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High Passions: Russian audiences embrace Gibson's "Passion"

Andrei Zolotov Jr.

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The Moscow Times, April 16 - 22, 2004

Normally critical of the Catholic artistic tradition, Orthodox Christians have found much to admire in Mel Gibson's controversial new film.

Leaving Moscow's Orthodox churches last Thursday after the morning service commemorating the Last Supper, one could overhear conversations seemingly anathema for the time and place: Clergy and parishioners, who would normally refrain from entertainment during these most somber days of the year, were enthusiastically exchanging information about movie theaters to see whether they could make it to a film in time to return for the evening service.

Yet the film they were talking about is not quite entertainment. The seemingly innocuous question -- "Have you seen the movie?" -- heard almost everywhere in church circles this past week refers to only one thing: Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ."

The film, which has been accused in the West of excessive cruelty in depicting Christ's suffering, and anti-Semitism in its portrayal of Jews and their role in the crucifixion, officially opened in Moscow on April 7, in the middle of the Holy Week preceding Easter, and began regular showings in Moscow and St. Petersburg the following day. Later this month, it is to reach movie theaters in 40 Russian regions, according to the film's distributor, Central Partnership. A fair amount of ink has been spilled over the film in Russia since mid-March, when the distributor held previews for priests and the press.

But despite the traditional Orthodox attitude of opposition (or at least extreme caution) toward non-iconographical depictions of the Gospel, the film has been largely accepted by Orthodox Christians. Normally critical of Roman Catholics' alleged proselytizing activities in Russia, they have found common enemies with the traditionalist Catholic director in modern secularism, pleasure-seeking and political correctness, and have expressed praise for the film and its potential missionary impact.

"The film has overcome [my] prejudices and doubts," said Archpriest Maxim Kozlov, rector of Moscow University's St. Tatiana Chapel and associate professor at Moscow Theological Academy, in an interview published in Izvestia. "It is almost astonishing for the present state of cinematography and public consciousness -- I had not expected that such a profound and sincere return to the foundations of our faith would be possible in Western society. I think that 'The Passion of the Christ' has already become a fact not of cinema history, but of the religious history of Christianity."

The Orthodox reaction to Gibson's movie stands in sharp contrast to the attitude taken to Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" (198 . When that film was shown on NTV television in 1997 despite protests by Church and State Duma officials and a mass rally by Orthodox Christians outside the Ostankino television center, it became a flashpoint for the conflict between freedom of speech and freedom of conscience.

Yet the difference between the two movies was evident in the West as well. While Scorsese's film, based on a novel by iconoclastic author Nikos Kazantzakis, uses the Holy Scripture as a pretext for artistic expression and provokes traditional Christians, Gibson's film was conceived as a traditionalist Christian manifesto from the very start.

Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, deputy head of the Moscow Patriarchate's Department of External Relations, praised "The Passion" for portraying the Gospel without personal interpretation. "What Gibson produced is far superior to previous attempts to film the Gospel," Chaplin was quoted as saying by the Moscow Patriarchate's official newspaper, Tserkovny Vestnik, which dedicated a full spread of its Easter issue to discussion of the film.

"It is favorably different from sugary or excessively 'social' images of Lord Jesus, which have so far been created by Western movie makers."

Bishop Mark of Yegorievsk, the highest-ranking Moscow Patriarchate official who has voiced his opinion to date, attributed the film's accent on Christ's bodily suffering, which is uncharacteristic of Orthodoxy, to Catholicism, which places greater emphasis on Christ's human nature. But he also defended the film from secular critics.

"Naturally, it is the film's minus from an Orthodox perspective," he said at a news conference in March. "But on the other hand, this minus turns in part into a plus when we talk about our contemporaries watching the movie. If a person is spiritually dead, he needs a spiritual shock in order to be revived."

A source in the Moscow Patriarchate said this week that Patriarch Alexy II had not yet seen the film, but that he is likely to do so and will express his opinion later this month.

Among the film's most divisive aspects in the West has been its perceived anti-Semitism. So far, however, that has not been the case in Russia. One reason might be that, while the Roman Catholic Church has gone to great lengths in recent decades to spare Jews from responsibility for Christ's crucifixion (most notably at the Second Vatican Council, whose rulings Gibson opposes), nothing of the sort has taken place in the Russian Orthodox Church or in Russian society in general.

"It is a historical fact that they [the Jews] crucified him," said Sergei Savelyev, a doctor who was approached for an interview as he was leaving the film's first public screening in Moscow on April 7. "For us, he is God's son. For them, he is a criminal."

Yet like many Russians, including film critics and church officials, Savelyev discards suggestions that such views could be seen by some as anti-Semitic and said accusations against the film were purely political. "If America fought England for independence and made a movie about it today, is it perceived as anti-English? No. Why should this be perceived as anti-Semitism?"

In his interview with Tserkovny Vestnik, Bishop Mark took pains to explain why the film is not anti-Semitic. "According to the teachings of the Church, Christ was crucified not by the will of these people, but in redemption for our sins," he was quoted as saying.

Yet Yevgeny Satanovsky, President of the Russian Jewish Congress, said that he had, in fact, found the film anti-Semitic. "The film was shot by the heirs of those Romans who enjoyed executions and torture in Judea 2,000 years ago," Satanovsky said. "This tradition moved on to Christianity -- the tradition of cruelty, the tradition of inquisition, of Jewish pogroms and of blaming someone else for your own evil-doing."

So why isn't the Russian Jewish Congress or any other Jewish organization speaking out? Satanovsky points to prevailing atheism rather than to fear of anti-Semitic reprisals. In his opinion, Russia is a predominantly irreligious country and takes the film less seriously than in the United States. "We, like the Chinese, like the French after the French Revolution, are far from religion and will not get closer," he said. Other onlookers have pointed out the absence of a culture of political correctness in Russia.

According to Arkady Kovelman, director of the Center for Jewish Studies and Civilization at Moscow State University, tolerance for politically incorrect ideas has adversely affected the Jews. "In our country, Jews had indeed crucified Christ," he said with a laugh.

But Archpriest Maxim Kozlov describes the "lower level of political correctness" as a positive sign. "If in France any insufficiently laudatory opinion of Jews qualifies as anti-Semitism, we have not yet reached this mad degree of political correctness," Kozlov said in an interview this week. "And maybe Jewish organizations in Russia are more reasonable and treat their role in Russian society with greater responsibility."

Read this article on the Moscow Times website.

Posted: 4/24/04

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