Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Of passion and belief

1 Comment

Eddie Tamir has to finish the interview by six because it’s Friday. At sunset he will need to be home from work for the Sabbath. He is a prize-winning film-maker: one of his films, Lilliput Café won a Protestant film award in the Oberhausen Short Film Festival, and this year his latest, Father, will be shown at the St Kilda Film Festival. He is also the owner of two small suburban cinemas. One is the Classic, in Elsternwick, the other the Cameo in Belgrave which he bought recently, and refurbished. He picked out the most controversial film of the year for the Cameo’s gala opening. The film was Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.

It has been doing, he says, ‘back-to-back box office’. I ask what that means and he tells me that it’s when someone goes to see a film, comes out when it’s over, goes straight back to the box office to buy another ticket and goes back in to see it all over again. That is one extreme of the range of views that Gibson’s film has engendered. The other reaction is of antipathy, ranging from aesthetic judgements (‘really bad film-making, tedious and boring’) or moral/theological ones (it is inaccurate, dangerous and even anti-Semitic).

Before seeing the movie, I tell him, I wondered how on earth anyone could blame Jewish people for the death of Jesus: it’s like blaming Danes for the death of Hamlet. Then when I saw it, I realised that the depiction of Jews might, despite Gibson’s small attempts at balance, still be offensive and dangerous.

Why show it then? ‘The Jewish response has a whole other level. I think,’ Tamir says, ‘that the question of the piece of art versus the actual artist—a lot of Jewish commentary has enmeshed that.’ We talk for a while about the fact of Gibson’s father being a Holocaust denier; I worry because it seems to me that Gibson has, in interviews, publicly affirmed his rejection of that position, but doesn’t want to go to the extent of saying that his aged father is either deluded or intentionally in grave error.

But it goes deeper: Tamir has seen and heard comments after the movie that concern him. ‘Someone said, “the Jews didn’t actually kill him but they made it happen”’. He fears that some people believe, as Gibson’s father is said to, the evil and ludicrous conspiracy theory of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Even if ordinary people around the world don’t know of the theory, says Tamir, the stereotype is perpetuated in the film, of elite Jewish figures cynically manipulating a nation’s titular  powers—‘that Jews are this all-powerful, dark force behind the scenes.’ He laughs and says, ‘Anyone who really knew Jews would know that we can’t agree on what to eat for lunch!’

I reflect on the film’s stark array of Jewish high priests near the beginning, plotting, all decked out in costumes that recall some of the ceremonial clothing of rabbis today; it must be very distasteful for Jewish people to watch that.

‘And Pontius Pilate, he is painted as a complex character: he was a brute, so brutal that five years later even Rome got rid of him!’ Tamir feels that the depiction of Caiaphas and Pilate skews the moral balance as outrageously as though a story of the Holocaust were to downplay the role of Hitler, while raising Pope Pius XII’s role to that of the main evil-doer.

Mel Gibson’s assertion that anti-Semitism is a sin is nice, Tamir says but it still concerns him, because he thinks that it is reductive of Judaism, and sees it as simply part of the Christian world view.

What does he think of the film as film? ‘It’s opera rather than drama’, he says. ‘I don’t think it’s a great film and I don’t think it will stand the test of time; but time will tell.’ It does, disturbingly, remind him of the medieval Passion plays that were used to manipulate Europeans into hideous crimes against Jews. I agree that the flavour is of very traditional older Catholic beliefs, similar to the meditations on the Stations of the Cross that I was brought up with. I feel impelled to tell him where I come from, that my childhood was full of the knowledge of the war that had finished not long before I was born, of the horror that everyone I knew felt at the fate of the Jews who were murdered by the Nazis. But I’m probably not the kind of person that would worry him, I hope. I say that perhaps the depiction of the suffering of Jesus in the film is meant to make a whole lot of people empathise with anyone who is being abused. I agree that it’s clumsy, that it’s Gibson’s well-meant attempt to portray deeply felt belief. He isn’t convinced and I don’t blame him. 

Juliette Hughes is a freelance writer.



submit a comment

Existing comments

The sad thing is in reading this article a decade later, they were persecuted again at a latter date.....this time by a Catholic supported dictatorship that no-one recollects or at least publicly acknowledges..

Lynne Newington | 04 June 2017  

Similar Articles

Film reviews

  • Allan James Thomas, Morag Fraser, Gordon Lewis and Siobhan Jackson
  • 31 May 2006

Reviews of the films The Station Agent, The Passion of the Christ, The Fog of War and Irreversible.


Hot buttered bliss

  • Juliette Hughes
  • 31 May 2006

For whatever reason, I never really got into Friends. It was the sort of thing you’d watch with the young ones, to keep up with new stuff, so that the old parent-kid relationship wasn’t so gappy.