwell took it upon himself
to say was aimed at all of those "who have tried to secularize
America" by "throwing God out of the public square."
The two men later apologized, but this didn't stop Mr. Robertson
from declaring this month that he was hearing "from the Lord"
that President Bush is going to win this year's election in a blowout.
"It doesn't make any difference what he does, good or bad,"
Mr. Robertson said. "God picks him up because he's a man of
prayer and God's blessing him."
Such us-vs.-them religious oneupmanship is more about political
partisanship than liturgical debate. Its adherents practice what
can only be called spiritual McCarthyism, a witch hunt in which
"secularists" are targeted as if they were subversives
and those who ostentatiously wrap themselves in God are patriots.
Mr. Gibson has from the start plugged his movie into this political
scheme; his first pre-emptive attack on the movie's critics (there
weren't any yet) took place on "The O'Reilly Factor" a
year ago. Not for nothing did he stack last July's initial screening
of "The Passion" in Washington with conservative pundits
like Ms. Noonan, Linda Chavez and Kate O'Beirne who are more known
for their ideology than for their expertise in the history of the
passion play's lethal fallout on Jews. (Should anyone not get the
linkage of conspicuous sectarian piety with patriotism, Ms. Noonan
produced a book titled "A Heart, a Cross, and a Flag: America
Today" last summer.)
A more recent private screening of "The Passion" was attended
by another conservative ideologue, the columnist Robert Novak, who
was born to Jewish parents and converted to Catholicism. The movie,
he wrote in November, is "free of the anti-Semitism that its
detractors claim." Since then, he has joined other journalists
in applying spiritual McCarthyism to the presidential race, noting
darkly that reporters who followed Howard Dean on the campaign trail
"recently observed that they never had seen so secular a presidential
candidate, one who has never mentioned God and certainly not Christ."
It's a measure of how fierce the demagoguery over religion has become
that Dr. Dean now tries to fend off such attacks by suddenly (and
unconvincingly) talking of how he prays every day, just as the president
purports to do.
a movie star would fan these culture wars for dollars is perhaps
no surprise, but it demeans the pope to be drafted into that scheme.
It also seems preposterous so much so that I wondered whether
the reports of the gravely ill John Paul's thumbs up for "The
Passion" were true. A week after the stories first appeared,
the highly respected Catholic News Service also raised that question,
quoting "a senior Vatican official close to the pope"
as saying that after seeing the movie, the pope "made no comment.
The Holy Father does not comment, does not give judgments on art."
I sought clarification from the Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls.
His secretary, Rosangela Mancusi, responded by e-mail that "this
office does not usually comment on the private activities of the
Holy Father" and would neither confirm nor deny the pope's
feelings about "The Passion." But she suggested that I
contact "the two persons who brought the film to the Holy Father
and gathered his comments" Steve McEveety, Mr. Gibson's
producer, and Jan Michelini, the movie's assistant director.
Mr. McEveety declined to speak with me from Hollywood, but last
week I tracked down Mr. Michelini, an Italian who lives in Rome,
by phone in Bombay, where he is working on another film. As he tells
it, Mr. McEveety visited Rome in early December, eager "to
show the movie to the pope." Mr. Michelini, it turned out,
had an in with the Vatican. "Everyone thinks it's a complex
story, the pope, the Vatican and all," Mr. Michelini says.
"It's a very easy story. I called the pope's secretary. He
said he had read about the movie, read about the controversy. He
said, `I'm curious, and I'm sure the pope is curious too.' "
A video of "The Passion" was handed over to that secretary
Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, whom Vatican watchers now describe
as second in power only to the pope on Friday, Dec. 5. "McEveety
calls me like crazy, 20 times that weekend, saying, `I want to know
what the pope thinks,' " Mr. Michelini continues. On Monday,
the archbishop convened a meeting with Mr. McEveety and Mr. Michelini
in the pope's apartment. There, Mr. Michelini says, the archbishop
quoted the pope not only as saying "it is as it was" but
also as calling the movie "incredibile." Mr. Michelini
was repeating the archbishop's Italian and said that "incredibile"
translates as "amazing," though Cassell's dictionary defines
the word as "incredible, inconceivable, unbelievable."
But why quarrel over semantics? Followed by an exclamation point,
it will look fabulous in an ad, perhaps next to a quote from Michael
Medved, the conservative pundit and film critic who has been vying
with Ms. Noonan to be the movie's No. 1 publicist.
"Are you Catholic?" Mr. Michelini asked me as we concluded
our conversation. No, I said. "Maybe you'll become one,"
he said, laughing. "Many, many Jewish people like this movie."
shall see. In the meantime, you've got to give Mel Gibson's minions
credit for getting the pope, or at least the aide who these days
most frequently speaks in his name, to endorse their film in the
weeks before it opens in 2,000-plus theaters. In keeping with every
other p.r. strategy for "The Passion" Mr. Gibson
has said he felt that the Holy Ghost was the movie's actual director
Mr. Michelini says that the successful campaign for the Vatican
thumbs up is an example of divine providence. Jews in show business
might have another word for it chutzpah.