Decoding the Inquisition

Torture and Torquemada crossed paths and pathology with the Catholic Church on the ruinous road to the Inquisition as the Spanish steps toward ethnic cleansing sent non-Catholics careening into a tailspin of fiery 15th-century moral turpitude.

It is no secret that the Spanish Inquisition's inequities inveighed against its Jews, forced to convert or be condemned by a church hell-bent on hewing to an unconscionable moral code that tore Torah from its roots and offered Jews a catechism of catastrophe.

What is surprising is how seemingly interminable the Inquisition proved to be, lasting 600 years and encompassing enough countries to form a United Nations of neglect and noxiousness that cross-cut the world, to this day recovering from the scars of its stigmata.

"Secret Files of the Inquisition" is a revelation, a riveting open-book look at material declassified by the Vatican in 1998; it is a poetic justice of an answer to the question of what man has made of man some 700 years after the horrors began.

PBS's multimillion dollar mini-series of four episodes over two weeks beginning on Wednesday, May 9, at 9 p.m., on WHYY-TV12, is all about four-part disharmony that overtook humankind in its crusade to crucify and theologically castrate the catholic community dogged by the Catholic Church for not adhering to its dogma.

No better time than the new millennium to examine why the old one left a legacy of a million questions unanswered, until now.

Leading the charge of this anything-but-light brigade which spent three years of principal shooting in Spain, is David Rabinovitch, a Jewish Indiana Jones-type who made his jones over the years as an investigative journalist, film producer and director, collecting a cache of acclaim and awards.

But this accomplishment tops the collection as Rabinovitch and PBS pry open the past filled with parchment papers of protests and pleas by those stampeded into dirt and damnation by the Inquisitors.

Continuing May 16, "Secret Files" secretes and oozes fascinating historical fillips, with wonks wide-eyed over how much was not known about seven-centuries of evil empirical data that now, revealed, deciphers and codifies countries' acts of inhumanity.

Even for those already conversant with conversos, engaged with the era's ethos, there are shocks and awes amid the archives. Surprises? "The whole thing was surprising," reveals Rabinovitch, whose raid of the lost story arc was facilitated by the Vatican as Pope John Paul II offered an invitation to be a party to history.

Rabinovitch's RSVP was fast and focused as he brought to the party a guest list of noted scholars and experts who could handle the truths — as well as ancient papers — awaiting them.

"Six hundred years of history? I said, there's got to be a story there!"

He filed in along with the others for a firsthand look at the files, manuscripts illuminated with social ills and decrees that decimated peoples, as well as archival anecdotal evidence that bias is a longstanding by-product of human nature.

Not that Rabinovitch was without a sense of humor on this serious task. "I had few assumptions of what I was going to discover. I hate to admit it, but most of what I knew about the era was colored by Monty Python and Mel Brooks," he chuckles.

But this was no Tin Pan Alley toast to "The Inquisition" as imagined by the lovingly lunatic Brooks; the evidence instead sang as a lament of lunacy, a jeremiad of Jewish suffering and evil against many peoples.

"Once we started digging in, we saw how more deep, pervasive it was — and how it took on different forms in different countries."

But the library pass to the past that was the Vatican invitation didn't come unrestricted. Limitation: Only two parchments allowed to circulate at one time? Hardly.

"Just because the Vatican gave access doesn't mean you can just walk in and use it like a library," says the filmmaker.

And it's one thing for readers to do so silently, but what happens when the books speak a different language that shouts of unfamiliarity and frustration?

"Most of the official documents are in Latin with transcripts in medieval languages," says Rabinovitch.

Lost in translation? But not lost as to what to do. The team conscripted translators to take the past at its word.

"But where do you begin?" reasoned Rabinovitch of an ever-shifting starting point. "What is in the Vatican is not the entire record of the Inquisition; for that, we would have to go to many other sources. Spain alone had more than 85,000 [files] recorded" that bore examination. "It would take a huge team and a century to go after and over it all."

But the numbers were in his favor: "There are 24 scholars who really know about the Inquisition worldwide; eight were our consultants."

God was in the details; godlessness even more so. And yet, Torquemada, arguably the best-known of the Spanish Inquisitors with a torque-drive to destroy Jews, is left on the rack here, mentioned more or less in passing.

"As a filmmaker and storyteller," says Rabinovitch, "I made a storytelling decision, to confine each episode to as small a locality as possible."

Torquemada had torn his page out of history already. "We felt his story was already well-known and documented."

