A scandalous example of sizeism in The Passion

caravaggioboyColumnist Mark Holmberg of the Richmond Times-Dispatch has written one of the best reflections to date about The Passion of the Christ. Holmberg, a Pulitzer finalist for commentary in 2003, joined church members at a preview two days before the film’s opening.

What makes Holmberg’s column most impressive is that he engages the film both as a spiritual experience and a work of art, rather than as a relic for either side of the culture wars. So, for instance, Holmberg comments on a moment neglected by movie reviewers — when Satan moves amid the mob, holding a baby who turns toward the camera and takes pleasure in Jesus’ suffering. Holmberg writes:

You may be confused by some of the images and symbolism in the film, since they aren’t described in the Bible. But here’s one tip: While viewing the feminized Satan clutching that hellish baby, think about the images of Mary holding young Jesus, and remember how the devil loves to mock.

At last: After months of tedious debate about whether Mel Gibson is an anti-Semite, a sadomasochist or a Pope-hater, a newspaper columnist raises an informed theological insight.

The Tallahassee Democrat picked up the theme through a panel discussion by five area clergy. Dr. Joseph Brown of University Ministries International listed the hideous baby as one of six images or symbols taken “directly from the the Scriptures”:

1) the scene with sweat dripping like blood as Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane; 2) the reference to Jesus crushing the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15); 3) when Judas hung himself above a decaying donkey that Jesus had ridden on to Jerusalem and was called King of the Jews by the crowds, symbolizing that Jesus’ kingdom was not of this earth; 4) the children running after Judas representing spirits that tormented him after his betrayal; 5) the Holy Spirit appearing as a dove at Jesus’ Crucifixion, showing that the Father had not left him alone; and 6) Satan presenting a new baby symbolizing the Antichrist as he moves through the crowds.

My colleague Mark Moring of ChristianityTodayMovies.com wrote a brief piece called “What’s Up With the Ugly Baby?” Moring asked for Gibson’s comments on the image, and Gibson responded through his publicist:

It’s evil distorting what’s good. What is more tender and beautiful than a mother and a child? So the Devil takes that and distorts it just a little bit. Instead of a normal mother and child you have an androgynous figure holding a 40-year-old ‘baby’ with hair on his back. It is weird, it is shocking, it’s almost too much — just like turning Jesus over to continue scourging him on his chest is shocking and almost too much, which is the exact moment when this appearance of the Devil and the baby takes place.

The baby is depicted by the decidedly adult Davide Marotta, whose listing on Internet Movie Database summarizes his vocation as “midget actor and stuntman.” He played Tommy the Child Demon in Demons 2, so typecasting doesn’t seem to be much of a concern. In The Passion, Marotta’s lurid expression feels similar to images from Caravaggio or Bosch’s Christ Carrying the Cross.

No journalist has speculated on whether the image will prompt hate crimes against ugly babies or Italian-born actors of short stature.

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U.S. News skims the surface

The cover copy for this week’s U.S. News & World Report promises more than its reporters deliver, especially in the deck: “Searching for the truth between Mel Gibson and the Gospels.” The deck implies that Gibson and the Gospels represent different extremes, and that U.S. News — still so attached to its News You Can Use formula that it splashes a white-on-red Annual Career Guide banner atop the cover — will sort it all out for us with businesslike efficiency.

The cover story, by Jay Tolson and Linda Kulman, follows the familiar script from other coverage of Gibson’s Passion of the Christ: It’s a theological smackdown pitting Gibson, conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants against most Jews, liberal Catholics and all scholars.

The magazine shows less knowledge of the range of biblical scholars than Diane Sawyer’s PrimeTime team, which at least found Darrell Bock of Dallas Theological Seminary and gave him token moments on screen. Consider this portion of a paragraph:

New Testament specialist Margaret Mitchell, a professor of religion at the University of Chicago and a Roman Catholic, worries that Gibson’s movie, like all uncritical, ahistorical readings of the Gospels, will potentially “flatten what ought to be a curriculum for each generation of Christians to struggle with, including this strange fact of a religion starting in Judaism and then moving away from it.”

A neat trick, that: Gibson’s “uncritical” reading of the Gospels, which assumes they were written by eyewitnesses to the life of Christ, is “ahistorical.” Is the scholarly consensus really that tidy? Only if a reporter’s range of sources is as selective as U.S. News argues that Gibson was in his depiction of the Gospels’ Passion narratives.

