Compared to Newsweek‘s cover story, Entertainment Weekly‘s “The Agony & the Ecstasy” is the very model of shoe-leather journalism. Author Jeff Jensen, denied access to a screening of The Passion of the Christ or interviews with director Mel Gibson and star Jim Caviezel, spoke with more than two dozen other people, both defenders and critics of Gibson’s film.
EW promotes the story with one of Matt Mahurin’s more restrained illustrations, weaving a strand of film through a crown of thorns atop Gibson’s head. Jensen offers a telling detail about Gibson early on. It speaks both to Gibson’s combativeness in defending his film, which was under fire while he was still shooting in Italy, and his concern for his star:
While shooting The Passion in late 2002, Gibson hounded [Caviezel] like Satan tempting Christ in the wilderness: You don’t have to do this. You can quit. Caviezel tolerated his director’s doubts at first, but eventually broke. This is what I was made for, said the devoutly Catholic actor. Why do you keep bugging me? But Caviezel had misunderstood. Gibson wasn’t doubting him–he was warning him. After you finish this film, Gibson explained, you may never work in Hollywood again.
As with reporters who render Episcopalians as Episcopals, Jensen writes that Gibson “chose to re-embrace his father’s faith, a fringe Catholicism known as Traditionalism.” Gibson and his father, more precisely, embrace a Lefebvrite faith, which does, as Jensen reports, reject many of Vatican II’s changes.
But Jensen adds this ad hominem argument from silence: “These 1962-65 Vatican II reforms also absolved Jews for the killing of Christ; Gibson hasn’t said whether he rejects this as well.”
Similarly, Jensen writes as though Gibson picked this fight for the sole point of being ornery:
The director himself laid down the first piece of kindling more than a year ago, when he defended his film on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News talk show — even though no one had publicly attacked it. Seven weeks later, The New York Times Magazine published a story about his father, the Catholic Traditionalist, who was portrayed as a Holocaust-denying extremist prone to blaming Jews for the evils of the world.
The two incidents were not so far removed from each other. Gibson appeared on O’Reilly’s show because he knew that Times reporter Christopher Noxon was working on a hostile story about Gibson’s father and, by extension, about Gibson’s film, which he was still shooting in Italy.
Jensen raises an important point about artistic freedom, only to dismiss it:
Gibson defenders note that an artist has no obligation to those who would thought-police a work in progress. (Although in this case, he stands on shakier ground: “What he doesn’t get is that this isn’t about him,” says one source close to Gibson. “This is about 2,000 years of bigotry and hatred.”)
Let’s be clear about this much: As Peter Boyer reported in The New Yorker, assorted New Testament scholars attempted to demand changes in Gibson’s film. If professors at Azusa Pacific University or Wheaton College had attempted a similar stunt while Martin Scorsese was shooting The Last Temptation of Christ, most likely they would have heard–with some choice profanities thrown in for effect–that filmmakers, not professors, are the best people to direct films.
Jensen’s most troubling flourish is in comparing The Passion to one of the most notorious examples of film as propaganda:
If The Passion is denounced as anti-Semitic, and still becomes the most popular piece of hate-fueling cinema since The Birth of a Nation, his defiant, unconciliatory stance may well read as a decision to trade away Jewish concerns for Christian box office dollars. That’s something Hollywood may not be so quick to forgive or forget.
Again, the more precise comparison would be to The Last Temptation of Christ, despite the very different purposes of Gibson as a relapsed Catholic and Scorsese as a still-lapsed Catholic. Both films have generated fierce, even hysterical, levels of opposition even before opening on the first screen.
Some Christians, led by Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ, offered to buy Scorsese’s prints from Universal Studios if it would agree to the film’s destruction. No one has sought to destroy Gibson’s film as a material object, but countless people have sought to destroy its reputation in utero.
This much is clear from people who have seen the film: Gibson builds on an image of the traditional PietÃ , having Jesus’ grief-stricken mother stare into the camera, to implicate all people in his death. If that message somehow gives aid and succor to the Ku Klux Klan or other numbskull haters of Jews, then The Passion of the Christ will vie for the unenviable title as the most misunderstood film in decades.