Holy Hypocrisies

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Liberals—and being a member of the media, I of course count myself among them—can be a pretty funny bunch. When we are sympathetic to a controversial work of pop culture, we invoke the artist's right to create in an climate of total freedom, whatever feelings of outrage the work may stoke among the ignorati. (That is: other people.) When we disapprove, we talk about his responsibility to the sensitivities and sensibilities of good people. (That is: us.) So, in the aesthetico-religious sphere, we defend Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, which portrays Jesus as a human who slowly learns he's divine, and Kevin Smith's Dogma, a raw comedy about an abortion-clinic worker who is a lineal descendant of Jesus. Anyway, I defended these films in TIME, and I took at face value the testimony of Scorsese, who once contemplated entering the priesthood, and Smith, who describes himself as a devout Catholic, that their films were acts of faith.

The latest film of faith, by the movie industry's other Church-going Catholic, Mel Gibson, has received a frostier, more fulminating response. Critics of the film—and I don't mean film critics— haven't been content with saying they hate the film. Actually, it would be hard for them to do that, since most of them hadn't seen it when they spouted off. (Liberals used to deride those religious conservatives who organized protests of films they hadn't yet seen.) Instead, they wrap their bludgeons in Scripture, or historical citations, or obscure pronouncements from a religious hierarchy, or dark threats of the harm a movie can do. Some of them seem to have have a cell-phone connection to the Throne of Heaven.

God spoke to Andy Rooney; he (Rooney) told us so on 60 Minutes this week. The Almighty roused Mr. Eyebrows from the slumber of the senescent and confided, "Mel is a real nut case. What in the world was I thinking when I created him? Listen, we all make mistakes." Then Rooney had a question of his own for Gibson: "How many million dollars does it look as if you're going to make off the crucifixion of Christ?"

As Bart Simpson would say, that's funny for so many reasons. Only a few weeks ago, movie insiders were confidently predicting that Gibson would lose his hairshirt over this movie—the $30 million of his own money it took to produce, plus another bundle for prints and advertising. Now that the film has registered the highest opening-day midweek gross of any non-sequel in North American box office history, Gibson's supposed to be a panderer, pimping Christ's suffering to audiences who didn't realize they needed to see their personal Redeemer get scourged for the longer part of two hours. You tell me, Andy: How many millions did Cecil B. DeMille make off his silent-film smash The King of Kings? How many billions do the movie and TV moguls make each year portraying, in a manner that doesn't even attempt to be edifying, human suffering, mutilation and humiliation—for cheap thrills or cheaper laughs?

On Wednesday, PBS' Charlie Rose convened a panel of savants to hash out the controversy of the film's purported anti-Semitism and Gibson's provocative and defensive public statements. A hash some of them made of it. Leading the attack, Vanity Fair's Christopher Hitchens appropriated rhetorical tactics employed by both political fringes. Like some segments of the Christian right when Last Temptation and Dogma came out, he called for a boycott of a film he apparently had not seen. And he exhumed that favorite old pejorative of the Bolsheviks, fascist: he said the movie is "quite distinctly fascist in intention," adding that it is "an incitement to sadomasochism, in the less attractive sense of the word." Hitchens let viewers wonder for a moment which kind he preferred, then clarified his definition: the film, he insisted, is "an appeal to the gay Christian sadomasochistic niche market." That must explain the movie's $23 million opening day. Pretty big niche.

Donning canonical robes, Hitchens found Gibson in violation of canon law. Hitchens declared that "He specifically rejects the findings of the Second Vatican Council," which absolved Jews of culpability in Jesus' death. But the Council "found" a lot of things; what Gibson disputed was not the resolution of the Jewish question but, for example, the abrupt shift in the Liturgy from Latin to the the faithful's own modern language. Another panelist, Newsweek's Jon Meacham, added the observation that "The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued pastoral guidelines about how believers should dramatize the Passion ... almost every one of which Gibson violates." A renegade Catholic, if Gibson is one, would be happy to diss and disobey the bishops. But what other movie has been charged by journalists with such an arcane crime?

