Controversy over ‘deicide’ Play

A four-hour play on the crucifixion, produced by an emigre Polish film director for the educational television arm of the Ontario government, is threatening to upset the equilibrium of the religious and artistic establishment in this province of Canada.

The play, which costs half a million dollars (a sore point in these days of promised governmental austerities) is called “The Jesus Trial” and it purports to examine the 2000-year-old Christian legacy of the deicide. It is based on an actual courtroom case that took place in 1974 in the French city of Troyes.

A French lawyer named Jacques Isorni wrote a book, “Le Vrai Proces de Jesus” (The True Trial of Jesus), in which he argued that historically it was not the Jews but the Roman Procurator Pontius Pilate who bears the responsibility for Jesus’ execution. He was challenged by a cleric, Abbe Georges de Nantes. A libel suit ensued which eventually was won by the lawyer.

The film enacts the French trial based on its reported text. It also interweaves shots from a Mexican passion play that has been performed in Ixtapalapa for the past 150 years, a performance of startling realism since at times the person playing Jesus has not survived to reach the cross, so acute are the actual tortures.

Also shown are actual films of Nazi concentration and death camps in their full horror (unlike those shown in the recent Holocaust TV program, these are real). In addition, continuing interreligious strife and killing is shown in scene’s from today’s Ireland and Lebanon.

There are interviews with and comments throughout the production by a wide variety of theologians, scholars, writers and churchmen from Canada, the U.S., Great Britain and Israel, including such persons as Canadian Jewish poet Irving Layton, British writer Hugh Schonfield, Prof. Emil Fackenheim, Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, Rev. Franklin Littell, Father Gregory Baum, Sister Charlotte Stein and Prof. Northrop Frye.

Though the program will not be shown publicly until early November, already pre-screenings have caused considerable controversy and dissent. Roman Catholics have complained that “The Jesus Trial” does not adequately take into account the Second Vatican Council convened by the late Pope John XXIII and all that has happened flowing from this council to after the church’s basic position on the crucifixion and the deicide.

They also point out that Father de Nantes, presented in the film as a typical Roman Catholic spokesman, is now considered virtually a heretic in church circles and is diametrically opposed to current accepted church policies.

Some religious leaders have expressed concern that the film displays antagonism to religion per se. It states at the beginning that religion is “the bedmate” of intolerance and ideology in producing hatred; that it may have the counter-effect of reinforcing in the minds of some viewers the so-called guilt of the Jews in stressing their suffering and persecution, seen by some as their “just deserts”; that TV Ontario, as an educational arm of the government, should not introduce it into the schools where it could be mishandled by unskilled teachers.

Others see it as a courageous effort to redress the wrong that has lasted 2000 years. The producer-director, Tad Jaworski, is a 53-year-old Polish film maker raised a Catholic and now an agnostic. Of mixed parentage (his mother is reported to be Jewish), he was expelled from Poland in 1968 and also had his citizenship revoked during Gomulka’s purge of that period. Jaworski travelled to the United States, Mexico, Europe and Israel in the making of the television show. It will be shown in two installments, each one repeated on a second night.

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