Passion at the forefront of religious bigotry

The Australian | 23 March 2004

 



THE Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John have been swept aside by the
Gospels of the Gibsons, father and son. As the Lord of the Gibsons
challenges the box-office dominance of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of
the King, Hollywood is set to remake itself as Holywood. You can back it in
- we're entering another era of the biblical blockbuster.
In a sense, The Passion of the Christ is Mel Gibson's second coming, given
that he made his debut as Mad Max who, at the time, was described as "Jesus
Christ in leathers".

Gibson made The Passion for just $US30million - the total budget was close
to what he can demand as a fee for appearing in somebody else's movie. So
he's a few hundred million better off from the outset. Having been turned
down by all the leading studios, his film is distributed by the boutique
outfit that marketed Whale Rider.

Consequently, Gibson will enjoy a far higher percentage of the spoils. And
the marketing costs? They've been negligible. The Lord of the Rings
involved an immense promotional effort, but the controversy raging around
The Passion has been more than enough for Gibson and amounts to a saving of
another $100million.

Experts in the film business tell me that cinema returns will be matched by
the revenue from DVD sales. Apparently Gibson will be able to claim a
premium price, not only from the faithful but also from those into
sadomasochism. Moreover, The Passion will have a very, very long shelf
life.

So it's already safe to predict that the film will prove to be one of the
most profitable in cinema history. Yes, from time to time a film comes
along that can gross $1 billion, but after you've paid for the stars, the
production, the promotion and the distribution, you can still find it quite
hard to make a quid. In the case of The Passion, the figures verge on the
miraculous.

Much has been made of the fact the film is extraordinarily violent, as if
this were new in the annals of Christian narrative. Piffle; for centuries,
artists have churned out images of what amounts to religious pornography -
paintings and sculptures of the crucifixion that are lip-lickingly lurid.

Visit any cathedral in Spain and you'll see giant crosses on which the
crucified Christ is depicted in an ecstasy of suffering, with the loincloth
slipping down over his hips. It's a strange approach to spirituality that's
echoed in the cults of bodily scarification and flagellation. There's
little new in what Gibson shows us, except that it comes with sound
effects. But so does Easter in the Philippines, where imitators of Christ
fight to be crucified.

What makes this film different is its contribution to religious conflict.
As The New Yorker's David Denby says: "Gibson's timing couldn't be more
unfortunate: another dose of death-haunted religious fanaticism is the last
thing we need."

Gibson's father, Hutton, is as fundamentalist as any ayatollah, his
rantings identifying Catholic popes with the anti-Christ. He makes no bones
about the Jews' responsibility for killing Christ and happily associates
with the likes of Frederick Tobin of the Adelaide Institute, who has taken
over from the League of Rights' Eric Butler as Australia's most notorious
anti-Semite. Photographs of Gibson Sr and Tobin have been ricocheting
around the internet for months, as the two Holocaust deniers slap each
other on the back.

When cross-examined on this aspect of his father's beliefs, Gibson Jr warns
journalists: "Don't go there!" But that's exactly where we have to go,
given that what his film says about the crucifixion ties in to thousands of
years of anti-Semitism. Which culminated in, yes, the Holocaust. The very
same Holocaust that his dad denies.

That great Catholic writer Gary Wills, in his recent book Papal Sin,
attacks the church not just for past anti-Semitism and horrendous pogroms
but also for ongoing attempts to cover up its appalling history. Remember
that it took the church until 1985 to repudiate the claims that Jews were
under a "special curse from God" for having executed and repudiated their
own messiah. "Seminaries taught it," Wills writes. "Biblical commentaries
explained it and persecutions were based on it."

Now that proposition is placed centre stage in Gibson's film. Little wonder
that Jews across the world are frightened by its phenomenal success. Forget
the pornographies of violence in the film -- it is this greater
pornography, this implicit accusation of killing Christ, that should
concern every one of us, irrespective of our religious views, if any.
Truly, Hutton and Mel are yelling "fire" in tens of thousands of cinemas
and, in these explosive times, they will be heard.

As an antidote to Gibson's dreadful film, it's time to re-release The
Gospel According to St Matthew, made by Italian film-maker Pier Paolo
Pasolini. Malcolm Muggeridge, who drew the world's attention to Mother
Teresa, regarded it as a masterpiece, although he was somewhat shocked when
I told him that Pasolini was (a) homosexual, (b) a communist and (c) an
atheist. Pasolini's film is not about Christ on the cross but Christ as the
radical -- and he was played by a small, dark, intense young man with a
hooked nose, not by a six-footer with blue eyes. The contrast between the
two films could not be more dramatic or instructive.

 

 

And here it is, again!

 

 

 

 

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