It’s not often I go to a torture flick, and after seeing Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ, I know why.

It’s hard to imagine a more unpleasant way to spend two hours than watching the relentless thrashing of a human being, which is pretty much what goes on in this movie. It’s also hard to imagine anyone leaving the theatre feeling particularly uplifted.

On the contrary, one emerges thrilled that the movie is finally over and marvelling that there are people walking about on the street apparently not even trying to torture anyone.

Of course, the bleak vision presented in the film, which includes a Satan character, fits well with the emergence of an intolerant, fundamentalist mentality in which the world is neatly divided into good and evil, them and us.

Even apparently secular institutions are getting into the fundamentalist swing of things. New York Times reporter Elizabeth Bumiller put an astonishing question to Democratic front-runner John Kerry in a televised debate last month. “Is God on America’s side?” she asked, apparently unaware that this is the 21st not the 15th century, and that she works for a newspaper, not an Inquisition panel.

Gibson has shrugged off criticism of his hugely controversial film, insisting he’s just telling the true story, with all its blood and guts.

Yet, despite his claims of authenticity, the movie religiously follows the most standard of Hollywood conventions — the women are beautiful, Satan is bald and ugly, and the actor who plays Jesus clearly goes to the gym regularly and has teeth so white they glow in the dark.

The real Jesus would have been much shorter and slighter, and there’s no reason to believe he was drop-dead handsome.

But with a Don Knotts look-alike on the Cross, would this have been a blockbuster?

More importantly, Gibson seems to have embellished the story, greatly exaggerating the role of the Jews in killing Christ. Meanwhile, the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who had ultimate responsibility over who lived and who died, comes across as a decent and downright likeable fellow, keen to do the right thing if only the Jewish mob wasn’t so fixated on crucifixion.

One keeps hoping, as the procession heads towards you-know-what, that maybe, just maybe, there will be a last-minute intervention by that nice Mr. Pilate, or his even more kindly wife.

Elaine Pagels, a renowned historian of the early Christian period, pointed out in the New Yorker last week that this is a serious distortion: “To deflect responsibility from the Romans for arresting and executing Christ, which Gibson takes from the Gospels and makes even more extreme, is contrary to everything we understand about history.” Those who wrote the Gospels, she explains, had reason to whitewash the role of the brutal, all-powerful Romans, who didn’t take well to criticism; Gibson was under no such constraints.

This isn’t exactly a trivial detail.

The claim that the Jews killed Christ has been the feeding ground of anti-Semitism for centuries, all the way up to the Holocaust.

Gibson, the son of a Holocaust denier, is presumably familiar with this terrain.

While Gibson isn’t obliged to promote the brotherhood of man, is it too much to expect him to avoid vigorously fanning a flame that’s led to so much hatred and misery throughout history?

Yet the media have been soft on Gibson. A flattering cover story in People magazine last week recounted lightning striking during the filming and asked, “Does Gibson have God on his side?” (Remember when reading the mainstream press was different from reading a Christian summer-camp newsletter?)

Some high-profile commentators — including Barbara Amiel and Rex Murphy — have argued that concerns about a rise in anti-Semitism shouldn’t focus on Gibson’s film but rather, Murphy suggests, on the “ferocity of criticism routinely directed at Israel.”

This is a deft sleight of hand. Gibson, whose distortion of the facts may well breathe new life into the most potent and durable anti-Semitic allegation, is given a pass, while those who criticize the Israeli government over its illegal 35-year occupation of Palestinian land are tarred with the brush of anti-Semitism. Murphy even sweeps critics of Israel in with suicide bombers in his depiction of the new anti-Semitism.

The suggestion that criticizing Israel is inherently anti-Semitic is, of course, being made with increasing frequency these days to silence critics of Israel, whose ranks include Jews inside and outside Israel and even Holocaust survivors.

Measured against the hauntingly anti-Jewish images in The Passion Of The Christ, the suggestion that critics of Israel’s military occupation are the new anti-Semites seems almost as silly and menacing as Gibson’s film.

Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...