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A $25 Million Bully Pulpit

A review of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.

“It’s only a movie, Ingrid.” —Alfred Hitchock to Ingrid Bergman

What is there left to say about Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004)? Can there be a sentient being anywhere who’s unfamiliar with this phenomenon? Ideologues have spoken, audiences are voting (more than generously) with their ticket stubs, and marketing gurus have revised their curricula. No mention of Uncle Oscar, but the inevitable “two thumbs way up” has appeared on the movie poster. Sermons have been preached, talk shows are being watched and every publication in the hemisphere has run some kind of review.

“[A] personal message movie of the most radical kind, attempting to recreate events of personal urgency to Gibson,” writes Roger Ebert. “It is a film about an idea. An idea that it is necessary to fully comprehend The Passion if Christianity is to make any sense. Gibson has communicated his idea with a single-minded urgency.” (Chicago Sun-Times, February 24, 2004)

There are aspects of this Barnum and Bailey world which might give us pause.

For a start, this vanity production reflects the disquieting trend in culture and politics whereby money no longer just talks, it’s becoming the exclusive agenda setter. Mr. Smith isn’t going to Washington anymore, except in art house retrospectives; only Mr. Big Oil or Mr. 57 Varieties can afford the fare. And with The Passion, the whole country is talking about a (possibly) sectarian savior because Mad Mel, Superstar, could put up his own money—some $25m and counting—for a pulpit.

The concentration of agenda-setting in the very rich—be they public figures such as politicians and artists, private media conglomerates, or secret concerns like the manufacturers of war and other administration policy—is as dangerous to democracy as it is anathema to it. It’s obviously Gibson’s right to spend the legitimately earned profits of a successful career on a vanity project, as it is his right to pursue whatever religious or other motivations that lay behind his work. And the marketing acumen driving The Passion’s success is phenomenal. However, we should fear for a world in which all the microphones of civic discourse must be bought, where free expression comes with a price tag, even as the library choices of the unrich may be legally monitored in secret for unacceptable content. Put simply, that’s fascism.

As writer-director, Gibson has insisted that his presentation of events is historically and Biblically accurate; a non-negotiable accuracy he claims from what might be perceived as a fully paid-up bully pulpit. Reputable scholars, however, have taken issue, notably the prolific Elaine Pagels, author of Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (2003) and The Gnostic Gospels (1989) among other relevant titles. (The New Yorker, March 8, 2004)

Indeed, Gibson chauvinistically assumes that his audience is thoroughly familiar with the events of Christ’s passion and its spiritual significance as he sees them. And for the most part, they are. Gibson is talking to a self-contained, smug constituency. (Alas, my companion lost vital parts of the plot along the way. So much for the expository skills of the filmmaker.)

Inevitably, vociferous parsing of theological nuance and gesture was to be overheard during and after the screening I attended; post-facto consultants every one, whose opinion of the film was clearly based on the extent to which Gibson’s version of contested fact matched their own. Writing of this audience in The Village Voice, commentator Richard Goldstein went so far as to suggest that The Passion of the Christ “may be the first major work of modern right-wing popular art.” (February 25-March 2, 2004)

In its very popularity, how can the movie attract a charge of contributing, however obliquely, to fascism? Aren’t conservative supporters of The Passion simply exercising their rights of free speech and free association? Yes, they are. And the skill with which the grassroots Christian right has been galvanized through precedent-setting internet marketing stands as an interesting counterpoint to presidential hopeful Howard Dean’s internet initiatives at the political center.

E-electioneering, propelled by the vision of Dean’s innovative campaign manager Joe Trippi, has plausibly been credited with recruiting a new generation of political activists and revitalizing the hitherto somnolent Democratic Party. Gibson’s Icon Productions took the strategy one step further: online sales of zip-code specific ticket vouchers created a demand for wide ranging distribution by delivering a pre-sold audience to local movie theaters. Voucher sales (and the accompanying once-off service charge!), were also promoted through Christian right and fundamentalist websites, where multiple orders were encouraged. All the faithful needed was a credit card (MC or Visa, no AMEX or Discover).