Plenty of commentators have criticized Gibson's defense-cum-promotion of The Passion as meso-Messianic. When he declines to denounce his father Hunter, an extreme religious and political right-winger who has in articles and interviews come close to denying the Nazi holocaust, Mad Mel is supposedly seeing himself as the suffering Jesus and his dad as God the Father—He who demands the ultimate sacrifice, He who must be obeyed. Mel has also sounded addled, even paranoid, when he said that making this movie was putting his career on the line. But, as the saying goes, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean you can't be persecuted. Every studio turned down The Passion when Gibson shopped it last summer. They stayed away from it because it was too hot, in what Hitchens would describe as "the less attractive sense of that word." That wouldn't mean much for standard religious bio-pics, which are usually financed by church organizations, shown in remote locations and unknown to the mass moviegoing public. But Gibson is one of the world's top stars, whose last 10 major-studio films (since Braveheart) have grossed a cumulative $1.27 billion at the North American box office and a similar amount abroad. Signs, his last movie as an actor, grossed nearly $400 million worldwide. And though he's not on screen in The Passion (except for a closeup of his hand driving the first nail into Christ on the cross), he has made himself the movie's star, poster boy, and chief proselytizer.

He is also, as Hollywood must acknowledge, among the canniest of filmmakers. Braveheart, the last film he helmed, won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. So Gibson might have expected a few nibbles from the major studios for his latest historical epic. Now that The Passion has opened vigorously, and has a chance to become the biggest foreign-language hit in American movie history, the studio sultans might be a tad annoyed with themselves that they turned down a sleeper hit they could have nabbed for peanuts last summer.

Even if the Hollywood hierachy is vexed or embarrassed by the Gospel according to Gibson—you may expect a few barbs thrown his way by Billy Crystal this Sunday at the Academy Awards— it is unlikely to shun him. This is, after all, a business that hires actors and directors who happen to be drug addicts, spouse-abusers and convicted felons. One man convicted of child molestation has directed films for Disney and New Line. Gibson's criminal rap sheet is clean; he is guilty only of standing by his deluded old man and expressing opinions that are less popular in Hollywood than they are in the rest of the country. So my bet is that the studios will keep hiring him, for two reasons. One: they believe in box office, and Mel delivers it for them. Two: they could then boast they have hired at least a token religious right-winger.

Decades ago, Hollywood regularly produced religious films: The Song of Bernadette, The Bells of St. Mary's, The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima. The bosses who financed these pictures may not have liked them or shared the beliefs expressed in them, but they had their reasons for greenlighting them. One is that they often made money. Another is that the mood of the country was more pious. Today, a fervent Christian conviction—so often aligned with belligerent conservatism—is, to many in the media, a threat or a joke. They don't understand religious devotion, at least in the less attractive sense of the term. They are much more comfortable producing anti-religious entertainment (all the comedies that make mock of God, Jesus and the clergy) than some sweet sappy Nun's Story.

The attitude goes beyond religion. For better or worse, the current tone is skeptical, derisive and gross. Years ago, American Pie replaced American piety. A lot of movie people don't respect Gibson?s obsession with his Passion project; they are offended by it; fear it. And I'll bet, since the movie could earn huge profits for Gibson and his distribution partners, they resent it.

It happens that I like R-rated movies, South Park, certain naughty songs and dirty jokes — and, with some strong reservations, The Passion of the Christ. And I don't feel threatened that a lot of people who don't ordinarily go to movies have flocked to Gibson's film. Neither should the studios. Religious films could be a tattered genre Hollywood could revive, making a few bucks and a lot of converts to the old magic of movies. At least, it would indicate that liberal Hollywood isn't afraid of serving up the occasional helping of traditional values alongside its usual smorgasbord of guns, fists, tits and smirk.