Inside Mel Gibson's "Passion"

A clergyman infiltrates the grass-roots campaign for Gibson's new Gospel film to catch a screening and reports that Jews, Arabs -- and Christians -- should be worried.

By Cintra Wilson
January 28, 2004 3:17AM (UTC)
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The pope gave it two thumbs up. No, the pope didn't give it two thumbs up. Who cares? It's the first movie PR campaign shameless enough to suggest that the pope had any opinion about it at all. Mel Gibson played the pope like a cheap lute.

"The Passion of the Christ," Gibson's new film about the last hours in the life of Jesus, doesn't open until Ash Wednesday (Feb. 25), but it has already inspired stones to be cast across hectares of controversy.


Mel Gibson is a Catholic Traditionalist, an offshoot of Catholicism that rejected the papacy and the reforms of the Vatican II in 1965, which, among other things, repudiated the charge of deicide against the Jews. In light of this -- and Gibson's father having made various inflammatory, crackpot-conspiracy statements about the Holocaust, 9/11, Jews and Freemasons -- anti-Semitism charges against the film may have been inevitable, but they are perhaps not undeserved.

Unable to get the film funded through traditional big-studio means, Mel Gibson ponied up $20 million to 30 million of his own cash for "The Passion." Icon Productions is distributing it for Newmarket Films, but pre-promotional efforts have gotten a whole new twist: a frighteningly well-organized Christian group called Outreach has undertaken a grassroots-style promotion of the film through its Web site Outreach has been responsible for invitational screenings of "The Passion" to select Christian and conservative leaders across the nation.

The Outreach Web site reveals instructions for a church-based PR blitzkrieg for the film that reads like a cross between "How to Rule Mankind via Bodysnatching Pods From Space" and the new Taco Bell menu:


"IS YOUR CHURCH READY? At Outreach, we believe that The Passion of The Christ movie may well be the best outreach opportunity in the last 2,000 years ... The overwhelming feedback has been that the film represents a tremendous opportunity to reach the unchurched with the message of salvation."

The Web site features "Outreach tools" and strategies with corporate-catchy names that are intended to aid the faithful in helping proselytize for the film through their participating church. That includes: "Passion Saturation Mailing: Focus on those parts of your community God is calling you to reach. Mail a The Passion of The Christ ImpactCard to the selected carrier routes in driving range of your church."

"Passion Prayer Walk: Carefully choose a neighborhood you believe God wants you to reach. With multiple prayer teams, walk every street and pray for every house, asking that God would reach each person with the message of the cross through exposure to The Passion of The Christ. Leave a DoorHanger and/or evangelistic booklet at each home encouraging them to see the movie and inviting them to attend a Passion-related event at your church."


Mel's team has invented a Brave New World of promotional advertising: Force-feed a star-power-fueled "Passion" to your friendly neighborhood pastor, then tap into the free labor of the faithful, zealot-y congregation! Way to recoup through Jesus!

The Rev. Mark Stanger, canon precentor and associate pastor of San Francisco's premier mainstream Episcopalian church, Grace Cathedral, was one of the lucky Christian leaders invited to one of Outreach's pre-screenings of "The Passion." Stanger took his mother to Barrington, Ill., to see the tightly guarded film, hosted by Gibson himself, who gave a Q&A afterward. I am lucky to call Stanger a friend, so we dished the dirt about the event. Apparently, not only do the Jews have a legitimate gripe against "The Passion," but so do the Arabs -- yet, according to Father Stanger, the Christians come off worst of all.


Where were the screenings?

There were two showings, and they were at the two premier modern suburban Evangelical churches in the country. One was at Saddleback Community Church in Orange County; the other, where I went, was at Willow Creek in Barrington, Ill.

Somebody told you it was a real red-neck, weirdo community, right?


This guy I know said he wouldn't set foot in there -- not without shots, at least. These places are highly successful. [Willow Creek] is like a modern hotel conference center, with a food court ... the worship space is a huge auditorium, with multi-screens, that seats 4,500 people. As someone from a fairly sensible church, I really felt uneasy in the crowd. I could really see how church freaks some people out. I couldn't put my finger to it, but there was this atmosphere of giddiness and anticipation...

Star-struck craziness...?

Yeah, and also everyone there was white. Any identifiable clergy that I saw were male. There may have been female clergy, but it seemed to be male clergy with their wives in tow, or male clergy with their clergy buddies, or a lot of young male youth-leaders.


Do you think they were mostly Evangelical-style Christians?

I would think so.

This film is being touted as the most factual representation of the crucifixion possible; Mel Gibson has called it the most authentic and biblically accurate film about Jesus' death.

It's absolutely not.


The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John each give different views of the crucifixion.

Mel Gibson in his remarks after the film took a potshot at contemporary biblical scholarship -- he called scholars "revisionists" who think the gospel writers had agendas. They absolutely did have agendas. It's hard to know if [the film is] historically accurate, because Gospel writers were not trying to do an eyewitness report -- they were producing theological, practical documents of faith to answer questions that were appearing in their communities a half-generation and a generation after the death of Jesus. So it was as if the gospel writers themselves were movie makers. They were trying to interpret things in a way that their people could understand it. They're works of art, theological works, not eyewitness reports. But even a CNN eyewitness report has an agenda.

