By Thane Peterson I took in The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson's controversial new movie, at one of the first showings at a large multiplex near Scranton, Pa. The show started just after noon -- hardly a prime viewing hour -- but the theater was sold out, and the audience watched in a rapt silence I had never experienced during a movie. Afterward, as I exited the theater, a TV reporter was interviewing a young priest. His basic take on the movie was that it is "magnificent."
I'm surprised to say that in many respects I agree. From the pre-release buildup, I had expected a quirky, marginally commercial movie (the dialogue is in Latin and Aramic, for gosh sake, with English subtitles). In most respects, though, it's a classic Hollywood epic that uses every time-honored Tinseltown technique -- from soaring choral music to soft-focus flashbacks to major doses of graphic violence -- to tug the audience's emotions.
I doubt that the movie will foster anti-Semitism, as many critics have suggested it might. The overwhelming impression I came away with is the one I think Gibson intended: the extraordinary sacrifice and torment Christ endured on behalf of mankind, and the relentless, almost gleeful cruelty of the common Roman soldiers who scourged him during his final hours.
SEQUEL-BOUND? One can only hope Gibson isn't an anti-Semite, because my guess is he's going to be a very influential filmmaker from here on out. This movie is likely to be a blockbuster that will make him tons of money. He's widely reported to have financed The Passion of the Christ with $25 million of his own money after it was rejected by the major Hollywood studios.
The movie's success could give Gibson an independent, Christian entertainment franchise, if he chooses to play it that way -- similar to George Lucas' hugely profitable Star Wars franchise. I don't know what sort of sequel Gibson could do, but the New Testament has plenty of pages, and I'm betting he'll do one (or several).
Gibson is far from the first moviemaker to exploit the Passion play commercially. Way back in 1910, one of the first full-length motion-picture productions shown in the U.S. was an hour-and-a-half film of a Passion pageant that has been held in Oberammergau, Germany, every 10 years since 1634. Adolph Zukor, one of Hollywood's founding moguls, got his start in films by buying the rights to show the movie in New Jersey and New York. More recently, directors ranging from Pier Paolo Pasolini to Martin Scorcese have done film versions of the Passion play.
APPROPRIATE VIOLENCE. No one else, though, has whittled the story down to its powerful, violent, and unnerving core in the way Gibson does. Gibson has been harshly criticized for the movie's graphic violence, focusing almost entirely on the horrific last 12 hours of Jesus' life. Probably three-fourths of the film's 126 minutes are devoted to the beating and torture of Christ, mainly by Roman soldiers using multistranded metal-tipped whips that rip his flesh to shreds. His entire body is gradually turned into a ghastly latticework of welts and wounds.
The scene where he's nailed to the cross is almost unbearable. But to me at least, unlike most Hollywood gore, this violence is entirely appropriate to the story. Gibson's whole point is to make us feel the full horror of Christ's torment. Hard as that was to watch, Gibson succeeds.
While I don't think the movie is intended to be anti-Semitic, I question the way Gibson marketed it. It's very disturbing to me that he would make mildly incendiary statements -- that, for instance, seemed to minimize the horrors of the Holocaust -- and then quickly retreat to conciliatory language. This is an old game that's common in Europe but thankfully has largely been stamped out of mainstream American discourse.
WHAT CHRIST STOOD FOR. Gibson's interpretation of the Gospel is also idiosyncratic and seems to go out of its way to blame the Jewish leaders for Christ's death. In Gibson's telling, the Romans don't want to crucify Christ and only reluctantly accede to the Jewish leaders' demands that he be killed. A number of Christian scholars have taken issue with his interpretation. In the end, though, I doubt that such subtleties will stop moviegoers from flocking to this film.
The role the Jewish elders play in Christ's death seems like a minor historical footnote next to the graphic and seemingly endless cruelty of the Roman soldiers who torture and crucify Christ. And the movie's main messages are welcome ones: That Christ stood for peace, tolerance, and love, that political and religious leaders almost inevitably try to destroy prophets of goodness, and that soldiers who are given dominion over the powerless often react with extraordinary cruelty. Hmmm, if those lessons were applied to, say, Iraq and welfare reform, where do you think they would lead us?
Gibson's challenge to the American film status quo may be just beginning. His movie is going to demonstrate just how lucrative and powerful the Christian market really is. You can bet the Christian Right will be heavily lobbying for an Academy Award nod for Best Picture. That could be a real conundrum for Hollywood's heavily Jewish Establishment.
During the culture clashes that ensue from his movie, I just hope Gibson uses any new influence he gains to promote two Judeo-Christian virtues that are all too often forgotten these days: tolerance and understanding. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online