The Easter season is upon us, and with it comes one of the hottest trends in television — live musicals — applied to a centuries-old form of spring entertainment, the Passion play.
Before Atlantan Tyler Perry’s “The Passion” airs live from New Orleans on Fox at 8 p.m. Sunday, March 20, it’s worth remembering that no Passion play — a dramatic retelling of Jesus’ final days — ever was good for the Jews.
The first and last time I remember seeing a Passion play in person, amid a crowd of Christians, was in the spring of 2004 when Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” was packing movie theaters across the nation.
In case you’ve somehow forgotten that mania 12 years ago, the Jewish community was on edge as “Passion” shattered all box office expectations.
Some people then, and many more since, blamed the Anti-Defamation League in a self-fulfilling prophecy for the film’s success and for any negative feelings it spread toward Jews. The thinking was that if ADL head Abe Foxman hadn’t spent the second half of 2003 publicizing “Passion” with his criticism of the portrayal of Jesus’ contemporary Jews, no one would have wanted to see a movie shot in Aramaic and Latin.
That day in the movie theater in Henderson, N.C., I realized that Foxman was more like Casandra, offering accurate prophecies no one would believe, than Don Quixote, battling nonexistent monsters.
Henderson, a rural town an hour north of Raleigh that you’ve driven through if you’ve taken Interstate 85 into Virginia, wasn’t much for culture, but it did have two wonderful holdovers of a bygone era: an independently owned first-run movie theater and a drive-in.
The owner of the movie theater had class and good business sense, and she combined them to create an arthouse film series each fall and spring. A series ticket got you access to one independent film a week for 10 weeks. Most of those films never would have reached a place like Henderson without the series. “Passion” was an exception.
The theater owner included “Passion” in the series either as an incentive or a reward for series patrons. For my wife and me, who bought tickets to each seasonal series, it was a challenge. Neither of us would have paid to see the film, but given that we had passes as part of the series, should we go or stay home?
My wife skipped it; she had seen enough of Passion plays in her life. But I couldn’t resist the chance to see what all the hype was about.
It was, without a doubt, the most uncomfortable two hours I’ve ever experienced while supposedly being entertained.
I sat in back of a sold-out theater, and I spent as much time watching people watching the movie as following the screen violence myself. For the most part, they were in ecstasy. The more Jim Caviezel’s Jesus suffered, as he did with relentless snuff-film brutality, the closer the Christians seemed to feel they were to redemption or salvation. And they couldn’t help but absorb the film’s message that all of Jesus’ suffering was caused and cheered on by Jews.
I tried to disappear into the seat so no one would notice that one of the town’s 10 Jews was there.
The point isn’t that Gibson’s film was anti-Semitic. The fault lay in the story he was telling, a medieval version of events that had a nasty habit each Easter of inspiring violence against the local Jews.
It’s the same story Perry is telling Sunday night, albeit with a modern setting and soundtrack. I’m glad I’ll be at KehillaFest, far from a TV.