California Aggie
Monday, March 15, 2004

He died for our cinema

By JACOB TOOTALIAN

Stop me if you've heard this one: A priest, a rabbi, and a columnist walk into a movie theater. Okay, there's no punch line, but that has not stopped Mel Gibson from laughing all the way to the bank after the success of his controversial pet project/act of divine catharsis The Passion of The Christ.

The film, which Gibson reportedly financed with $25 million of his own, has achieved blockbuster status. While he may have been aiming for a religious experience, the former Lethal Weapon star hit the jackpot with his portrayal of the last 12 hours of Jesus' life. In fact, the film has been so successful that Mike Pasternack of Bongo News has declared that "Jesus is now more popular than John Lennon."

Despite the movie's financial triumph, though, Gibson's Passion has been at the center of ongoing controversy even before it was released. An early copy of the script had some accusing the film of being anti-Semitic. It does, after all, depict the dominant Pharisees, a conservative Jewish sect, as the driving force behind the events that led to the crucifixion.

The actual circumstances, though, remain subject to both theological and historical debate. While Gibson did have to provide the financial backing for the project himself, the fact that it made it to the big screen at all should dispel the myth that Jews run Hollywood.

But like the hesitance Gibson was met with in the film industry, some Jewish and Christian leaders have voiced their fears that Passion may cause strained relations between their two communities. For intelligent viewers, that makes as much sense as Godzilla causing strained relations between residents of Tokyo and the reptile community.

To add to the hubbub surrounding Gibson's movie is the mystery of the Vatican's stance. After an advance screening was provided for the Pope, rumor had it that the spiritual leader made a remark to the effect of "it is as it was." However, Vatican officials later denied such an endorsement. No matter what he said, the most interesting part of this is that Papal duties now include film reviews. Look out, Ebert and Roeper.

This kind of confusion and uproar seems to follow Jesus every time he takes the road to Hollywood. Martin Scorsese's 1988 The Last Temptation of Christ was protested by many Christians for its portrayal of Jesus as a much more human character. The film actually included a fantasy sequence in which he dreams of being married and making love to Mary Magdalene. The outcry of some Christians notwithstanding, it is a plausible situation considering how much the ladies go for that whole "son of God" thing.

In spite of the controversy surrounding Passion, Gibson's project has proven to be somewhat refreshing. Usually the only prominent Christian messages in the media come from hip-hop artists when they give their shout-outs to "J.C. and the Notorious G.O.D."

Even for non-Christians, there is something stimulating about looking past much of the modern-day conventions of a religion and seeing the powerful imagery that lay at its core. Whether or not you agree with Gibson's views on the last days of Jesus, the compelling nature of this violent but moving piece of cinema is hard to deny.

Most importantly, Passion has been a godsend for Sunday-school students. It doesn't get much more miraculous than Biblical Cliff's Notes at a theatre near you.

JACOB TOOTALIAN thinks they totally left it open for a sequel. He can't wait for The Return of The Christ: Back with a Vengeance. To let him know if he has blasphemed at all, e-mail him at jtootalian@ucdavis.edu.

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