Explaining The Passion

It’s no surprise that Christian Egyptians, like Christians worldwide, flocked to see Mel Gibson’s recent film The Passion of the Christ. Yet the majority of Egyptian moviegoers who bought tickets to the film were Muslims. The turnout is particularly startling because Islam generally condemns representations of prophets, and Egypt itself once banned The Prince of Egypt because of its portrayal of Moses. Furthermore, Islamic doctrine holds that Jesus was a prophet, but was never crucified and resurrected. Al-Ahram Weekly reports that interviewed Muslims were not disturbed by the dramatization because they did not believe the crucified man was Jesus, and cite curiosity as a main movie-going incentive. The worldwide controversy over the anti-Semitism of The Passion created waves in Egypt even before the film reached theaters. One Egyptian professor notes that the suffering of Jesus Christ in The Passion is universal, and could be related to the suffering of Palestinians for sympathetic Muslims. However, some Christians in Egypt interpret the large Muslim audience as a sign of increased religious tolerance. – YaleGlobal

Explaining The Passion

Egyptians, Muslims and Christians alike, flocked to view Mel Gibson's blockbuster The Passion of the Christ
Gihan Shahine
Friday, April 16, 2004

"We are very happy the film was released at this particular time, as we celebrate the holy week before Easter," said photographer Alfred Adli Younan, stepping out of a cinema hall after watching The Passion of the Christ. "It's a very good film, representing truth as it is documented in the Bible."

Mel Gibson, a conservative Australian Catholic actor and the director who won the Best Picture Oscar for Braveheart, was reportedly on a personal mission when he poured $30 million out of his own pocket into his new highly controversial film -- the first-ever dedicating its full length to a relentless, gory depiction of the torment of the last 12 hours of the life of Jesus Christ. "I wanted to overwhelm people," Gibson proclaimed.

Gibson has done so, if only judging by the tears and weeping the film has elicited among Christian believers. The Passion has immediately proven a box-office blockbuster, not only in the United States but the world over. Egypt was no exception.

Two weeks after the film opened in Egypt, Gibson's Passion has reached 42,532 viewers across the six cinema theatres where the film has been screened, achieving a net box-office revenue of LE587,043 during the first week of showing alone. With the timeliness of the film's opening an added factor, in the holy week preceding Easter, The Passion proved a bonanza for Egypt's Christian community, including Copts, Catholics and Evangelicals.

The Passion, however, could probably have drawn even bigger audiences in Egypt had pirated video CDs not been sold for LE5 on Egyptian streets, and had churches not screened video projections of the film for thousands of viewers before the movie's release. Many of The Passion 's Christian cinemagoers were actually repeat viewers.

This fact may partly explain why Muslims constituted a large majority of the epic's cinema audiences, despite the fact that, according to Islamic doctrine, Jesus was a prophet who was neither crucified nor resurrected. The Qur'an states that it was a likeness of the Messiah that was actually nailed on the cross.

But, perhaps nothing has served Gibson's epic more than the hype the film created prior to its release. The film triggered a worldwide controversy over the complicity of the Jews in the killing of Jesus Christ, which fuelled accusations that the film was anti-Semitic. Most of the Muslim viewers who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly said they were driven by curiosity to view the film.

"The film triggered so much hype before its release it became a 'must-see'," said 31-year-old tour guide Mohamed Ali.

According to public speculation, this could have been one reason why the film was cleared to be screened in many Arab countries, despite the fact that, according to Sunni Islamic doctrine, it is blasphemy to incarnate prophets. In Egypt, the censors passed the film without reservations, (excepting the fact that audiences below the age of 18 would not be allowed entry), while in 1998, The Prince of Egypt was banned for portraying the prophet Moses in film.

Gibson's epic, however, does not seem to offend Muslims perhaps for the simple reason that they already believe the person who was crucified was not Jesus, but a likeness of him. Al- Azhar's Sheikh Abdel-Zaher Mohamed Abdel- Razeq, the censor's religious adviser, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying: "my understanding is that [ The Passion ] is about the last 12 hours in the life of the Christ, which involves Christians and Jews. Muslims have nothing to do with that."

But according to Sameh Fawzi, the managing editor of the Coptic newspaper Watani, The Passion "marks an important change in the community-based culture in Egypt". The fact that Muslims have no problem watching The Passion, Fawzi added, "proves that Egyptian society is more tolerant than is usually claimed".