So, Mel Gibson seems to be arguing that the gospels are factual documents.

Exactly. And that all of the references to the Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament, were proof of fulfillment of prophesy, whereas it's most likely that in order to make sense of the events surrounding Jesus' death, the gospel writers searched the Hebrew scriptures to find things.


So, after the crucifixion, writers of the New Testament were looking back at the Old Testament and finding connective threads to make sense of what they were writing?

Yes, exactly, the way anybody looks into their own faith tradition to make sense of traumatic events in their own life. Also, some of these [New Testament authors and their communities] were already being persecuted themselves for their beliefs. So, the way to make sense of that is to show Jesus as a model of patience under suffering. One of the ways [Gibson] tries to produce an air of authenticity in the film is to have the principals speaking Aramaic, the dialect of Hebrew that Jesus would have spoken, and the Roman soldiers and Pilate speaking Latin.

But very chillingly, in the interview after the showing, Mel Gibson said the reason that he had [his cast] speaking those original languages -- and I didn't misinterpret him, because he told a long story to illustrate it -- he said, "If I was doing a film about very fierce, horrible, nasty Vikings coming to invade a town, and had them on their ship with their awful weapons, and they came pouring off the ship ready to slaughter -- to have them speak English wouldn't be menacing enough."

How did that hit you?


I almost puked. It was so xenophobic: The good guys speak English; the bad guys speak these other languages. It wasn't a consistent view, because in the film Jesus was speaking the same language as his tormentors, but even so, I think it was meant to cause confusion and awe in the audience, to have these horrible people speaking either a Semitic or an ancient language like this.

Did you feel like that the use of these ancient languages was a veiled anti-Semitic comment?

Anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim. Some of those words in Aramaic sound a little bit like Arabic -- Arabic is a Semitic language too. [In the film, it came off like] nasty foreigners were doing this thing to our beautiful Jesus. So when Mel Gibson said in the interview that the reason for the other languages was to highlight the brutality, that kind of freaked me out. I could see how it would work on an unsophisticated audience.

It's probably the same feeling that people in Guantánamo Bay have, having had soldiers barking at them in English for two years.

Did you feel in the storytelling there were any particularly glaring omissions or otherwise historically inaccurate stuff?

Not really, except that Jesus' crucifixion was made too singular. This was an ordinary event. Jesus was one of dozens of insurrectionists that the local Roman occupiers would have crucified, but [Gibson] tried to make his suffering especially agonizing and horrible. That was the other subtext -- I thought there was an unspoken assumption that somehow, for Jesus' death to have meaning to believers, it had to be more horrible than any other kind of suffering and death. The film doesn't really say that, but that's the idea, and that's why it has an "R" rating -- for the violence. The protracted scourging.

You felt it was gratuitous violence?

I thought it was sickening. At the screening they were handing out boxes of Kleenex -- they should have handed out barf bags.

Oo! Oooooo!

There was no reason for this [violence], spiritually or theologically. Do you remember in the movie "Gladiator" that short shot where he comes home to find his wife and family crucified, and there was also a report that she had been sexually assaulted beforehand? It was brutal and ugly and horrible, and you didn't need 20 minutes of blood flow to get the message across. I thought "The Passion" was really perverse and really depraved. There's a lot of criticism against the film that it gives a bad picture of Jews -- I think it gives a worse picture of Christians. Holding this up as somehow emblematic of something central to our belief -- this preoccupation with both sin and blood sacrifice -- is just absolutely primitive.

The violence is literally gut-wrenching. My pious mom was there and she felt a knot in her gut from the violence, but she also felt the movie was poorly made. She called it "plodding."

[Cackling] How old is your mom?

She's 76. She was there for the star power. She definitely wanted to see Mel Gibson. That was the other scary thing about the event -- to have 4,500 Christian leaders in one room who were just star struckand gaga.

Do you think this film has the potential to reignite the charge of deicide against the Jews?

Oh, I think it definitely could. It made a big deal of Pilate trying to save Jesus, which doesn't appear in all the Gospels.

In the version you saw, did the Jewish priest Caiaphas intimidate Pontius Pilate into going along with the Crucifixion?

Yeah, pretty much.

Scholars are objecting to this section and saying it distorts the fact that the Romans were the occupying power.

If people want to read something sensible about this whole thing, Raymond E. Brown -- he died about a year ago -- was a great, great Catholic scripture scholar. He wrote a mega-work called "The Death of the Messiah" in 1994 -- two volumes, 1,600 pages. But then he digested [it] down and did a little tiny popular work, a $5 paperback, 71 pages, called "A Crucified Christ in Holy Week." I think that would be the sanest possible book anyone could ever read.

This film had some extra details that came from the visions of whoever, which I've never studied...

