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Gibson's Passion: Beauty, Faith & Marketing

It’s like something out of a movie: An Oscar-winning superstar risks his career and reputation by directing a violent and controversial film about the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus.

He titles the epic The Passion of the Christ, and foots the $30 million bill himself. For nearly the entire duration of filming, the project is without a distributor.

He casts actors either unknown to American audiences or unproven at the box office, and he shoots it in Aramaic and Latin, with subtitles.

But this is no Hollywood yarn. Many thought Mel Gibson had lost his mind. One could smell a career-ending flop. What followed was much darker.

Rumors began circulating before its release that Gibson’s film would strike a blow for anti-Semites everywhere by blaming Jews for the death of Christ. Those who had seen advance screenings were divided. Many who have seen the final version still are.

In one camp are those who see The Passion as proof of Gibson’s bigotry toward Jews. In the other are those quick to praise his artistic integrity or see him as a beleaguered, targeted artist.

And in the middle of the circus is the ringleader, Mel Gibson, who seems puzzled by the uproar but is surely grateful for its volume. The Hollywood mantra, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” proved especially true in this case: The hailstorm of press guided this film to box-office success.

The Agony and the Ecstasy

In all fairness, The Passion is a stunning piece of filmmaking. Little surprise: Gibson is a gifted director and a clever visual storyteller.

Artistically, it’s a breathtaking achievement.  Emotionally, it’s grueling. Gibson is merciless with his camera, wielding it with a force as piercing as the whips of the Roman guards. Be warned: The Passion is violent, sometimes repellently so.

Still, Gibson should be admired for having the spine to helm a project of this nature, one that could capsize his impressive career.

Is He or Isn't He?

But not so fast. Mel Gibson is a seasoned Hollywood player. The Passion may be, as he puts it, “a film for the soul,” but it is, nevertheless, a film—a product he’s eager to push.

It was never an easy sell. Gibson denied charges of anti-Semitism but fueled suspicions by releasing the film to fewer theaters in highly liberal or Jewish areas. He raised eyebrows again by carefully handpicking which Jewish leaders could preview it.

Is Gibson an anti-Semite? Is his film anti-Semitic? One could argue that he is a traditionalist Catholic—a member of a group that denounces the reforms of Vatican II. (Acknowledging that Catholics are not the only ones who can be saved and denying that Jews as a group bear responsibility for killing Jesus are Vatican II teachings not embraced by most traditionalists.)

Yet Gibson asked Jewish actor Maia Morgenstern, who plays the Virgin Mary, and her father, a survivor of the Holocaust, to examine the script for their input. This is not the act of an anti-Semite. An anti-Semite wouldn’t have hired Morgenstern in the first place.

I am no fan of Mel Gibson, but The Passion is not anti-Semitic. It is not a bigotry lesson. Cinema, however, is a powerhouse of a medium and weak minds are everywhere. Those searching for reasons to hate could misinterpret this film.

If The Passion should widen the chasm between Jews and Christians, then the film is what its harshest detractors have said all along: a vehicle for division between two faiths. If it should reinvigorate our spiritual lives or forge a greater awareness of Judaism or Jewish people, then Gibson has done us a favor.

The ending is unknown. What’s certain is that Gibson has endured punches, above and below the belt, for his film, his art. But dry your eyes—bruises heal. The Passion is a rousing box-office hit. In the long run, it will be Gibson, not his critics, with the last word.

Closing Credits

People are talking about this film and, more remarkably, the topic of spirituality. Gibson and his film have started a dialogue. Perhaps understanding will follow.

But the praise should be rationed. The Passion, from the beginning, was about a man’s quest to enlighten, to offer hope, to teach and to save—the story of Christ, not Gibson. Jesus is the hero here, not the artist who cinematized his final hours.

What we have is a flawed but beautiful film, guided by a talented, somewhat self-righteous director—one whose ego, battered but surely intact, might be the biggest flaw behind the project.

In an interview with Diane Sawyer on Primetime last February, the impassioned, candid and sometimes cheeky Gibson assured us that God is pleased with his film and that, in spite of the endless uproar, people will want to see it.

And Gibson knows well enough that many will see the film because of the uproar as well.—C.H.

For more information on the film, please log on to http://www.opwest.org/Archive/2004/200402/passion_of_the_christ.htm or http://www.webzinemaker.net/signis-en/index.php3?action=page&id_art=71129 or visit the film’s Web site at www.thepassionofthechrist.com.


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