After the Passion
Now that all the hype surrounding The Passion of the Christ has died down, it’s time to reflect on the results of Mel Gibson’s blockbuster film. Did the movie change attitudes about Christianity? Did it increase anti-Semitism? Will its success result in more films with a religious theme? Has Gibson become the High Priest of Hollywood?
I added that last question after reading about Gibson jumping from Number 15 to Number 10 on Premiere magazine’s list of The 100 Most Powerful People in Movies -- and because I’ve heard rumors about Gibson taking over Walt Disney Productions. He’s certainly proved adept at producing a huge box office bonanza. The Passion, his ultra-graphic depiction of the Crucifixion, has earned close to 400 million dollars in the U.S. so far, and it’s still going strong on the international scene. Not bad for a movie turned down by major studios.
As most people already know, Gibson put 30 million dollars of his own into the film (that was finally picked up by Newmarket Films) and did bravura PR for it himself. Clearly, this megastar-turned-movie-mogul has earned increased respect among Hollywood VIPs because of the The Passion’s money-making clout. According to Variety, without Mel’s film, the 2004 overall (pre-Shrek 2) box office figure would have been 12% below the total for that same period last year. The DVD version, scheduled for release on August 31, should also bring in big profits.
Without a doubt, watching The Passion represented a moving religious experience for many in the audience. The film also generated increased interest about Jesus and Christianity. But did it change people's attitudes or beliefs? Perhaps for some viewers. Nevertheless, I think Richard A. Blake, S.J., professor of fine arts and co-director of the film studies program at Boston College, made fairly accurate predictions in “Mel O’Drama,” his aptly titled piece for America magazine (March 15, 2004). “The baggage audiences bring into the theater they will have to carry out,” he writes. “Evangelicals and traditionalists will be deeply moved by the vividness of the Passion and will continue to market posters and study guides about it to further their outreach. Mainstream Protestants and Vatican II Catholics will be dismayed at the absence of theological reflection and historical contexts.”
And yet, Changed Lives: Miracles of The Passion, Jody Eldred’s new documentary for PAX television, reports there have been “lives saved from the brink of death, relationships restored, diseases healed and spiritual awakenings” brought about as a result of Gibson’s film. For example, one man confessed to the murder of his girlfriend -- and attributed his admission to seeing The Passion.
The film's potential to fuel anti-Semitism worried me considerably when I first heard about its widespread release. The timing of such a movie seemed dangerous to me, and I fretted over the hostile discussions on message boards by usually courteous and professional film critics -- who posted their angry comments even before seeing The Passion. And there was that infamous, horrifying "Christ Killers" church marquee. However, the movie itself doesn’t discriminate where guilt is concerned. There’s enough to go around for everyone. As Donald J. Levit writes in his ReelTalk review, “(The Passion’s) snaggletoothed soldiers are no worse than bored troops uncomfortably overseas anywhere or the masses no more fickle and bloody-minded than Shakespeare’s Plebeian ‘blocks, stones, worse than senseless things of basest metal’ -- not the anti-Semitic stereotypes whipped up by hungry media.”
No doubt the success of The Passion of the Christ will usher in a host of new religious movies. Gibson himself announced he’s interested in doing Maccabaeus, a film about a Jewish hero who lived back in 166 B.C. And why not? It’s another story rife with torture and martyrdom. As for me, I’m praying for a successful religious movie emphasizing love and hope, not graphic violence. That would be a real miracle. My good friend César González echoed this prayer when he wrote, "It is not the expiatory/suffering aspect of the Passion that is central to satisfaction for sin -- it is the central reparation of love, the turn-your-heart-back-to-me that matters." Amen.