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‘The Passion’ of the PR publicists

Debate over this controversial film has fueled audience interest. By James Diers

I have yet to find a rock so large that one could live under it and not still catch wind of the controversy surrounding Mel Gibson’s new film, “The Passion of the Christ.” That’s partly because of Tinseltown’s perennial pipeline of advance notices on pretty much any movie connected to any star of Gibson’s magnitude. It’s also because “The Passion” has been the object of uncommon pre-release scrutiny and scuttlebutt on the basis of its core subject matter — the crucifixion of Jesus — which happens to be a touchstone of one world religion or another.

Like most of the population, I have yet to see the whole movie. But I’ve seen the trailer. In it, a sturdy male figure lowers his hand to the ground and slowly draws a line in the dusty earth of an ancient city. This being “The Passion”, I can only assume that this particular filmed gesture represents a looming confrontation in the time of Christ.

Meanwhile, lines have been drawn by assorted cultural pundits, publicists, and religious leaders in their own impassioned statements about the film this past season. In essence, they’ve been baiting audiences with suspicions, suppositions, accusations, and denials of anti-Semitic subtext in the film. Are they pushing us to question Mel’s integrity? To bookmark our Bibles with the First Amendment? Are they trying to insulate us from the undue influence of multiplex evangelists, or encouraging us to reach back a couple of millennia and pick a side on some age-old Jew-Gentile divide? Not only has all this quasi-theological hysteria brewed before 99 percent of us have even had a chance to see the flick for ourselves, but it dates back to months before a finished theatrical cut even existed.

To be sure, Mel was inviting special attention when he started screening variously tweaked versions of the film for scholars, select journalists, and evangelical Christian groups last year. I fully believe he had a vested personal interest in these folks’ opinions, and I don’t doubt that his ultimate aims included a final cut that would please a mass audience while reflecting his Traditionalist Catholic viewpoint. But once these sneak previews gave way to a crossfire of preemptive objections and hot-button rhetoric heard from L.A. to the Vatican, there could be no slowing of the conflict-hungry hype machine. Maybe they should have re-titled it “The Passion of the PR Professionals.”

Belief or hubris?
Neither Mel nor his movie nor its defenders and detractors can take full credit for the larger fracas, of course. People have been quarreling (and worse) over the death of Jesus for centuries. Without indulging the details of the whole socio-religious hubbub, suffice it to say that Gibson has made what he considers to be a deeply faithful and historically accurate screen account of the real-life Christ’s martyrdom, citing the Gospels as a primary source — not just of inspiration, but also empirical information. (If the film wins a screenplay Oscar in ’05, does that mean Mark, Matthew, Luke and John would be entitled to join Gibson and co-writer Benedict Fitzgerald at the podium for high-fives?)

It’s hardly the first time a filmmaker has poured potentially divisive perspectives into ostensibly mainstream work. When Oliver Stone made “JFK”, it seemed clear enough that the director was using his craft to present a version of history that had deep resonance for him, regardless of viewers’ predisposition to believe or disbelieve the conspiracy theories and magic-bullet deconstructions portrayed in the film. Either way, it was an entertaining and aesthetically absorbing movie that sparked more than a few conversations outside the theater.

Of course, the hand-wringing over Gibson’s new work more clearly harkens back to the controversy surrounding the 1988 release of Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” — if from a slightly perpendicular avenue. That film observed Jesus not only in moments of punishing doubt, but also in a hallucinatory hay-roll with Mary Magdalene. By comparison, the “Passion” brouhaha seems esoteric.

But again, I haven’t seen it yet. I only know I’m supposed to look for anti-Semitic undertones because they’ve been so fervently alleged and deflected across international media since before “Matrix: Revolutions” came out.

Another addiction?When Gibson himself recently sat down with Diane Sawyer on ABC’s “Primetime” to discuss the movie and the controversy, he recounted a grim phase of his personal life that led to his rediscovery of and re-dedication to his faith. Watching him admit to the addictive personality that led him down some dark and dangerously depressive corridors, it was hard not to wonder whether his staunch embrace of old-school Catholic ideals might simply represent another kind of addiction. If booze once pushed him to extremes of self-loathing, could the Gospels now be pushing him to extremes of self-righteousness?

Personally, I don’t really question Mel’s motives. In the same Sawyer interview, he emphasized his wish to create a vividly brutal depiction of the crucifixion in hopes that audiences might be able “to see that someone could endure that and still come back with love and forgiveness." You could call that an advertisement for Christianity. You could also call it a violent epic with a tormented martyr for a hero, which is pretty much in line with several of Hollywood’s most successful secular blockbusters (not to mention previous Gibson mainstays including “Mad Max” and “Braveheart”).

At the end of the day, religious beliefs are just as likely as race, gender, sexual orientation, or political conviction to be reflected in a star’s work. The fact in and of itself that Gibson would apply a $25 million budget to a literal-minded adaptation of centuries-old scripture doesn’t make him a religious zealot. But he is clearly religious, and he is definitely zealous, and there’s no reason not to expect those qualities to emerge in his films. Besides, sticking to his Traditionalist Catholic guns and stirring controversy in the press is apt to fuel interest in “The Passion of the Christ” more than any trailer ever could.

Speaking of which, let’s get back to that hand, the one in the trailer. I’ve watched it repeatedly online, and one thing’s got me puzzled: From above, the camera observes a man whom I presume to be Christ drawing a line in the dirt with his right hand. Cut to a close-up, and suddenly it appears to be a left hand. Is it a continuity error? Or is Gibson trying to tell us that Jesus could switch from righty to lefty at the drop of a pebble?

Now there’s a fresh controversy for the Easter brunch table.