Although many critics would argue the film is not anti-Semitic, in showing that many of Jesus' Jewish disciples grieved and begged for clemency, there is almost a consensus among Egyptian Christians that, anti-Semitic or not, the film only adhered to the Biblical account, which clearly states the culpability of the Jewish leaders at the time in the lynching of Jesus.

Ehab El-Kharrat, a psychiatrist and elder of Qasr Al-Dobara, the largest Evangelical church in the Middle East, said: "the Bible does say that the Jews handed Jesus over to the Romans to kill him. Gibson has actually compromised some parts. The Biblical representation was stronger than what was represented."

"I'm sure some Arab members of the audience identify the suffering of the Christ in the film with that of the Palestinians now," said Abdel-Wahab El-Misseiri, professor of comparative literature and author of many works on Zionism and Jewish thought. El-Misseiri finds that those who believe the film incites hatred against the Jews and thus serves the Palestinian issue "are completely mistaken", unaware of the fact that "Israel is a non-Jewish, secular and colonial state." According to El-Misseiri, anti- Semitism actually helps the Zionist project, because the more the Jews are hated in the world the more they will be driven to establish an exclusively Jewish colonial state in Palestine and other Arab lands.

"Christian theology is one of many other sources of anti-Semitism. The essence of anti- Semitism or any racist discourse," El-Misseiri explained, "is that you do not see the individual, but see the collectivity, and judging individuals not in terms of what they are doing now, but in light of a mythical or historical account."

El-Kharrat, however, insists he does not "approve of what the church or Christians have done in the past to persecute Jews". "Yet, I find it a pity that the historical account was compromised in this manner," El-Kharrat said. "The account is read daily by Christians all over the world and to omit it from the movie does not change this fact."

El-Kharrat contended that the "Jews should not be hated because the Bible does say that God loves the Jews as much as He loves every other nation. Jesus on the cross specifically asked that God forgive the people who crucified him, both Romans and Jews, because they didn't know the magnitude of what they were doing. His prayer on the cross was shown in the movie."

Perhaps more contentious than the movie's controversial anti-Semitic message is the amount of gore -- the lavish detail with which Jesus' torture and crucifixion are portrayed in the film. The screen would seem soaked in blood and no matter how many times viewers would turn their eyes away from scenes of torture and humiliation, they can hardly skip seeing blood splattered everywhere; most horribly on the faces of the torturers flaying Jesus' flesh.

"There was too much blood in the film. It made me feel sick," said one viewer. "[Gibson] did not have to show us the hammering of each single nail during the crucifixion."

One reason why Gibson did that was that he wanted to approach the Gospels without distortion. "That's how bad it was," Gibson said in an interview. "According to the Psalmists, you couldn't even recognize him as being human."

El-Kharrat agrees that the Biblical account is no less gory than it was portrayed in the film. El-Kharrat impresses that the "suffering of Christ in this movie was represented as an expression of his love for us, and even for those who tortured and killed him." This is made clear in the film's opening verse from Isiah 53: "He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; by His wounds we are healed."

"Obviously this sentiment of being personally important to God despite of being less than perfect gives one a sense of significance and inner liberation," El-Kharrat notes.

Many Christians similarly contend that the uncompromising exposure to Christ's agony makes them more resilient to the struggles and pains of everyday life. "In a growing consumer society like Egypt, where people deal with everything -- even religious feelings -- from a materialistic perspective, a movie like The Passion of the Christ helps revive the weakened spirit and lead Christians to explore deep feelings they only read about today," Watani's Fawzi said.

"I was touched to see how much the Christ suffered to redeem my sins," said 27-year-old Nader, a deacon. "But I also felt the amount of humiliation and torture He suffered should have been balanced with more length given to Jesus' resurrection."

According to Coptic Priest Raphael Sami, although the film tends to adhere closely to the Bible, "some parts are exaggerated and inaccurate." For instance, "The Christ was nailed in the wrist and not in the palm, and [Gibson] exaggerated the sympathy of Pilate and his wife," Sami said. El-Kharrat affirms, nonetheless, that "Christians are very happy that something important and profound in their lives has been addressed in an excellent artistic approach." Anba Youhanna Kolta, vice-patriarch of the Coptic-Catholic Church in Egypt, would rather focus on the message the film sends: "to respect humanity and uncover the ruthlessness of dictatorship".

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. Reprinted from Al-Ahram Weekly, 15 - 21 April 2004 (Issue No. 686).