It’s a clash of power, religion and history more fit for the apocalyptic Book of Revelation than the pages of Variety.
But this is a fight over a movie — a conflict that has allowed Mel Gibson to transform “The Passion of the Christ” from an obscure “career-killer” film into an international event that is already one of the most divisive movies of recent times.
“The Passion,” which depicts in gruesome detail the final hours of Christ’s life, premieres in the United States on Feb. 25 — Ash Wednesday on the Roman Catholic calendar. That’s just one of the ways that Gibson, while preparing to release this intensely personal project, has built an audience on both faith and fury.
The Catholic movie star has restricted most early screenings to thousands of pastors, ministers and Christian leaders; urged use of “The Passion” for proselytizing; distributed movie tie-in sermons for Sunday morning services; encouraged grass-roots Internet promotional campaigns by Christian groups; and even sought the endorsement of the pope — although whether or not he received it remains in doubt.
But piety attracts less attention that controversy, in this case whether “The Passion” fosters anti-Semitism by unfairly blaming Jews for Christ’s death.
The end result: A movie rejected by all the major studios, with subtitles to translate the Latin and Aramaic dialogue, is poised to be a hit.
Publicity better than an ad campaign“This is one of the biggest stories of the year, simply because of how unprecedented it is,” said Brandon Gray, proprietor of the box office tracker BoxOfficeMojo.com. “It’s hard to fathom that a movie in two ancient languages, that is so religious and so focused on suffering and torture of somebody, would be a blockbuster.”
Gibson produced, directed and co-wrote “The Passion,” and spent $25 million of his own money making it. Throughout the process, the Oscar-winning “Braveheart” director also has defended himself, his family and his film against ugly anti-Semitism accusations, insisting that the film is designed to “inspire not offend.”
These same accusations should ultimately boost the film’s prospects.
No ad campaign could have received such attention. Besides the many evangelicals and believers who support the movie, now many skeptical and secular moviegoers are likely to buy tickets — no matter what the reviews — just to judge the product for themselves.
Abraham Foxman, head of the Jewish civil-rights group the Anti-Defamation League, is one of them.
“I will probably see it again, to see if he changes anything. I’ll buy a ticket and go see it,” said Foxman, one of the movie’s most vociferous critics, who previously sneaked uninvited into a Florida theater during a screening for Christian clergy.
“Maybe we helped promote it,” he acknowledged. “Even if we did, I don’t think the Jewish community has the luxury to ignore anti-Semitism, even at the cost that it gives the movie more controversy.”
Foxman has asked Gibson to put a postscript on the movie to clarify that the story of Christ’s death does not excuse anti-Semitism. Without that, the public debate serves as a kind of prescript, Foxman said, even if the side effect is drawing audiences to the film.
Would-be career killer“The Passion’ didn’t always have such promise.
During filming in early 2003, Gibson joked publicly that it might be his “career-killer.” He had wanted to make the film since a spiritual crisis about 13 years ago, Gibson wrote in a December e-mail message to The Associated Press.
“I came to a difficult point in my life and meditating on Christ’s sufferings, on his passion, got me through it,” wrote Gibson, who declined to be interviewed for this story. “Once I started meditating on the passion, really going deep into it in my own mind and heart, then I began to understand it, to believe: That’s the version I put on film.”
Like any big moneymaker, Gibson, who became a superstar in the “Mad Max” and “Lethal Weapon” movies, is well-regarded by much of Hollywood. Yet aside from a handful of supporters, like Jack Valenti of the Motion Picture Association of America, few have come out publicly one way or the other.
The movie industry has a large Jewish population, although it’s not particularly religious. And Hollywood’s upper echelon may need Gibson’s star power more than he needs them.
The filmmaker has denied the anti-Semitism claims, but — in what is either irony or shrewdness — he was the first to raise them.
Digging up Gibson's pastGibson granted one of his first interviews about “The Passion” to the Fox News channel in January 2003, appearing with the conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly. And both of them were bristling.
Gibson said that his work on “The Passion” had led reporters from “reputable publications” to try digging up dirt on him by questioning his then 85-year-old father. “You can pick on me,” Gibson said. “But if you start picking on my family ...”
It was a pre-emptive attack. No one had raised any concerns yet, beyond speculation that Gibson was pouring his talent into a certain flop.
Three months later, The New York Times Magazine quoted his father, Hutton Gibson, downplaying the Holocaust and describing the Second Vatican Council — which in the 1960s proclaimed that Jews did not bear responsibility for Christ’s death — as “a Masonic plot backed by the Jews.”
Since then, Mel Gibson has chosen mainly to preach to the converted — like conservative pundit Peggy Noonan in the latest edition of Readers Digest.
“The Holocaust happened, right?” Noonan asked.
Even that softball question got Gibson in trouble. “Yes, of course. Atrocities happened. War is horrible,” Gibson said. “The Second World War killed tens of millions of people. Some of them were Jews in concentration camps.”
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles responded with a scathing letter: “To describe Jewish suffering during the Holocaust as ‘some of them were Jews in concentration camps’ ... feeds right into the hands of Holocaust deniers and revisionists.”
Gibson also talked to The New Yorker magazine about his movie and its critics — including Frank Rich, a New York Times columnist who accused Gibson of trying to “bait Jews and sow religious conflict.”
“I want to kill him,” Gibson told The New Yorker, regarding Rich. “I want his intestines on a stick.”
Despite such colorful responses to critics, Gibson has manipulated their concerns with a bait-and-tease routine — on one hand complaining that they shouldn’t attack a movie without seeing it, and on the other banning them from screenings while sympathetic viewers see the picture by the thousands.
Many scholars, reporters and critics say Gibson has prevented them from viewing the film until Feb. 23, giving them just one day to print reviews.
“I’ve read that Gibson was still working on it, and certainly that’s a legitimate reason not to show it — although I doubt that’s the reason it’s not being shown,” said Jean Oppenheimer, president of Los Angeles Film Critics Association. “A lot of films screen just for people who will give them a positive response ... It’s too bad he can’t be more inclusive.”
But Gibson’s strategy is working — some Hollywood analysts speculate the film may earn its entire $25 million production budget back in the first weekend, when it debuts on 2,000 screens.
That would be an astounding debut for a subtitled movie that lacks a major star (Jim Caviezel, from “The Count of Monte Cristo,” plays Jesus). Now the question is not whether “The Passion” will succeed, but whether it will break through to the mainstream.
“The key will be the curious nonbelievers,” said Gray of BoxOfficeMojo.com. He predicts a debut weekend of about $15 million. Variety said it could go as high as $30 million — far from the flop observers once predicted.
“They think I’m insane,” Gibson said at a Sept. 2002 press conference to announce his project. “Maybe I am, or maybe I’m a genius.”