The precept of freedom of expression often takes a back seat once the ideologues and pedants get involved. Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion,” provides the latest and most vivid example.
Though Gibson is still editing his film and has shown it to a very small number of people, there already are cries of protest and dark insinuations of an anti-Semitic subtext. Writing in the current New Republic, Paula Fredriksen, an academic who has not seen the picture, suggests that release of “The Passion” will have a dire impact. “When violence breaks out, Mel Gibson will have a much higher authority than professors and bishops to answer to,” she warns.
These blatherings strike us as irresponsible. The film, which depicts the final hours of Jesus’ life, was fully financed by Gibson, who directed it but does not appear in it. It is clearly an art film, dark and disturbing. The actors speak in Aramaic (though some scholars maintain that Greek was in fact the language in use in Palestine at the time) and Gibson may or may not use English subtitles.
Those who know Gibson well describe him as a quirky, tormented soul with deeply Catholic beliefs, who is devoid of anti-Semitic propensities. Upon viewing, his film is also without anti-Semitic overtones.
“The Passion” is a deeply felt work that will be seen by a very limited audience — there is still no distributor. Some will be moved by the film, others disturbed. As with all previous films depicting the period, some scholars and theologians will doubtless challenge Gibson’s historical accuracy — indeed he is an actor, not a Biblical scholar.
But to condemn both the film and the filmmaker in advance reflects both bigotry and a disdain for free expression.