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  AFTER THE PASSION: JEWS AND CATHOLICS ARE STILL FRIENDS.  
   
   
 

Every seat in the Union Square theater, including the balcony, was packed a half hour before "The Passion of the Christ" was set to start. Half of the crowd wore ashes and restlessly jostled coats and bags in nervous anticipation of the film. The other half pretended this was any other movie experience, juggling their nachos and 164-ounce drinks into position before all that crucifying starts.

Despite everyone's attempts to be solemn and respectful -- it is Ash Wednesday after all -- the opening day of The Passion was a circus. A man from PETA stood outside the theater on stilts dressed up as Jesus telling people to go vegan, apparently unaware that Jesus was most certainly not a vegan. A trailer for the NBC real-life TV version of Charlie's Angels aired, sporting the line, "We're seeing nipples!" Two children in the seventh row debated the merits of "Kung Pow: Enter the Fist" before determining, "it's funny, but it's retarded."

Then the lights went out, the movie started and two hours and six minutes later, Eric Gillin, a Jew, and Aileen Gallagher, a Catholic, emerged from the theater. This is what they had to say.

Aileen:

First off, the book is way better. I've been reading the Gospel of Matthew, from which "The Passion" draws heavily, and I got much more out of reading that than I did from watching a man be tortured for two hours.

That Jesus on screen, who was spit upon and scourged ad nauseum was, in some ways, too much of a man. I had to remind myself a couple times who he was, though the flashbacks sort of helped. Otherwise I'm just watching an angry mob go astray and mercilessly maim. The only humanity in the whole movie was Jesus' relationship with his mother. The rest of the message was washed away in torrents of blood. That movie was all despair; barely thirty seconds of a risen Christ at the end do not give me the hope and reassurance I always find in Christianity.

Eric:

The end was the most depressing thing for me and I'm Jewish. I mean, I understand this idea of a passion play, but where's the holy spirit at? The payoff, after all of the bleeding and screaming and beating and cruelty is what? Jesus gets up and walks away, letting us see that he still has the hole in his hand, as if we needed a reminder that yes, it was Jesus, and yes, he was just nailed to a cross.

This film was miserable from beginning to end and was so utterly devoid of any emotion that I didn't even feel like Jesus was a religious martyr. He felt more like a political martyr, just because he failed to inspire anything spiritual. Maybe people who believe in Jesus bring more emotion into it, but for me, Movie Jesus needed more character development.

I gotta ask. How did you feel about the Jews after watching this?

Aileen:

No change. I still don't like you. After seeing it, I have to ask the Anti-Defamation League, "What're you so worked up about?" That movie is anti-Semitic like Thanksgiving reinforces negative stereotypes of alcohol-swilling redskins. But you're right about the politics. Some Jews condemned Jesus and some praised him, but hardly any of those people had anything to with the ultimate outcome.

While The Passion has gore in spades -- it's missing the context. Jesus was a threat to the establishment, not just some crazy guy handing out pamphlets on the 2 Train. And Pilate had pissed off the Jews one too many times during his reign, and looked to Jesus as a way to gain some leverage with the high priests. But that's not a good movie. So you take the simplified version and run with that.

A woman asked me while I was waiting for the train home if I had seen The Passion. I said I had, and asked her what she thought. "It was a privilege," she said. I don't have faith like that and didn't share her experience. I'm curious, do Christians come off looking like total weirdoes after seeing The Passion?

Eric:

Some of them, totally. A chill ran down my spine when people clapped at the end of the movie, because I mean, this movie pretty much directly blames the Jews for the death of Christ.

The plot is as follows: Jewish priests are threatened by Jesus. Jews do not believe in the death penalty. They railroad Jesus and throw him to the Romans. But the Roman leader Pilate just can't kill Jesus. So the whole movie is Pilate saying "no," Jews screaming "yes," and then threatening Pilate with riots and more craziness if he doesn't crucify Jesus.

This could be my fear of anti-Semitism talking. When the Jewish priests threw the coins at Judas, the evil voice inside my head immediately said, "Ah, of course. Judas: The first penny pinching Jew."

And that kinda creeped me out. If you were a person -- say a crazy fundamentalist devout person with a disposition to dislike Jews -- there are plenty of things in the movie to make you not like Jews for a while. The Roman army is brutal, but Roman leadership is somewhat compassionate compared to the Jewish priests. Pilate never executes Jesus by calling for his crucifixion. He just says: "Do as they wish." I was pretty pissed off. An apologist movie about what the Romans did to Jesus? That the Romans weren't *so* bad! Incredible.

