The Pope's Thumbs Up for Gibson's 'Passion'

(Liberal Jewish Writer Accuses Mel Of Using The Pope)
By Frank Rich
New York Times
January 18, 2004
Posted on 01/20/2004 at "A Conservative News Forum"
By presidio9

Pope 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.

Since 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 writ er 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 l ast 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.

That 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 a bout 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."

We 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.

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