Given the historic success of this strategy, we can confidently expect to see a lot more of this appeal to the growing internet market. Anything can be sold on the web, even in dead languages! However, a concern must be raised that the only ideas filtering through to the mainstream belong to deep pockets.

Marketing for The Passion did not engage with the controversy it deliberately stoked, nor is its primary constituency interested in spiritual dialogue. Gibson’s brand of hardline Catholicism, together with its Christian fundamentalist fellow-travelers, explicitly rejects ecumenism. In an infamous PR gesture, for example, the “blood libel” reference so offensive to Jews was removed only from the English-language subtitles of US release prints; the line itself remains. Thus the well publicized efforts of the Anti-Defamation League come to very little. (Indeed, some opinion suggests that the ADL’s objections to the film unwittingly prompted far more media coverage than might have been otherwise achieved, and was ultimately counterproductive. On its own merits, the argument runs, Gibson’s movie would have run out of steam sooner.)

And what of the movie itself? At first glance, a perfectly competent telling, replete with standard Hollywood values, learned from first-hand experience in the business. It’s unlikely to make the American Film Institute’s top 100 list, but entertaining enough in its way. The androgynous Devil, played by Italian actress Rosalinda Celentano, who looked like an escapee from an altogether different kind of movie, jarred, but the character is integral to the story.

More awful still is the epilogue—that is to say, the Resurrection: the pivotal moment in the hero’s journey that is the life of Jesus—here reduced to afterthought and looking woefully tacked-on in the best tradition of the unlikely happy ending; cue, heavenly chorus.

As for the violence: if it succeeds unequivocally at anything, The Passion is revelatory of man’s inhumanity to man. But as movie violence goes, don’t we remember James Cagney with the grapefruit in The Public Enemy (1931) or Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death (1947)? These moments still shock. And there was a protracted discussion in the 1960s about movie violence, prompted by Bonnie and Clyde, Straw Dogs and the original Death Wish, among others. Consensus opinion at the time resolved the issue as one of appropriateness.

The violence of The Passion is surely appropriate to the material.

But the passions this violence kindles are not, and herein lies a second concern. Consider the case of hapless Tyler Wendell, a 19-year-old University of Southern Indiana freshman, who attended a screening dressed as the devil. According to local reports, “Many patrons jeered Wendell as he stood in line for concessions. Once inside the movie, Christians began pelting Wendell with Gummy Bears, Ju-Ju Bees, and popcorn. Management got involved after a 75-yearold woman, Hazel Meyer, poured a 64-ounce Coca-Cola on Wendell. Tim Tolbert, General Manager of Kerasotes Stadium 16, asked Wendell to leave because he was such a disruptive presence.” (Hoosier Gazette, March 2, 2004)

“Love ye one another,” Jesus counseled. To the disinterested, however, the history of Christianity must read like a revenge saga, an endless vendetta against the Jews certainly, and against the heretical within the walls. The 17th century European religious wars were fought over just such post- Reformation nuances as were overheard at Regal Cinemas and Kerasotes Stadium. Wars in which real live people died horrible deaths.

In short, Mel Gibson has indeed made a provocative movie “of the most radical kind.”

A friend who occasionally celebrates mass at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Baltimore explained the difference between the crucifix hanging over the pulpit and the plain cross on the altar. This committed Christian told me what the nuns at school did not: the crucifix signifies the passion, the plain cross refers to the resurrection; that is, the two together provide a representation of the whole Christ story, not just the gory bit.

And this is the final concern. In choosing to focus on what Catholic theologian Mary Daly has called “a dying man on a dead tree,” Gibson and his traditionalists may stand accused of misrepresenting the Christian story of love, sacrifice and renewal, and to their own earthly ends. Interview protestations to the contrary, The Passion of the Christ is not a document of divine love and does no service either to the historical Jesus or the Christian god.

We know now that this will not be just a nine-day wonder, but, as one who should know put it memorably: “It’s only a movie.”


Irish reproductive rights activist Ruth Riddick is former press officer of the Cork International Film Festival and film diarist with the Irish Times.

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