By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Gibson and his people got oodles of free publicity by pointedly excluding Jewish viewers from early screenings — playing Rich for a patsy in the process. Later, they claimed to have gotten an Ebert-style “thumbs-up” from Pope John Paul II, the very man Gibson and his father actually disdain as a false pontiff, a betrayer of the true faith. Gibson may genuinely want to spread the gospel, but he’s not exactly heroic about it. For centuries, missionaries bravely ventured into foreign lands where merely expressing their beliefs could get them killed. Ever the Hollywood control freak, Mel didn’t want to show his movie to anyone who might not be with the program. It’s not for nothing that his company’s called Icon Productions.
The PR strategy obviously worked. Not only has the movie sold millions of dollars’ worth of advance tickets — Variety predicts it will turn a tidy profit — but it’s gobbled up acres of free publicity. Much of the mainstream media seems to have been mau-maued into treating the film as a Serious Event. Tuesday’s L.A. Times took the depressingly unprecedented step of running its (negative) review on the front page, as if the film were a big news story — “Extry, Extry, read all about it: Messiah nailed to cross. Jews under arrest.” The movie also received schizophrenic reviews from mainstream critics like Time’s Richard Corliss, who, after beginning with obligatory praise for Gibson’s integrity and craftsmanship and blah-blah-blah, makes it clear that he dislikes the film and detests its unrelentingly sadistic delight in Christ’s torture. “He takes a flaying and keeps on praying,” writes Corliss, who credits The Passion of the Christ with inventing a new genre — “the religious splatter-art film.”
Although the discussion leading up to the film’s release focused on whether it might spark violence against Jews, an even larger story may be the ongoing clash between fundamentalism (in this case, Gibson’s dangerously blinkered, old-school Catholicism) and the whole of our mass media, which is itself a kind of modern church. Because it’s rooted in secularism, pluralism and materialism, this media culture prefers to deal with religion as lifestyle accessory (Buddhism is cool), social philosophy (anti-war priests), comforting spiritualism (Joan of Arcadia) or time-honored metaphor (Willem Dafoe as a Christ-figure in Platoon). Faced with hardcore faith in sacred mysteries, most mediacrats don’t quite know what to do. This was obvious in Gibson’s Primetime interview with Diane Sawyer, who acted as if she’d never before met a true believer. At one point she solemnly asked, “Do you believe that God wrote this film?” The question struck me as utterly clueless — but Mel paused to think about it.
And so, I suspect, would millions of other Americans. One reason the coverage of Gibson’s movie has been so hysterical is that the high-powered editors and producers on the two coasts have finally begun to grasp just how thoroughly contemporary America has become steeped in religion. After all, it’s one thing to know abstractly that 60 percent of Americans believe in the mumbo-jumbo of Creationism, quite another to have a born-again president address the issue of evolution by saying, “Religion has been around a lot longer than Darwin.” It’s one thing for that faceless 60 percent to think that the Bible is accurate history, quite another for a world-famous movie star to insist that the gospels are literally true. (By the way, do you think that 60 percent of modern Greeks believe that Zeus and Hera actually lived on Mount Olympus?)
For those of us who are devout nonbelievers, the international resurgence of “traditional” religion is dreadful news, whether it’s murderous Islamist militants with an eye on celestial virgins, expansionist Israeli settlers who believe their God gave Jews the land, Hindu fundamentalists who burn Muslims to death in Indian religious riots or literal-minded Christians who believe their purchase on the truth overrides the Constitution (think of Judge Roy Moore and his 10 Commandments statue) or any concern about the polarizing anger their beliefs might engender. As one faithful to secular, tolerant democracy, I happily defend Gibson’s right to make The Passion of the Christ and to show it wherever he can — he’s entitled to his religious beliefs. But as one who thinks that Christianity is only one myth among many — “Christianism,” my old colleague Michael Ventura liked to call it — I wonder whether Mel would do the same for me.