U.S. News columnist John Leo covers Gibson’s film with a more even-handed criticism:

Gibson thinks that some critics came close to saying that a Christian is not allowed to film the Christian Scriptures as written (i.e., with the charge that some influential Jews wanted Jesus killed). He has a point. But Gibson’s adherence to the literal text of the Bible is selective. He had no trouble inserting many things not found in the Scriptures (pretrial abuse of Jesus, Mary mopping up Jesus’s blood, the vast extent of the scourging). However, he declined to tweak the script to reflect biblical and historical scholarship that points primarily to the Romans as those responsible for the Crucifixion. This is not a liberal plot or a political attempt to placate Jews. It is simply where the scholarship is, and has been, for some time. Early Christians were in no position to provoke the Roman conquerors by blaming them for killing Jesus. On the other hand, the first Christians were harassed by synagogue authorities and bitter that their fellow Jews were not accepting Jesus as the messiah.

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And all the people said: “Amen. Do the math”

The Passion email flood is beginning to slow a bit, as everyone waits to see if there are enough people in Hollywood who think The Lord of the Rings is too conservative to be given the top Oscar. I’m not joking. I mean, it’s pro-Truth with a Big T. If it wins, that’s a victory for the Religious Right, right?

Meanwhile, a friend who is a home theater fanatic sent this little item from one of those geeky sites that he frequents:

After passing over theatrical distribution of what has turned out to be the surprise hit movie of the year, 20th Century Fox has resurrected its relationship with Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions and will distribute The Passion of The Christ on video, reports Video Business. No details were immediately known relative to the terms of the deal or the timing of the video release . . .

And all the people said: “Do the math.” Yes, that is precisely what the people at Variety are saying right now:

So, pray tell, how did “The Passion of the Christ” finally perform over its first week at the box office? Heavenly. More precisely, Newmarket’s Mel Gibson-helmed religious phenom rung up an estimated $117.5 million since unspooling Monday, $76.3 million of it over the weekend. . . .

Older moviegoers dominated “Passion” auds. But pic drew so well from a broad array of demos that its daily grosses outperformed estimates of just 24 hours earlier throughout the week. So huge has been the “Passion” phenom — despite, or perhaps due in part to media’s focus on pic’s graphically violent content — that some are wondering whether other producers will be tempted to develop other religious-themed pics.

I’m still holding out for a Mel Gibson take on Samson: Judge of Israel. Just think what he can do with the bloody eyes!

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For parents who want to know what they’re getting into . . .

. . . the Screenit.com review of “The Passion of the Christ” is now online. As always, these fair-minded people walk you through the movie pretty much, well, blow by blow. Here is part of the summary:

While I understand Gibson’s desire — to show believers and non-believers alike the degree to which Jesus suffered to become the Christian Savior — he makes a fundamental mistake in the way he portrays it. Rather than showing the violence as realistically as possible — as was done to shocking degree in “Saving Private Ryan” . . . — he ends up glorifying it in what many will argue is a sadistically obscene manner.

The brutality, severity and, yes, sadism of the beating and crucifixion are shown in all of their Hollywood glory, replete with state of the art special effects and make-up as well as scene after scene of slow-motion footage of the atrocities. Again, I understand and appreciate what the filmmaker is after with such material, but it’s so over the top and artsy that it numbs and/or distances the viewer from what occurs . . .

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And the (box office) envelope, please

And this just in from Box Office Mojo. The Passion opened bigger than anyone expected, at least in comments released to the public.

What this means is that the news stories linked to this movie will have legs. It is a story in the industry, a story with future implications other than Mel Gibson’s future as an actor for Dreamworks.

The first hard news on the Passion box office is:

Playing on 4,643 screens at 3,006 theaters, the $30 million production took in a whopping $26,556,573 on Wednesday – ironically prompting most in the industry to use the Lord’s name in vain. …

The Passion’s opening day far exceeded Newmarket’s and Box Office Mojo’s Wednesday projections that it would come in at around $20 million, based on matinee grosses from around 28% of theaters. That shows that projecting so early can be as inaccurate as if the news called the winner of a political primary with only a fraction of precincts reporting.

With less than 900 theaters reporting mid-Wednesday, The Passion had rung up over $7 million from matinees alone. That was about 18% behind what The Return of the King had at the same point on its opening day, and around 4% behind The Matrix Reloaded. The Passion ultimately followed a similar pattern to Return of the King.

In just one day, The Passion has become the highest-grossing Christian-themed movie of recent memory. It’s a genre that’s been ghettoized as a niche market up until now – former champ Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie grossed a modest $25.6 million in its entire run.

