Frank Rich sounds really bitter about Mel Gibson's upcoming movie, The Passion of the Christ.

NEW YORK Pope John Paul II, frail with Parkinson's at 83, is rarely able to celebrate Mass. But why should his suffering deter a Hollywood producer from roping him into a publicity campaign to sell a movie?

In what is surely the most bizarre commercial endorsement since Eleanor Roosevelt did an ad for Good Luck Margarine in 1959, the ailing pontiff has been recruited, however unwittingly, to help hawk "The Passion of the Christ," as Mel Gibson's film about Jesus's final 12 hours is now titled. While Eleanor Roosevelt endorsed a margarine for charity, John Paul's free plug is being exploited by the Gibson camp to aid the movie star's effort to recoup the $25 million he personally sank into the film.

Right, because there's no connection between the leader of the world's largest Christian church and the story of Jesus' crucifixion, the foundation of Christianity. And does anyone really doubt that Mel Gibson will make his paltry $25 million back? The movie's gotten rave reviews from everyone who's seen it.
Since I am one of the many curious Jews who have not been invited to press screenings of "The Passion," I have no first-hand way of knowing whether the film is benign or toxic and so instead must rely on eyewitnesses.
Nah, he's not bitter at all.
In November, The New York Post got hold of a copy and screened it to five denominationally diverse New Yorkers, including its film critic. The Post is hardly hostile to Gibson; it is owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose Fox film studio has a long-standing deal with the star. Nonetheless, only one member of its chosen audience, a Baptist "Post reader," had kind words for "The Passion." Mark Hallinan, a priest at St. Ignatius Loyola Catholic Church, found its portrayal of Jews "very bad," adding, "I don't think the intent was anti-Semitic, but Jews are unfairly portrayed." Robert Levine, senior rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan, called the film "appalling" and its portrayal of Jews "painful." On Christmas Day, Richard Ostling, the religion writer of The Associated Press, wrote that "while the script doesn't imply collective guilt for Jews as a people, there are villainous details that go beyond the Bible."
Well, it was a painful event, and everyone involved was either Jewish or Roman; it's not surprising that it makes them look bad. But "the script doesn't imply collective guilt for Jews as a people", so what's the problem?

Mr. Gibson has spoke to this on numerous occasions and pointed out that all people share guilt for Jesus' crucifixion, because we're all sinners. Not just Jews and Romans, but all mankind. Some people may be offended by that piece of Christian doctrine, but too bad -- it's the truth. Anyone who thinks it's only about the Jews has a flawed understanding of Christian theology.

For months now, Gibson and his supporters have tried to slur the religiosity of anyone who might dissent from his film's rollout. (And have succeeded, if my mail is any indication.) In The New Yorker last autumn, the star labeled both The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times "anti-Christian" newspapers for running articles questioning his film and, in this vein, accused "modern secular Judaism" of wanting "to blame the Holocaust on the Catholic Church," a non sequitur of unambiguous malice.
"Dissent from his film's rollout"? That doesn't even mean anything, although I can guess what Mr. Rich is trying to write. Mr. Gibson is hardly the only person to think the New York Times and The Los Angeles Times are anti-Christian, and there's plenty of evidence for it (along with much of the establishment media, which is unflinchingly leftist). Without knowing what connection (if any) Mr. Gibson was making between his movie and the holocaust &c. it's hard to address Mr. Rich's "non sequitur" label.
This game of hard-knuckle religious politics is all too recognizable in the new millennium, when there are products to be sold and votes to be won by pandering to church-going Americans. The us-vs.-them religious one-upmanship is more about political partisanship than liturgical debate.
The writer should talk to Howard Dean about that, rather than maligning people with seriously held beliefs.
Its adherents practice what can only be called spiritual McCarthyism, a witch hunt in which "secularists" are targeted as if they were subversives and those who ostentatiously wrap themselves in God are patriots.
The problem is that many "secularists" on the left genuinely do hate America, and most Christians tend towards the right and tend to support our country more. (Generalizations, but most stereotypes have a basis in reality.)

Mr. Rich then goes on to question the translation of the Pope's comments from Italian to English.

... the archbishop quoted the pope not only as saying "it is as it was," but also as calling the movie "incredibile." Michelini was repeating the archbishop's Italian and said that "incredibile" translates as "amazing," though Cassell's dictionary defines the word as "incredible, inconceivable, unbelievable." But why quarrel over semantics? Followed by an exclamation point, it will look fabulous in an ad.
So maybe the Pope's position was mischaracterized, and no one bothered to correct it? Come on. I think Mr. Rich is engaging in a bit of projection.

I stand corrected. At least some of Mr. Rich's skepticism was justified.

According to published reports, McEveety and Michelini said Archbishop Dziwisz told them the pope reacted positively to the film and said, "It is as it was."

But, Archbishop Dziwisz told CNS, "That is not true."

"I said clearly to McEveety and Michelini that the Holy Father made no declaration," the archbishop said.

"I said the Holy Father saw the film privately in his apartment, but gave no declaration to anyone," he said. "He does not make judgments on art of this kind; he leaves that to others, to experts."

"Clearly, the Holy Father made no judgment of the film," he said.

As to the rest of Mr. Rich's criticism, he and I will both have to wait to see the film before making any judgements. TML may have more to say on the matter as well.

Update 2:
The plot thickens. It sounds like people at the Vatican are changing the story around, and no one knows what's really going on.

Update 3:
Ok, the last one. Via TM Lutas I see that the Vatican has issued an official statement on the matter.

VATICAN CITY, January 22, 2004 -- Hot off the press is an "official" Vatican statement today on the Mel Gibson film. It comes from Pope John Paul II's spokesman, Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, and was released in Rome this morning to journalists:

"After consulting with the personal secretary of the Holy Father, His Excellency Mons. Stanislaw Dziwisz, I confirm that the Holy Father had the chance to view the film 'The Passion of the Christ'. The film is a cinemagraphic representation of the historical fact of the Passion of Jesus Christ according to the Gospel account. It is customary for the Holy Father not to express public judgments on artistic works, judgments that are always open to differing valutations of an esthetic character."

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» Chutzpah Squared from Flit(tm)

Frank Rich's recent IHT column entitled Chutzpah and spiritual McCarthyism takes the cake. In Rich's eyes, the Pope is a bit of a boob. His mind is slipping as he has "unwittingly" been roped into endorsing Mel Gibson's new movie.... Read More

» Chutzpah Squared from Flit(tm)

Frank Rich's recent IHT column entitled Chutzpah and spiritual McCarthyism takes the cake. In Rich's eyes, the Pope is a bit of a boob. His mind is slipping as he has "unwittingly" been roped into endorsing Mel Gibson's new movie.... Read More



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