Gibson film ignores vow to
remove blood libel
Director keeps in infamous line - but in Aramaic only
Stephen Bates and John Hooper in Rome
Friday February 27, 2004
Mel Gibson has reneged on a promise to remove the infamous scriptural blood libel, in which the Jews allegedly accepted responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus, from his film The Passion of the Christ, according to one of the world's foremost scholars, who saw a preview showing yesterday.
Jewish groups pleaded with the director to remove the line from Matthew 27 in which the Jews were said to have cried: "His blood be on us and on our children" - words used across the ages to justify anti-semitic persecution by Christians.
But it became clear at the film's first British screening for journalists, theologians and clergy that although Gibson has removed the English subtitle for the line, the words remain in the film, exclaimed in Aramaic. Although few in the audience will understand it, the decision to retain the line makes clear Gibson's reluctance to be swayed by the fears of complainants.
Geza Vermes, a former professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford and the author of five books on the life of Christ, writes of the film in today's Guardian: "I have never seen anything so dreadful and I hope I never will."
The blood-spattered two-hour film about the crucifixion - in which all the dialogue is in contemporary languages with English subtitles - has provoked complaints from Britain's Jewish organisations but a broad welcome from evangelical Christians and Catholics.
Prof Vermes immediately picked holes in the film, criticising its use of "Catholic church Latin" by the Roman soldiers instead of the Greek they would have spoken, pointing out that Pilate is referred to as the "governor" rather than the prefect of the province and spotting that the wrong Aramaic word for God is used throughout.
The British Board of Deputies of British Jews said: "It would have been better if this film had never been made. The glorification of violence and bloodshed and the reinforcement of medieval stereotyping of the Jewish people are extremely dangerous."
But Joel Edwards, general director of the Evangelical Alliance, said: "[We] believe the film will provide a good opportunity for Christians to talk to others about Jesus."
In Rome, the veteran Italian film director Franco Zeffirelli, who himself made a controversial film about the life of Christ, said Gibson was "sinisterly attracted to the most unrestrained violence".
In an article for the newspaper Corriere della Sera, Zeffirelli wrote: "[In America] mothers want at all costs for their children to see the film... What conclusion will children in particular be able to draw from it other than that the Jews were to blame for all that bloodshed? This way we set ourselves back centuries."
Gibson himself seemed ambivalent about the film's effect on him. In one interview, quoted in the Daily Telegraph, he said of the New York Times's film critic: "I want to kill him. I want his intestines on a stick. I want to kill his dog."
But in an interview with members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, he said: "In a way, it's been interesting because it's forced me to come to grips with one of the basic virtue I'm supposed to exercise here on earth, which is tolerance. I could have gotten nasty and climbed into the gutter to get into a clawing match with some of these guys. But that's not what I'm supposed to do."
The film goes on general release in the UK on March 26.
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