Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Another perspective on Simon of Cyrene in The Passion

As regular readers will know, I have commented here several times on the way that the character of Simon of Cyrene, played by Jarreth Merz, is depicted in The Passion of the Christ. To take an excerpt from my recent article, The Passion, Pornography and Polemic, for example, I commented:
At this point, when the viewer is strongly identifying with him, Simon is directly castigated by one of the Roman guards as “Jew!” This is the only character (other than Jesus who is called “King of the Jews”) in the entire film who is specifically characterised as a Jew. The point is important, not least given the fact that some critics of The Passion of the Christ have imported terminology into the film that is not found there. The film does not once, for example, castigate those in opposition to Jesus as “the Jews”, in spite of repeated assertions to the contrary. Moreover, the positive depiction of Simon of Cyrene as a Jew is clearly not accidental. This scene in The Passion of the Christ is largely dependent on Catherine Emmerich’s Dolorous Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, especially Simon’s exhortations to the soldiers to stop. But where she makes Simon a pagan, Gibson insists that his heroic figure was a Jew.
Evy Nelson now emails me with a less positive take on the depiction of Simon:
Yes, Simon of Cyrene is called "Yehuda," but so is someone else, done so, by my reading, in contradistinction. One personifies as a type the Jew who fails to go the distance w/Jesus and therefore ends in despair and destruction. As I witnessed Simon's character development, I sensed that he represents the Jew who begins to understand who Jesus is and embraces that revelation, whereupon he casts aside his Jewish observance.

Stick w/me on this one. When Simon is first impressed, he is wearing a skull cap not unlike modern-day kippot (whether men did or did not wear such in 30 CE is, as I see it, a moot point; what matters in Gibson's Passion envisioning is how this item of clothing as symbol is realized) and at least one of his outer garments is striped in such a way that many Jews watching the film have identified it as a tallit, an item that we all recognize as a primary sign of Jewish belief and observance. These items he continues to wear as he, forcedly, assists Jesus in carrying the cross. When Jesus falls and is yet again brutalized by the Roman guard, Simon, right before he defiantly defends Jesus, casts off his outer garments, tallit presumably included. The camera clearly shows the clothing lying ignobly in the dust . . . .

. . . . . Is Gibson trying to communicate a subtext regarding Judaism here? Well, if you see the film again, notice that as Simon launches into his castigation, we are suddenly presented w/finely dressed men w/ostentatious tallit in the background of the scene. However, if Gibson is not consciously trying to communicate a subtext of antagonism or offense, then the nature of the scene is one that, nonethelss, can leave a Jew feeling uneasy. It is for reasons like this that Gibson should have, in my opinion, enlisted Jewish insight.

As for the skull cap, that too is lost at the point Simon completes his task on Calvary. If you watch the film again, notice how head coverings on men figure in the presentation of characters. Contrast, for example, the disciples at the Last Supper--nary a head covering--w/the multitude demanding Jesus' crucifixion. Even Sanhedrin member Joseph of Arimathea is without head covering when he attends in the lowering of Jesus' body from the cross.
I am grateful for this alternative, interesting take on the film. And let me reiterate that I do have some concerns with the film's perspective on and depiction of elements in the Passion narrative, concerns that may well have been less if Gibson had indeed, as Evy suggests, "enlisted Jewish insight". I hold to the view I have often expressed that Gibson was mistaken in not enlisting the help of an advisory committee of scholars from different backgrounds of the kind that The Gospel of John so wisely used. Having said that, I am not convinced that Simon's loss of his clothing is significant. It seems unlikely to me that it is intended to communicate any significant subtext regarding Judaism except in our initial viewing of Simon, it serves to affirm all the more strongly his Jewish identity. I have had a chance to think carefully about this and happily, Evy's email arrived yesterday, not long before I went to see the film for the third time, so I had a chance to watch the scene carefully. I must admit that I had not noticed the features Evy refers to before. My reasons for not finding the loss of clothing significant are twofold. First, it seems to me that it is simply that Simon is struggling with the cross, the violence and everything else. His loss first of some clothing and subsequently his hat / skull cap is a bit of realism -- he's been struggling with this heavy cross and with the trauma of the trudge to Calvary and it would be unrealistic to expect all his clothing to remain in tact. It seems reasonable to me to assume that his loss of his outer garments is not religiously significant. It is about verisimilitude. Second, the all important charge of "Judaeus!" (Jew!) comes after the loss of his outer garment. The film-makers have located the line that specifically encourages the viewer to think about Simon's Jewish identity after the point at which he loses some of his clothing. If there is any intention to convey a subtle anti-Jewish message here, then I think the film fails and works against itself. Where I think the issue of the clothing is interesting, and I am grateful to Evy because I had not thought about this before, is that it encourages the viewer to think all the more strongly about Simon's Jewish identity. And this is striking in the light of the fact that the source material, Catherine Emmerich's Dolorous Passion, Chapter 33, uses the clothing to signify to the reader that Simon was not Jewish:
At this moment Simon of Cyrene, a pagan, happened to pass by . . . . The soldiers perceiving by his dress that he was a pagan" (emphasis added).
I am grateful for the opportunity to have thought some more about this scene. I should also point out that Evy Nelson has an article on Christianity Today called The Latest Temptation of Christians.

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