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From Hazel Motes to Mel Gibson

In defending The Passion of the Christ, Rod Dreher of the Dallas Morning News has cited Flannery O’Connor‘s remark, “To the hard of hearing you shout.” As noted in passing by most movie critics, The Passion has one clear tie to O’Connor.

Benedict Fitzgerald, coauthor of The Passion‘s screenplay, also wrote the screenplay for director John Huston’s film version of Wise Blood, O’Connor’s novel in which the self-blinded preacher Hazel Motes founds the Church Without Christ.

It’s a long way, both in years and in subject matter, from Wise Blood (1979) to The Passion, and a few writers have filled in some blanks.

Movie critic Steven Rea of The Philadelphia Inquirer describes Fitzgerald as “an erudite Italian- and Swiss-educated screenwriter who is also a conservative Catholic.” Rea interviewed Fitzgerald as part of “Gibson’s Gethsemane,” a nearly 2,000-word feature story:

“Mel and I had similar experiences of veering off toward the edge of an abyss. You know, caught up and seduced by all the secular temptations,” says Fitzgerald, whose father, the poet Robert Fitzgerald, wrote the definitive translations of works by Homer, Virgil and Sophocles. “I think both he and I had reached the age where we’re aware of how secularization has, perhaps, blinded us to some other aspects of our own nature that need to be fed.”

“I had come back to my Catholic faith and immediately felt that my entire life was in preparation for this project,” Fitzgerald told Phil Boatwright in a story distributed by the Southern Baptist Covnention’s Baptist Press. “Mel contributed to my returning to my faith. I can now pray un-self-consciously, as a result of working with him.”

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Creeping Fundamentalism III: Mel Gibson, purveyor of hate

It’s striking how quickly an accusation becomes presumed guilt and then a cliche detached from any need for proof. Consider the speed with which Karen Russell, a trial attorney appearing on MSNBC’s Abrams Report, mentions Mel Gibson as a hatemonger, as if this is an indisputable fact.

Russell was on the show to discuss Debbie Rowe’s custody battle with her ex-husband, Michael Jackson, and the discussion soon touched on Jackson’s recent solidarity with the Nation of Islam. Let’s go to the transcript:

RUSSELL: I feel like that the Nation of Islam is the only religious group that is allowed to be bashed with just reckless abandon. I mean we’re having this whole debate about

ABRAMS: Well, they’re also overtly anti-Semitic. Other religions aren’t sort of as overt in their disdain for other religious.

RUSSELL: Well you know what? Actually Jerry Falwell is very overt in his disdain for Islam and for Muslims, as is Pat Robertson and other fundamentalists, so there is open disdain at the top for other religions, you know. There’s Mel Gibson and

Contrast Russell’s views with those of a Muslim who attended a screening of The Passion of the Christ earlier this week in La Crosse, Wisc. Gayda Hollnagel of the La Crosse Tribune interviewed various religious leaders after a screening arranged by the First Evangelical Free Church of Onalaska:

“It’s definitely going to increase the faith of the faithful,” said Wahhab Khandker, a local Muslim leader and member of the Islamic Center of Greater La Crosse.

Khandker, a University of Wisconsin-La Crosse economics professor, said he thought Gibson’s depiction was true to biblical scriptures and also to the Koran, which honors Jesus as a prophet but not as the Messiah.

The film projected the same message of peace and love preached by both faiths, Khandker said.

Khandker attended the screening at the invitation of his friend Patrick Augustine, an Episcopal priest and a native of Pakistan. In an email to friends, Augustine described how Khandker sobbed during the film, adding that “several times he held my hand and tried to share his feeling with me.”

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Attention editors and film critics: Cue the Jaws theme

samson.jpgOh my. The following paragraphs from a new report by Variety are just what the mainstream media want to hear right now.

Cue the theme from Jaws as Gibson takes a look into the future.

As for what he’ll do after resting a while in his hammock, Gibson hinted there were myriad other stories in the Bible that deserve celluloid treatment.

“There are good stories in that book — it’s worth looking into them.”

You know, there is a comic book version of the Samson story out there. The action and dialogue — muscles, martial arts, seduction and torture — might be right up Gibson’s alley.

Sample dialogue: “Oh Lord God! Hear me please. Give me strength this one last time. I am prepared! You strengthen me, oh Lord! … Now let me die here with the Philistines!” What happens next is painted in giant, ragged, screaming letters that say “GRRUUNN,” “CRAACCKK,” “AAAIIIEEE” and one final “WHUMP!”

There might be a role in that movie for Frank Rich.

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