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The Passion trailer spotted in Austin

Some time recently in Austin I saw a trailer for Mel Gibson's biblical epic The Passion. That's curious, because according to a 9/15/03 New Yorker article (not online) and various more recent news reports, the movie is still looking for a distributor. Is Austin part of its pre-distribution marketing strategy for some reason? Maybe trailers for not-yet-bought films are common, I don't know.

In the theater I had a couple of immediate reactions. One was my visceral defensive response to any sort of religious propaganda; been there, done that, thank you very much. But trying to see beyond that I couldn't tell whether the movie might be interesting or not. It is clearly shooting for historical realism in a Hollywood sort of way, but there is one obvious error: the cast is so European. That's such a naive ethnocentric mistake (or conscious propaganda tactic, you pick) that I couldn't believe anything else I was seeing, either. Shades of the epic Hindu soap operas from India: give me an art movie or give me a scrupulous historical reenactment, but spare me the plastic helmets and cardboard swords, please.

The Passion: James Caviezel as Jesus gets his makeup EuroJesus

That said, there are other reasons to be interested in The Passion. One is that Gibson has his cast doing their lines in Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew. No telling yet whether that will be philologist's Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew or Monty Python Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew. IMDB lists just four movies with Aramaic dialogue (one of which is the 1991 adult title Rocky Mountains starring Leanna Foxxx and Jake Steed -- say what?) so whatever happens The Passion will be a significant contribution to that genre. For you language geeks who want to be prepared, you can find Aramaic lessons online. I'm not quite that excited, but if someone can point me at a one-pager on the high points, with perhaps a bit on how to tell the difference between spoken Aramaic and spoken Hebrew, I'd be much obliged. (Oh, the movie also has a promotional website in modern Aramaic, presumably a first.)

The other is the controversy about the movie itself, which is too complicated to do justice to here (for that see the New Yorker article), but the short version is this. The movie is Gibson's personal vision, based on a very literal Catholic Traditionalist interpretation of the Gospels. That upsets Jews because the Gospels are commonly interpreted by literalists in a way which blames all Jews collectively for the crucifixion. It also upsets mainstream Catholic authorities, secular biblical scholars and many Protestants because of the association with antisemitism and because of their belief in interpretations which transcend the inconsistencies of literalism. But in support of Gibson's film are large numbers of evangelical Christians and conservative rank-and-file Catholics who believe in literalism on principle and love the idea of a representative of godless Hollywood making the ultimate Christian movie. At present the two sides are lined up to pressure the distribution houses as to whether or not to buy the rights and if that happens to pump the word of mouth, pro and con. It's a relief that for once the controversy doesn't pit sacrilegious artists vs. religious censors, as in so many others; this time it's the religious vs. the religious, and the rest of us can take a breather.

movies 2003.10.14 link