Aileen:

If I were Jewish, my radar would be up, too. But as a liberal Catholic, I didn't see the Jews as any more or less culpable for the crucifixion than I always thought they were. Meaning, the fact they were Jews is a descriptor in the same way, to me, members of al Qaeda are Muslim. Pilate gets off too easy, certainly. He didn't have to give into the demands of the Jewish leaders, but did so to avoid another riot. To use an unfortunately apt cliche, Pilate most certainly borrowed from Peter to pay Paul.

The apologist part really comes through with Pilate's wife. In Matthew, she only tells Pilate not to harm Jesus because she's had a dream about him. That's it. In the movie, she's all over the place. She reminded me of Liv Tyler's overblown role in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Thrown in to make the whole thing seem a little less barbaric, yet clearly out of place. I had similar feelings about the Billy Corgan-looking Satan. Unnecessary?

Eric:

Yeah. What the fuck was *that* about? With the snake? And that Bat Boy looking kid? I totally missed all that Satan stuff. I assumed it was something bad about the Jews, to be honest.

Aileen:

That interpretation is possible, but it's somewhat paranoid unless you're reading Mel Gibson as always equating evil with Jewish. I saw it as Satan personified in an utterly cheap and unnecessary way. (The serpent is the original bad guy in the Garden of Eden, right? Old Testament is more your department.) Nope -- I didn't quite catch on that the flaying and the beating was cruel, but that evil Powder-looking guy in the robe really cleared it up. And I wasn't quite sure that Judas had totally screwed himself until that ghoul borrowed from "The Frighteners" popped out at him for a second. It was in these areas Mel Gibson oversold the story. So besides the Jews, where did Mel mess up?

Eric:

It was too much like a horror movie, overall. That scene with Jesus and his mother when he's building that table was like "Superman" meets "The Natural." Jesus was all: "You'll see. I'm making a table and some chairs with long legs. Wink." Is Mel Gibson saying that Jesus invented the dining room table? That he's the best carpenter in the Middle East? How much of that movie was 100% in the Bible?

Aileen:

I completely forgot about that scene and how silly it was. I almost laughed. And the scene where Mary watching her grown son abused by boorish soldiers reminds her of that time Toddler Jesus skinned his knee? Please. When you're already evoking so much emotion, why yank those heartstrings in such a shallow way?

I certainly haven't read the entire Bible, but I'm fairly confident Jesus and Mary sharing a laugh over his carpentry antics isn't in there. That scene was written for "Jesus: The Sitcom." And the pandering leads me to my general distaste for Mel Gibson and his eccentricities.

My overall sense of dislike was articulated today by Jesus, of course. The gospel reading at the Ash Wednesday Mass is probably what Mel Gibson heard when he went to Mass today, though he might not get it because his Masses are in Latin. The reading was about how Jesus taught his followers not to be showy in their faith:

"When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them.
...
But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you."

So what does Mel Gibson do? He spends $23 million to make a movie all about how much he loves Jesus. Unbelievable. Okay, let's get a verdict. I know you weren't crazy about The Passion, but what kind of fallout do you envision?

Eric:

Honestly? I think it's going to inspire Mel -- or someone else -- to make another religious picture. I can see a whole series of these: "The Trials of Noah." "The Tests of Job." A less cynical part of me hopes that it gets people talking about religion again and consider it in their lives, but a $40 million opening weekend and the repeat business from Christians is going to be the real thing here. I'm buying my advance tickets for the sequel, when Mel does the next 12 hours of Jesus' life. Like "24," but with more holy ghosts. Do you ever think you'll see this again? Do you see Christian families watching this every Ash Wednesday?

Aileen:

I never want to see this movie again. I would never use it as a teaching tool. I'm no closer to Christ for having seen The Passion. Violence is not inspiring. As for sequels, "Acts of the Apostles" would make a pretty good movie. And look at how well those "Left Behind" books do. If Kirk Cameron can get a career lift in that series -- see that if you want to talk anti-Semitism -- imagine whatever unknown gets cast as Jonah in "Goodbye Mr. Narwhal: The Jonah Story."

The Passion will only reinforce everyone's preconceived notions. You found the anti-Semitism you thought would be there. I was disappointed, as expected, with the lack of hope in this particular take on Jesus. And the woman at the subway station found her devotion reaffirmed. But the Job movie? I'd love to see that one with you. Just not on opening night.

Eric:

We'll need to show up 45 minutes early next time. I'll meet you near the Jesus on stilts.