She was a 19th century mystic, Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich. Gibson was quoted as saying his script drew from diaries she kept of her visions -- scholars got bent out of shape that he threw in some extra-biblical details derived from her writing.

There are a lot of tormented people who really concentrated on sin and suffering. Even in the Old Testament, in the Psalms, there was an evolution from bloody sacrifice to "a sacrifice of praise," a sacrifice of praise and thanks.

I don't see the point of magnifying the violence of his arrest, torture and death. I find it perverse and strange and really vulgar. As Ray Brown says, the Gospels are pretty straightforward. They arrive at Golgotha, and then it says, "Then they crucified him." They just say it in a little short sentence. They don't say, "They yanked one of Jesus' shoulders out of the socket and they bounced the cross around face down after he was nailed to it." I think some of that came from that wacko woman's vision. People who are psychologically disturbed push that into their religious imagination. Religious imagination is very fertile, and it feeds on human need, so you have to be really careful.

So Mel's vision is morbidly preoccupied with sin and retribution?

Oh, absolutely. And he said so in the interview afterward: "To forgive human sin, there had to be a blood sacrifice." The idea that God is so pissed off that God needs blood to satisfy him -- that is such a primitive notion.

Throw the virgin in the volcano.

The whole idea of Jesus as a life giver, or someone who can transform hearts, or who comes to give abundant life, or the Jesus of John's Gospel, who comes to say, "I come to give living water that will bubble up within you," you know, an almost Gnostic notion -- it so goes against this thing, the Doctrine of the Atonement, which Evangelical Christians and Protestants have read back into the Gospels more heavily than is really there.

How was the preoccupation with sin illustrated in the film?

The "devil" was a kind of androgynous creature, but most people read it as a woman, and called her "The Temptress" -- she was whispering to Jesus on the night before his Passion, saying "Nobody. Nobody can take on the sin of the whole human race. It's too great. Nobody can. You can't do it." And Jesus does!

He paints his face blue, puts on his kilt, and he goes for it!

And when the devil isn't shown as an androgynous or female figure, the devil is shown as a taunting child, which really freaked me out. Really horrible.

Damien in "The Omen II."

Exactly. The parts that are kind of overlooked are Jesus saying, "Love your enemies"; "Those who live by the sword will die by the sword" -- those lines are in there, but...

Kind of glossed over in favor of the heavy blood and guts?


So, Mel was reverting back to Book of Jeremiah, burn-in-a-lake-of-fire, angry God of Abraham stuff?

Oh, yeah. If you believe in monotheism, there is only one God. There's not an Old Testament God and a New Testament God. And there's not a Muslim God and a Christian God. To Mel Gibson's credit, afterward in the interview -- the auditorium got pretty quiet; I almost got up and cheered -- he said, "I believe that through the merits of Jesus' sacrifice, even the people of the Old Testament were all saved." So David is a saint, and Elijah is a saint. And even people who don't know Jesus are able to be saved, but through him. I know that sounds condescending, but it's still a fairly generous remark and that's really the best of Catholic tradition.

Still, the God Mel described then sounds like a God that is a lot more friendly than the one portrayed in the film.

I think ["The Passion"] was meant to be a shocker and a moneymaker. And I don't think it's going to make money, and I think that's why they've had to suck people in. At this showing, there was no room to not like the film. We were supposed to all like it. We were supposed to all be weeping into our Kleenexes. We were supposed to all see this as the greatest opportunity of all time, and then Lee Strobel, "former atheist," who wrote "The Case for Christ" and "The Case for Faith," said ["The Passion"] was "An anointed piece of art." That God "selected" Mel to do this.

That's spooky. Frank Rich made an interesting point in his New York Times column: that the audiences that have been selected to see this film before the release are all very conservative Christians like the Senate Republican Conference, the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, and Rush Limbaugh -- but it hasn't been shown to critics or Bible scholars or Jewish groups. Do you think Mel knows he has something to worry about, here?

I just don't think it's very well done. I think if someone wants to get into some interesting cinematic treatments, they should go see "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" by Pasolini. Or even the old Hollywood blockbusters. ["The Passion"] reflects a very morbid kind of theology. If the idea is to just provoke, it may do that. I thought it was a lot of dull, unless you like watching protracted torture scenes.

So you didn't feel like it was going to be a tool of great conversion or anything.

No, not at all. It's 100 percent Hollywood trash. There's so many stories that can illumine the meaning of suffering and redemption and forgiveness, and renewal of life, and they're not all in the Bible.

What would be your advice for would-be moviegoers?

I'd say don't bother. I think it's a big bore.

I think a 5-year-old who has to get cancer surgery and radiation and chemotherapy suffers more than Jesus suffered; I think that a kid in the Gaza Strip who steps on a land mine and loses two limbs suffers more; I think a battered wife with no resources suffers more; I think people without medical care dying of AIDS in Africa suffer more than Jesus did that day. I mean, I don't want to take away from that, but this preoccupation with the intensity of the suffering, I think, has no theological or spiritual value.

Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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