But those tales that needed to be recounted went far beyond the mensch of La Mancha, where quixotic fates awaited those not of the Catholic faith.

Medieval Venice was rooted in an evil canal of cabals. But its Inquisition involvement was not as much faith-based, according to Rabinovitch, as it was focused on the political system, where "it was a struggle between the papacy and the domination of the the Italian peninsula. Venice was an autonomous state, and we illustrate how Venetians would stand up [against the pope] for their rights. We don't deal with any case [against the] Jews."

Indeed, the "creation of the Inquisition in Italy was a response to the Reformation."

History could stand some reformation in one aspect: "One of the major misconceptions about the Inquisition," says Rabinovitch, "is that it was only about the Church and the Jews."

Go tell it on the mountain of revealed evidence that it also encompassed the Muslims and the Protestants.

There are also enough unlikely historical heroes to warrant a TV series of their own. Napoleon's complex characterization here shows he had a hand in more than his vest.

"The story of Napoleon's relationship with the Church and Jews is an amazing one," says Rabinovitch, as the Little Emperor stood tall against the Inquisitors when he and his troops occupied Madrid in 1809.

In essence, says the filmmaker, Napoleon defanged and destroyed the movement, metaphorically ripping off the pope's epaulets and eviscerating his power. Even after Napoleon's defeat five years later, the Inquisition had been effectively interred in Spain.

"There is even a Hebrew prayer written in honor of Napoleon," says Rabinovitch.

If Rabinovitch has a prayer himself, it is in the purpose behind doing this searing documentary in the first place. "Turning 500-year-old documents over in my hands … I knew I had an obligation to these victims, to let their voices speak."

And they do so eloquently through the efforts of some 600 extras and 40 principals, many of them acting for the first time. Perhaps their most challenging role was in coming to terms with what a Jew actually was.

"It's safe to say that 95 percent of those in Spain had never seen a Jew," says Rabinovitch.

They probably will now. "Many places there are beginning to capitalize on this history," with tourist attractions being created or unpacked from the past. There is one site, 60 miles from Barcelona, reveals the documentarian, where "they've restored a synagogue as a museum."

Since the Jews were expelled in 1492, left to fall flat on their faces off the edge of the earth even as Spain's potentates empowered Columbus to find a brave new world for Catholics, cleaning house — especially this house of worship — must have been a major affair involving more than brooms and dust pans.

But the sweep of history is apparent throughout the series and the lessons vast and voluminous, befitting a project about the historical misfits who were the victims of the Inquisition. "We want people to look at this dark history and say, 'How do we learn from all this?' "

Unquestionably, he has learned much himself, says Rabinovitch, of the limitations imposed by the impossible time period tackled in "Secret Files." "This thing is so big that one of my regrets is not being able to make more than just a reference to the Inquisition's forces used against the Muslim population," he allows.

Sequel? A non-Brooks "History of the World: Part Two" that brooks the hardships and hate endured by other groups as well? "We're sketching ideas," he says.

But before a continuation — and this current series concludes with a gasp-inducing indictment of the Inquisitors shown kidnapping a Jewish youngster and absconding with him to Rome, where (holy ghost!) he was raised as the pope's "son" — there is another era of history to be channeled: "The Hidden World of the Harem," about the Ottoman empire and its sultans.

In a way, Rabinovitch has become an historical sultan of swat, a man carrying a big bat of a burden on his shoulders — to bring the past to the present while guarding the integrity of the home plate that is history. A pinch-hitter for the past? There is more to it than that.

Importance of Mitzvah
"As a Jew, of course, it is also important to me," he says of getting the story right and written. "As Jews, we are commanded to love life. Our common humanity is to follow the mitzvah and live life by example."

"Secret Files" is a sterling example of work well done, "to make something unassailable in its factual reporting, to make people want to examine themselves and society."

Society, heal thyself? It is not without its more modern-day incarnations, with the filmmaker alluding to another heinous act of horror as avatar. "The Inquisition is, in some ways, so similar to the Holocaust — it is about real people, with names, addresses, families — not just numbers and files."

In filing this four-part series under accomplishment, Rabinovitch has achieved a milestone, a masterful work that works as history and entertainment and one that may exact change in a change-challenged society. What better confessional and vote of confidence in its future could Spain elect than to do what it is doing, restoring its Jewish icons of eras gone by?

Of course, notes Rabinovitch wryly, some changes are more mouth-watering than others: What could top tapas of tongue and pastrami?

Even if progress does have its limits, his optimism is boundless: "I'm waiting for a good deli to open near the statue of Maimonides in Cordoba."


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