Film Studies: The imitation of Christ? It's certainly a great way to launch a business venture

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The Independent Culture

This may not be the biggest current talking point in Hollywood, but some are wondering whether, after the biggest ever box-office opening by a foreign-language picture (in Latin and Aramaic), The Passion of the Christ may not have triggered a secret longing in the American public to explore these arcane tongues - Starsky & Hutch 2 in Greek and Grunt anyone?

All right, no one is actually spending time over that, but movie studios all over town are searching for graduate research assistants with some biblical knowledge to do coverage on what may be the blockbusters of the next few years: Ruth! Esther! Solomon and Sheba! Cain and Abel! ("We could call it East of Eden!") We may get a new rush of Bible stories - as I write, the life of Judas is on American TV, but in the build-up to Easter we always get a few such epics on the box. Truth to tell, in a culture where the separation of Church and State is now fairly thorough (as witness the immoral management of the state that is the US), you won't find too many children who know who Judas was. Of course, that is exactly the irreligious neglect that the righteous deplore.

And if you ever thought that that middle-American army might be exaggerated in size, its trooping out to see The Passion of the Christ was lesson enough. Yes, there were days when the papers were full of stories that while the Pope himself had seen Mel Gibson's film, he had no comment. Six months ago, the press listed the tribulations that faced Mel: that he could not find a distributor willing to handle the film in the US; that its alleged anti-Semitic tone might prove outrageously provocative; in short, that Mel had probably ensured the demise of his career. I called for some caution in this column, for it seemed to me that we were seeing the early stages of some very premeditated marketing of a movie.

In general, it is a rewarding way to proceed with a movie: warn the public that they may not be able to see it; that it is altogether too nasty, shocking and brutish for them; and that in a business known for its tender instincts, the theatres of America are not even going to bother with The Passion of the Christ. Once that beachhead was established, every fresh report - that rabbis who had sneaked into secret previews had emerged reeling at the thought of riots in the streets - was a bonus.

And here we come to the essential thing about The Passion of the Christ that is likely to be imitated: its structure as a business venture. For this movie has restored the raw power of gambling to pictures: no more spreading of the risk; no more catering to target groups; no more film-making by committee. This was Mel's baby. It was his money. And it still is - plus. To put it another way, this is what independent film-making is all about. And independent film-making is not just Miramax and Harvey Weinstein hiring some brilliant kid director and a very obscure novel for peanuts. Independent film-making is when someone says, "I own it. It's mine."

Mel Gibson is a rare breed of artist in that he had $28m to spare. Don't read too much irony into that, please. It's not a way of mocking the bounty of Gibson's bank balance. It's just an attempt at a reasonable estimate: that he didn't risk much more than a quarter of what he had on The Passion of the Christ. Mel Gibson came up the hard way, from nothing, and he put his fortune together piece by piece, on pictures that - more or less - have made him happy. That's a way of saying that I suspect he brought to The Passion of the Christ not much more and not much less dedication, reverence and art than he lavished on Braveheart and The Patriot. (And not much more or less cruelty - for experts in Mel's stuff will know that he never found a torture or agony scene he couldn't run longer than most actors or directors.)

I stress this practicality in Mr Gibson because I know all too well (from study of Las Vegas) the insidious danger in confusing inner conviction with professional gambling. Knowing that the number seven is coming up, for instance - I mean, really knowing - is the time to go back to your complimentary room and watch movies.

The severity of Mr Gibson's beliefs, and even the dottiness of some of his father's notions, have never impressed or concerned me very much. For I always knew that Mel Gibson was a showman. That is not said to disparage his faith, or his scholarly interest in flogging, flagellation and scourging. This may be a devout man. But he also follows the money, and owns The Passion of the Christ. I know, there will be those of the old-fashioned evangelical temperament who deny this, who insist that it belongs to all of us. But Mel owns it. And owning pictures is the surest way to do it your way, to get casting and final cut, and to clean up afterwards.

To spell that matter out: as of Monday, 15 March, after three weeks in American theatres, the gross figure on The Passion of the Christ was $264m - with a most recent weekend gross of $32m. So business was dropping off (even it was still the top performing film in the country). But Gibson's $28m investment was into profit early on the first Sunday of release.

What I mean by that is that Mel knew he would be getting his $28m back, plus some. Of course, I think Mel knew that a lot earlier - and I don't mean "knew" as with the seven coming up. I mean he knew how good a job he had done feeding the fires at the foot of his own film.

The future is uncertain still. But The Passion of the Christ has yet to go international. Britain has yet to receive it. Likewise, those nations of the world hostile to the Jewish cause. It still has to make its debut on DVD. There are cool estimates (some of them in The Wall Street Journal, that loves to see American industry and enterprise cleaning up) that Mel Gibson will walk away with over $300m from his film. It could be $400m.

And that sort of plunder does influence people. It is enough to stir every other film-maker in America to go for it, to settle on that private obsession, to own the show, and then to do everything you can think of to tell the wretched public that no, they will never be fit to see this shocking film.

We should be so lucky.

'The Passion of the Christ' (18) is released on Friday