PHILADELPHIA — Sony Pictures Entertainment has closely linked its upcoming faith-based film "Risen," about the hunt for Jesus Christ's crucified body, to the controversial 2004 blockbuster "The Passion of the Christ," claiming that the thriller picks up where Mel Gibson's top-grossing Christian film leaves off. But like its predecessor was accused by some critics of being anti-Semitic, "Risen" is also facing questions about perceived troublesome portrayals of some of its Jewish characters.
Rich Peluso, senior vice president of Sony's AFFIRM Films faith label, was challenged about depictions of Jewish leaders in "Risen" when, after screening three clips of the film, he opened the floor to questions from a room of religion reporters, some of whom were Jewish, last Thursday at the 2015 Religion Newswriters Association Conference at the Loews Hotel in Philadelphia.
Peluso pitched the New Testament-inspired film as a fresh, never-before-seen big screen retelling of what happened to Jesus Christ's crucified body after it disappeared from its burial tomb. The first century story is seen primarily from the perspective of Roman military officer Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), who is "on the detective assignment of all time: to disprove news of Jesus' resurrection."
Although Scripture reveals that Christ was resurrected from the dead after his crucifixion and appeared to His followers before ascending to Heaven, the Bible does not go into great detail about what Roman officials and religious leaders were doing in the meantime about the Jewish Messiah's missing corpse.
The AFFIRM Films senior vice president gave the impression that Sony and partner studios were going all-out for "Risen," the latest from Hollywood in a persistent string of Bible-inspired epics that have graced the big screen.
"[It will be] our biggest marketing budget. It will be our biggest screen count. I think this is do or die for AFFIRM Films on 'Risen,'" Peluso told the roomful of reporters.
But Peluso was told by a reporter that his presentation was essentially a flop since he screened nothing to match his claims about "Risen" being new in its approach, while another journalist, who informed him that she was Jewish, expressed discomfort with watching clips of Roman soldiers' brutal takedown of Jewish zealots and of the violent crucifixion of Jesus, as well as depictions of those who the Gospels describe as two thieves.
In a third clip, Jewish leaders accompany Caiaphas, who the Bible describes as high priest of the Sanhedrin, or Jewish religious council, as he makes an inconspicuous visit to Pontius Pilate, Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar's appointed governor of Judea at the time. The Sony executive referred to the concerns expressed about "Risen" by one journalist as "baggage" of our "contemporary culture."
The Gospel accounts of Jesus' life, ministry and death present Jewish religious leaders appealing to the ruling Roman governor to have the controversial son of a Jewish carpenter crucified for making divine messianic claims they considered blasphemous, a crime under their Mosaic Law that called for death.
Throughout history, the Jewish community as a whole has been blamed, in some cases with vitriol and through systemic violence, for the death of Christ. This anti-Semitic perspective is referenced by the term "Jewish deicide," and is present in the writings of second century Christian leader Melito of Sardis, in the persecution of Jews (and Muslims) during the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century, and in writings of prominent and often celebrated 16th century German Protestant theologian Martin Luther.
"True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today," Pope Paul VI officially declared in 1965. He added: "Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel's spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone."
When Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" played in theaters over a decade ago, critics blasted the highly successful film as offensive to Jews, as reflected in comments made by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of interfaith affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, in a column written on the occasion of the 10-year anniversary of the film.
The rabbi told the National Catholic Reporter that Gibson, a purported Catholic himself, "packaged this as the only authentic film about the Passion. It has a veneer of authenticity, but you can find things along the way, such as an artificial distinction between Jews and Romans, that contradict his assertion.
"The Romans were merciless and criminal, but there was nothing likable in any of the Jews except Jesus and His close followers. Romans who are viciously portrayed are in the business of being heartless, whereas that is not the case in society with priests. The Romans who abuse Jesus are prison guards and soldiers whose duty it is to inflict floggings and other cruel punishments. Priests normally are not, and yet the priests in 'The Passion of the Christ' show themselves as having their own bloodlust."
The Anti-Defamation League wrote of "The Passion of the Christ" the year of its release:
"We were saddened and pained to find that 'The Passion of the Christ' continues its unambiguous portrayal of Jews as being responsible for the death of Jesus. There is no question in this film about who is responsible. At every single opportunity, Mr. Gibson's film reinforces the notion that the Jewish authorities and the Jewish mob are the ones ultimately responsible for the crucifixion."
One journalist, who covers art, religion and education, asked AFFIRM Film's Peluso about wardrobe decisions for "Caiaphas and the Jews" during the RNA convention screening.
"Can you talk a little bit about those decisions? It's been very controversial in previous films, kinda how those have been interpreted, so I'm kinda curious as to how that was navigated," the journalist inquired.
Peluso, in his extensive response, revealed that the "Risen" creative team had "worked with historians, pastors and leaders in researching the period, both the environ of Jerusalem and the look and feel of it." He also said that there had been consultations with rabbis about sensitive aspects of the film.
"I'll tell you, through the scripting process and through the editing process, we were very sensitive. We made some changes to the script, we made some changes in the editing process where we felt like it could be felt that the Jews were portrayed as unfairly responsible for the crucifixion of Christ," Peluso said.