By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Generations 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 February 25, Ash Wednesday, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the 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 the 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. (Passionmarks only the third time Gibson has taken the director's chair, but his oeuvre presents an excellent argument for the actor-as-auteur.)
Lethal Weapon (1987)
(photo: Staci Schwartz)
J. Hoberman's review of The Passion of the Christ
"The Backlash Passion: a Messianic Meller for Our Time" by Richard Goldstein
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 Revelation rewrite, Signs, perhaps his most overtly devotional film pre-Passion, a former reverend played by Gibson discoversafter an alien invasion, naturallythat 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 Maxand Lethal Weaponseries, Braveheart, and The Patriot), movie after movie finds him variously tortured, scarred, smeared in his own bloodat the end of Ransom he looks like the post-prom Carrieand, yes, resurrected. Is The Passion of the Christ an autobiopic?
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
(photo: Staci Schwartz)
Such endurance tests apparently extend off-screen 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 Wallaceembodied by, who else, Gibsonand possibly the urtext for The Passion of the 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 treasonlike Christ, remaining mostly silent before his judgehe 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!"