The Last Vexation of Mel

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LAST RITES: Gibson, center, with a fake-bloodied Caviezel, wanted to show how grisly the final hours of Christís life really were

Not often does a movie get the kind of prerelease raves that have greeted Mel Gibson's The Passion. "Could fuel hatred, bigotry and anti-Semitism" (the Anti-Defamation League). "Could readily promote anti-Semitism" (Sister Mary C. Boys of New York City's Union Theological Seminary). Some critics predicted toxic damage: "Its real tinder-box effect could be abroad," wrote Frank Rich in the New York Times, "where anti-Semitism has metastasized since 9/11." In the usually sober pages of the New Republic, Paula Fredriksen, the Aurelio Professor of Scripture at Boston University, warned, "When violence breaks out, Mel Gibson will have a much higher authority than professors and bishops to answer to." That's when, not if.

Makes you wonder what they'll say when they actually see the movie.

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Months before its release, Gibson's movie, starring James Caviezel as Jesus, has stoked an incendiary debate on issues both fundamental and touchy: artistic freedom vs. historical accuracy, Catholic traditionalism vs. Jewish sensibilities. Often these issues clash within the combatants, as Jewish rabbis and writers, by nature defenders of the First Amendment, now call for Gibson to edit his film to their wishes — and Jewish movie people defend a project that has outraged their brethren.

From the outset, The Passion — a Jesus film that underlined the story's physical and emotional violence — was bound to start arguments. For extra realism, dialogue is in Aramaic and Latin (though some scholars say the Romans in Palestine spoke Greek). To accent the strangeness, there are no subtitles (that's being rethought). A $25 million film directed, co-scripted and self-financed by a famous Catholic conservative.

The Passion punch-up broke out when Gibson's father Hutton, 85, a rabid Catholic traditionalist who writes treatises on the perceived lapses of Mother Church, denied the Nazi Holocaust in the New York Times Magazine. Now Gibson should no more be blamed for the sins of the father than Arnold Schwarzenegger is. But Mel, who attends Latin Mass, is outspoken against the Vatican's reforms of the 1960s. Some say he saw The Passion as his own declaration of Catholic fundamentalism. He wanted to steamroller the new Catholic orthodoxy, not steam up a host of biblical scholars.

Religious films are notoriously hard to market. The U.S. is stocked with believers, but they don't often go to movies made for them. Some films financed by Christian groups, like The Omega Code, have relied on grass-roots campaigns to spread the word, with mixed results. For the animated Moses film The Prince of Egypt, producer Jeffrey Katzenberg consulted hundreds of religious leaders and scholars, then made changes to placate the experts and avoid the sort of controversy that is hurting The Passion.

To Gibson, apparently, winning ecumenical approval is less important than being true to his bold vision. But he did hold early screenings, stacking the audience with clerics, scholars and media types who would probably like it. That annoyed some of the uninvited, whose antennas had detected trouble when a group of interfaith scholars got an early version of the screenplay and criticized it for historical errors and unfairness to the Jewish figures in the story. (Gibson threatened to sue over what his company called a "stolen" script.)

In Houston this month, Gibson screened the unfinished film for a group of Catholic, Jewish and Protestant leaders — all of whom signed a confidentiality agreement. That day one of the attendees, Rabbi Eugene Korn, director of Interfaith Affairs at the Anti-Defamation League, told the Houston Chronicle, "We still have grave concerns," and the ADL elaborated on them in a press release. This breach rankled other leaders, who signed a group letter sent privately to the ADL (a draft of which was obtained by TIME): "The Passion is a powerful and graphic film ... We do not all agree on the effect, presentation or accuracy of the film. [But] we are deeply disappointed in and saddened by the tactics employed by Rabbi Eugene Korn and the Anti-Defamation League ... We call on Rabbi Korn and the ADL to apologize to Mel Gibson."

Gibson's Hollywood posse is in his corner. "The story is controversial," says Joel Silver, who has produced five Mel-odramas (four Lethal Weapons and a Conspiracy Theory). "What this man [Jesus] was doing was new; people felt threatened by it and wanted him gone. Well, Mel's taken this timeless story and made it feel contemporary, as he did with Braveheart."

Dean Devlin, co-producer of Gibson's Braveheart, is also passionate for The Passion. "I thought it was an amazingly powerful piece of work," he says. "I didn't find it in the least bit anti-Semitic, and I'm Jewish. In the film I saw, everybody turns against Christ. This film doesn't cast blame on anyone. It casts blame on everyone. The last thing Mel wanted was for anyone to try to use this to justify hatred."

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