The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Monday, July 28, 2003  

Gibson According to Peretz

As a soi-disant traditional Catholic, one who is such, admittedly, in his own way and according to the terms of what may be his own idiosyncratic definition of the term, I find myself at the present moment all too eager to differentiate myself from fringey, excommunicated, or deserving of excommunication, “traditionalist Catholics,” including, possibly, it may soon become painfully apparent, the latest “man in the news” on this topic, the actor and director Mel Gibson.

Gibson’s upcoming film, “The Passion of Christ,” apparently due out in the first half of next year, already has sparked a firestorm of criticism and debate within and without the Catholic Church, and even more so, among Jews.

During the past week, the barely simmering controversy rose to yet another new level as The Wall Street Journal and the New Republic, normally opposite sides of the same coin, once again went head-to-head over the “PofC,” albeit, we might conclude, simultaneously unawares.

The Journal editors, freethinking sorts that they are, urged everyone, scholars, critics, and readers alike, to withhold judgment until the film is released in its final form.

At the New Republic, it was a different story. TNR handed the controversy over to Paula Fredriksen of Brown University, a member of the joint Christian-Jewish committee that, under a cloud of differing chronologies and recrimination, reviewed, depending upon with whom one speaks, a working draft of the script of “The Passion of Christ” or, according to them, its likely final version.

Taking up more than 4,500 words Fredriksen wrote for TNR a very angry, hostile, alarmist, and Goldhagenesque piece -- “Mad Mel” -- one that, I’ll be the first to admit, has me very concerned about the film, but an article that, for now, I’m far from signing on to, particularly the final comments, no doubt approved by the perpetually paranoid Martin Peretz:

I shudder to think how “The Passion” will play once its subtitles shift from English to Polish, or Spanish, or French, or Russian. When violence breaks out, Mel Gibson will have a much higher authority than professors and bishops to answer to. [Emphasis added.]

Sounds a tad overwrought to me. Actually, it sounds unnecessarily incendiary -- “Goldhagenesque,” again, if you will. Particularly since Fredriksen herself is iron-clad certain the script she read last spring is the absolute final form of the film, one she herself concedes is unlikely to reach local theaters for another nine months. I’m just an amateur in this area, but I feel confident in saying that, pace Fredriksen, there’s an awful lot of film on the cutting room floor and that much can happen between now and then. Her insistence that the version of the screenplay she read was, and forever will be, the one and only, and only possible, form, warrants skepticism.

Hence the private screenings of “The Passion of Christ,” viewings to which neither Fredriksen nor I have been invited. That’s a privilege that, so far at least, has been reserved by Gibson for other “traditionalist” Catholics, along with some of the most conservative of American bishops, a few carefully screened members of the cultish sect Opus Dei, and neoconservative columnists virtually guaranteed to be favorably predisposed.

(Nor is it a surprise given the hidebound and ignorant words über-hetero Gibson has had to say about gay men in the past. [Trust me, Mel. We’re not interested. We’re really not interested.] Oh, and besides, I’m nobody. There’s always that, isn’t there?)

Believe me, I share the concerns of Fredriksen, her colleagues, and even TNR, that this film could emerge as an inaccurate, unscholarly, and, yes, dangerous, depiction of the death of Jesus Christ. I am thoroughly prepared to be unhappy with the film, both spiritually and intellectually. (Fredriksen’s comments on Gibson’s inspiration from the visions of a pair of post-medieval mystics are particularly alarming, even to this traditional, albeit “cafeteria,” Catholic.)

But rather than trying to one-up each other, instead of rushing headlong toward peacock-like displays of this or that ones presumed scholarly expertise, and in place of obvious attempts to boost the circulation of little magazines while simultaneously seeking to generating that god-awful crap known as “buzz,” can we try, at least, to wait for the final product?

If the “PofC” is junk, I hope I’ll be among the first to say so. And I will be all too pleased to wave Mr. Gibson off into the setting sun. But if it’s not, there are a growing number of “intellectuals” whose eagerness to crack the whip of orthodoxy on this subject will be deservedly embarrassed.

[Post-publication addendum ( July 30): On this issue, check out “See It First,” by Jay Caruso at the Daily Rant.]

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