Film Studies: Jesus and films: it's a lose-lose situation

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The Independent Culture

People often think that movie stars are exceptional creatures for a whole set of external reasons - their being paid $20 million for being photographed; their sleeping beneath bed-covers made from the skins of ocelots; or their speaking about themselves in the third person. I'm not saying such things are not weird sometimes. But the strangest of all are always the things that make all of us uncommon, the inward things. Thus, I can't get over the recent discovery that Mel Gibson goes to Latin Mass every day of the week.

As you may have heard, Gibson is steadfastly charting his course towards a crisis. It remains to be seen whether the consequences are tragic or absurd. But the famous actor (born in America, but moved to Australia when he was 12), has put $25 million of his own money into a movie, The Passion, about the last days of Christ, a film made in Latin and Aramaic.

Pause a moment, to reflect. When someone spends $25 million on a project, it is because he has that much money - and more, far more. (This is the star of the Mad Max pictures, of the Lethal Weapon franchise; to say nothing of the effective owner of Braveheart.) But he did not believe, in advance, that any studio would come to his aid. Or, if they did, it would be with lamentations about the Latin and the Aramaic getting in the way at the box office.

But it is part of Mr Gibson's sincerity that he reckons most people who met Christ spoke Latin or Aramaic. And he is in search of authenticity. But in that case, it is a little disconcerting to discover that a lot of the Latin and Aramaic are going to be spoken by stars Jim Caviezel and Monica Bellucci (the one, good visual casting as JC, and the other so hot that most people are trying to get her in their movie). If this sounds disrespectful, it's only because I begin to see mixed motives, or a ferment of attitudes behind The Passion.

On the one hand, Gibson is trying hard to step aside from the legend of movie star to be the pillar of his own inward beliefs: devout, conservative, familial, private, a man of simple, rock-like integrity. On the other hand, now that The Passion is made, and becoming the subject of great controversy, he has enlisted the ICM agency (one of the largest and most effective) to sell his personal project. And he would seem to be offering it to all the old suspects. We know that because Fox (the Fox of Rupert Murdoch, Australian, an old ally to Gibson, and the company that has handled many of his pictures), has declined to distribute The Passion.

I have not seen The Passion, and I really don't want to - unless duty insists on it, or Bellucci is naked. There are a few subjects that make me flinch from going into the dark, and the life and death of JC are on that list. The word in advance is that The Passion is brutally realistic and likely to offend many Jews. Granted the one, I'm not surprised at the other: after all, this story has always gone that way. My problem is that divinity and crucifixion are among the Very Large Things in (or above) life that don't photograph well. Or in a way that persuades the viewer he or she is seeing anything but a contrived imitation.

The Jewish community in America (and especially the Jewish interest in Hollywood) is more likely to be upset at the "approach" than anyone will be by shots of nails piercing hands. In the America of George W Bush, where some Alabamians were aghast at the court-ordered removal of a grotesque "sculpture" of the Ten Commandments from state property, this is likely to put a stupid nation in a frenzy. Some will say it's anti-Semitic; some will say that very protest is anti-religious.

I hope the film is good - by which I mean better than anything Mel Gibson has done previously. But there have been hints already of the way his "sincerity" tends, and that is towards the bloodthirsty anti-Englishness of Braveheart and The Patriot and the decent paternalism of that very, very pro-military film, We Were Soldiers.

I am ready to accept that Mr Gibson has earnest faith. I have to acknowledge that he delivers movie punch. But I'm not sure the two mix well. And if he has opted to make an expensive movie in which Monica Bellucci struggles to speak or mouth Aramaic, you are going to have to drag me there. All I know about the picture business tells me that the advance spin on sincerity (and offensiveness) is just part of an old game.