By Alan Scherstuhl
By Amy Nicholson
By Charles Taylor
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Brian Feinzimer
By CAROLINA DEL BUSTO
By AMY NICHOLSON
By Amy Nicholson
Illustration by James McHughGenerations ago, film exhibitors used to dread the springtime "Lenten slump," when many Catholics atoned for their sins by giving up the movies. If Hollywood's most famous Catholic has his way, though, the pious will kick off Lent at their local movie house. On Feb. 25, Ash Wednesday, Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ will finally arrive in theaters, more than a year after the project first began fomenting controversy for its brutal, exhaustive depiction of Jesus Christ's last 12 hours as a mortal man.
Alternately praised as a "miracle" and condemned as anti-Semitic medievalism by the few who have seen it, the film might prove a must-see rumpus or a cross to bear for independent distributor Newmarket Films, which recently scored a decidedly more low-profile success with the art-house sleeper Whale Rider.
"The Holy Ghost," Gibson has claimed, "was working through me on this film"—and perhaps not for the first time. His canon may heavily favor jokey action thrillers and grandiose war pics, but closer scrutiny reveals that Gibson (who does not appear in The Passion of Christ) has long been in piecemeal rehearsals for his divisive passion play. As his clout and asking price have increased over the decades, so has the degree of Christian overtones and iconography in his films. (Passion marks only the third time Gibson has taken the director's chair, but his oeuvre presents an excellent argument for the actor-as-auteur.)
Gibson belongs to the fringe Traditionalist wing of Catholicism, a movement that rejects the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council. Among other reforms, Vatican II replaced Latin mass with local-language services and issued the grievously belated Nostra Aetate, which absolved Jews from collective guilt in Christ's death. In The Passion of Christ (on which Gibson and his production company Icon have spent some $25 million), the actors ahistorically converse in Latin (and Aramaic), and Gibson originally planned to eschew subtitles—perhaps to rekindle the wonder, or at least the bemusement, felt by the millions of Catholics who couldn't understand much of mass pre-Vatican II.
Whether Gibson acknowledges the Nostra Aetate in his Passion remains to be seen; early signs look very dismal indeed, according to findings by an interfaith group of scholars who examined a draft of the script. (Newmarket has not yet screened the film for critics and did not respond to requests for comment.)
Conservative if not Traditionalist, Gibson's typical onscreen persona might suggest a stoic priest surrogate, a complex martyr, even a Christ figure. In last year's Book of Revelation rewrite, Signs, perhaps his most overtly devotional film pre-Passion, a former reverend played by Gibson discovers—after an alien invasion, naturally—that both his wife's horrific death and his son's near-fatal asthma are cogs in the divine wheel: God working in mysterious ways. Aside from near-constant bereavement (the actor also portrays a widower in the Mad Max and Lethal Weapon series, Braveheart, and The Patriot), movie after movie finds him variously tortured, scarred, smeared in his own blood—at the end of Ransom, he looks like the post-prom Carrie—and, yes, resurrected.
Is The Passion of Christ an autobiopic?
In Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, a desert outpost of orphaned kids greet Gibson's nomad as their messiah; one of their paintings illustrates a larger-than-life Max in a Jesus Christ pose, his outstretched arms lined with tiny child-figures. In Conspiracy Theory, Gibson's jabbering paranoiac (who, incidentally, calls the Vatican "a festering scab") is kidnapped, poked with truth-serum hypos, and finally shot dead by CIA agents; romantic interest Julia Roberts weeps at his grave, but minutes later, there's our Mel, alive and kicking and eager to reveal himself to his beloved. In Forever Young, Gibson rises after 50-plus years in a cryogenic chamber to the screaming horror of two boys: "It's a dead guy!" In Payback, maternal hooker Maria Bello is more polite: "You look pretty good for a dead guy," she tells career criminal Porter, previously left writhing and gargling blood on a garage floor after his junkie wife shot him in the back. The unkillable Porter is subsequently struck by a car, multiply pounded to a pulp, and made the barefoot subject of a "This Little Piggy" game played by a henchman with a hammer. (Regarding Porter's mashed toes, an observer muses, "They're starting to look like roast beef.") Porter later engineers an apparently impossible escape from a car-trunk tomb, then limps into the arms of Bello's Mary Magdalene. Happy Easter!
Such endurance tests apparently extend offscreen as well: "I just know I'm going to get crucified," Gibson said before the release of his previous directing effort. Braveheart is the grisly creation-mythos of medieval Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace—embodied by, who else, Gibson—and possibly the urtext for The Passion of Christ. (In his first go-round as actor/director, The Man Without a Face, Gibson played a loner disfigured by burns and suspected of a crime lately associated with the Catholic priesthood: pedophilia.) Charges of homophobia and rabid Brit-baiting indeed flew at Braveheart, which nonetheless won Oscars in 1996 for best picture and director. Braveheart's ample impalings, throat slicings, spearings, and hatchetings, not to mention its close acquaintance with arrows snagged in human flesh, may provide a warm-up for Passion's already well-documented barbarities. There's even a run-through for the crucifixion. When Wallace refuses to confess to treason —like Christ, remaining mostly silent before his judge—he endures his own Stations of the Cross: pelted with rotten produce by a screaming mob, hung until barely conscious, put on the rack, laid out on a cross to be disemboweled, and at last decapitated. Unlike Jesus, hardass Wallace doesn't ask why God has forsaken him. Instead, he sounds a Dubyan blanket battle cry: "FREEDOM!"
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