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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

According to Mel Gibson

By Norman Lebrecht / March 17, 2004

Early in the Oscars ceremony, shortly before the award for best supporting grip, there is a touching little ritual in which the names of departed filmmakers are solemnly recited, each name being greeted by a rattle of handclaps, like pebbles on a coffin-lid. This year, there was a notable digression.

When the list reached the name of Leni Riefenstahl, who died last September aged 101, the silence was absolute. No-one in Hollywood wanted to be seen paying homage to a director who glorified the Nazi regime in The Triumph of the Will, an epic work which pioneered the use of film as propaganda. Riefenstahl, in Triumph, created the templates for manipulating mass audiences through the most popular art form the world has ever seen. Sergei Eisenstein in the Soviet Union and various British and American directors during and after the Second World War added invention to her method, but no film propagandist was as systematic or single-minded in their mission as the adamantine Riefenstahl.

The noun ‘propaganda’ derives from the title of a 1622 committee of cardinals, charged with disseminating the Catholic faith in newly discovered continents. It became an instrument of government during the 1930s. Goebbels founded a Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda; the communists developed agit-prop, a blend of undercover agitation and slanted information. An Institute for Propaganda Analysis, formed in Washington in 1937, identified seven criteria for ideological spin. They include playing on mass fears and appealing to common emotions by means of ‘glittering generalities’ and false conclusions.

Hollywood has yielded many works of propaganda, from such risible fear-stokers as I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951) to John Wayne’s Vietnam-themed The Green Berets (1968), which the old cowboy directed in his capacity as President of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. We can smile now, with the benefit of hindsight, at the transparency of these projects. I doubt very much, though, whether we will be smiling in 30 or 50 years’ time at The Passions of The Christ, the much discussed Mel Gibson film which opens in Europe next week.

The Passions is an act of unashamed propaganda on behalf of a medieval form of Roman Catholicism, derived from a literalist Gospel reading of the sufferings of Jesus at the hands of Romans and Jews. Gibson adheres passionately to such a sect, a minority Catholic group which rejects the reforms of the Second Vatican Council of 1971.

No unreleased movie has ever inflamed more advance speculation and analysis. Catholic bishops in England and Wales have described the film as  ‘very positive and faithful account of the Gospels’. Leaders of Jewish organisations raised spectres of antisemitism, alarmed by holocaust denial statements from the director’s father, Hutton Gibson. An ailing Pope is said to have given his blessing.

Against this backdrop of pre-formed opinion, as panoramic as one of Riefenstahl’s Nuremburg shots, The Passions opened three weeks ago in the US to huge advance bookings from church groups. It has since taken in $264 million, and the signs are that it is being seen, and appreciated, by many moviegoers who were made curious by all the fuss. There are restrictions on its release, but despite its persistent tattoo of sadistic violence, the film may be watched in the US by children so long as they are accompanied by adults. In the aftermath of its commercial success, followups are feverishly being plotted.

Gibson, in one of many carefully weighted statements, said his purpose in this film was ‘to stimulate serious thought and reflection among diverse audiences of all backgrounds’. If that was his intention, then the film is a failure. At no point does it appeal to the intellect; its target is the seat of emotion.

The soundtrack (released by Sony) strikes, at the very outset, a low note of the ominous, warning that what we are about to receive will be gruelling and tragic. No intimation of the numinous, no whiff of spiritual catharsis, is permitted in this relentless repetition of the most famous story ever told. Every Hollywood cliché is wheeled into play – the chase (through an olive grove), good guard/bad guard, the lynch mob, the slow spurting of simulated blood. The drip of water as Pontius washes his hands is brought artifically to our ears above the din of a mob. Straight out of the Riefenstahl manual, Gibson cuts from mass array to tight close-up on one rapt face, as if to individualise the narrative. The noise of the nails as they are fakingly banged into living flesh is made multiply unendurable by close-miked amplification and a keening soundtrack.

These are the devices in Gibson’s toolkit. Most have been used before in Braveheart (1995), where heroic Scots triumphed over evil English, all good on one side, all bad on the other. The denial of human complexity is a prerequisite of propaganda. In The Passions, Gibson intensifies the message by detaching his story from context. No hint is given of why Jesus was so good and why the priests hated him so. We are required, by the actor’s aura, to believe. Those who refuse must expect exclusion, or worse.

Is the film antisemitic? Not by any political or clerical definition. The film does not, so far as I can judge, inspire hatred of all Jews and the urge to murder them as Christ-killers. Although the accusers of Jesus are made ugly as sin, the emphasis is more on the sufferings of ecce homo than on his tormentors – much as it is in the paintings of Caravaggio, on whom Gibson based his mise-en-scene.

I did not fear for my safety as a Jew as I left the Soho screening room. Were I to see the film elsewhere – in Krakow, or Kiev, or Vienna, where the memory of pogrom is more recent and the opening will take place in Holy Week – I might, perhaps, feel less comfortable. Whatever honours Gibson is put up for next year, he will win no awards for interfaith dialogue.

The aftermath of this monocular film will, I fear, impact more severely on Christians than on Jews. By propagating a Christianity of passion above a faith of reason, Gibson has already fomented doctrinal strife and has set churches back a century or more in their struggle with modernity. In a world thrown open to an onslaught of multiple cultures, Gibson’s Passions will weaken the central strand of Christian progress and give intelligent believers a monumental headache for many years to come.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001