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Sunday, February 29, 2004

The Power of 'The Passion' Reverberates for Believers
By Hamil R. Harris
Sunday, February 29, 2004; Page C04

Cheryl Wiggins planned to catch an afternoon movie, run some errands and do some shopping.

But after watching the "The Passion of the Christ," the 43-year-old lab worker drove home from Hoyts theater in Linthicum and called it a day. "I felt drained. I was speechless, and anyone who knows me knows that I like a good conversation, but I couldn't process anything."

Wiggins's reaction mirrored those of many who have seen the deeply religious but starkly violent movie since it opened Wednesday.

For more than two hours, moviegoers cover their eyes, moan and cry as they watch a saga that focuses on the last 12 hours of Jesus's life and his death on the cross. From the first scene to the last minute or so, when the Resurrection is briefly illustrated, it is nonstop suffering, violence and blood.

"I felt really sorrowful when I left the theater," said Rosalyn Peters, a Bowie resident who went to see the movie with her husband. "My first reaction was, 'Did they have to do Him like that?' But it was all in the Scriptures."

Even though the Rev. Freddie Davis, a Lake Arbor resident and pastor of the Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in the District, has been preaching the Gospel for 26 years, he broke down as he watched the film at Mazza Gallerie in the District.

"I cried. Everybody was sobbing," said Davis, 62, who fielded questions in the Lanham studios of WYCB (1340 AM) with morning host Winston Chaney.

In many pulpits today, preachers teach instead of preach. PowerPoint displays have replaced Bibles, and 15-minute talks have replaced hour-long sermons. But Davis and other church leaders believe that this movie will help strengthen the church community .

"I think this really brings to light the fact that many Christians have not taken the cross as seriously as they should," Davis said.

"They couldn't imagine the suffering the Savior went through, but this movie brings out the suffering and why."

Although the film might strengthen the faith of believers, John Peters, a Bowie resident and an elder at Peace Lutheran Church in the District, wonders whether it will bring new members into the fold.

"The movie gives one a greater appreciation of the suffering of Christ if you are believer. But if you are not a believer, then you will wonder why an innocent man was beaten so bad for nothing," Peters said. "In this film, you meet Jesus the suffering Lamb; only about 20 seconds at the end of the film is devoted to the fact that Jesus rose from the grave."

The Rev. Charles Whitaker, pastor of River of Life Church in Temple Hills, said most people when reading the Bible "really don't understand the cruelty of the Romans' beating, scourging and crucifixions. They didn't even do this to their own people."

Whitaker first saw the movie during a church leaders' convention in Florida, at which James Caviezel, the actor who played Jesus, spoke.

"He told us that the making of the movie was very grueling and that he dislocated his shoulder when they were filming the cross scene," Whitaker said.

For Wiggins, who was too drained to shop after the matinee, the movie was ultimately a love story.

"I think about how someone could love me so much [that] they would be willing to sacrifice and die in a such a brutal way."

The Passion: For its Author, is a Mass
Vittorio Messori on Mel Gibson's Work

ROME, FEB. 18, 2004 ( Vittorio Messori is the first journalist in history to publish a book-length interview with a pope, the multimillion-selling "Crossing the Threshold of Hope" (1994), as well as numerous other works such as "The Ratzinger Report" (1987) and his best-selling "Ipotesi su Gesù" (The Jesus Hypothesis, 1976).

After seeing Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," he wrote the following article for the Italian daily Corriere della Sera and offered the piece to ZENIT for publication in other languages.

* * *

A Passion of Violence and Love
By Vittorio Messori

After two hours and six minutes, the lights flick on again in the little soundproof room. There are only about a dozen of us (I the sole journalist), and we are aware of a privilege. By invitation of Mel Gibson and producer Steve McEveety of Icon Films, we are the first in Europe to see the final copy of this film which just arrived from Los Angeles. The same version that next Wednesday will be in 2,000 American cinemas, 500 English ones, and as many Australian, the version whose expectation has caused a short circuit on Internet sites and which in the first week will recover (the bookmakers say it is certain) the $30 million of production costs.

The Pope himself has only seen a provisional version, lacking among other things the final soundtrack. But, if this evening we are the first, the Italians will have to wait until the 7th of April, the French and the Spanish until June.

When the long list of credits ends, where American names alternate with Italian, where recognition of the municipality of Matera is side by side with that of theologians and experts in ancient languages, where Rosalinda, the daughter of Celentano (the devil) is next to a Romanian Jew, Maia Morgenstern (the Virgin Mary), and the technician presses the light switch, silence continues in the little room.

Two women weep quietly, without sobbing; the monsignor in clergyman's dress who is next to me is very pale, his eyes closed; the young ecclesiastical secretary nervously fingers a rosary; a tentative, solitary start of applause quickly dies out in embarrassment.

For many, very long minutes, no one stands up, no one moves, no one speaks. So, what we were being told was true: "The Passion of The Christ" has struck us, it has worked in us, the first guinea pigs, the effect that Gibson wanted.

For what it's worth, I myself was disconcerted and speechless: For years I have examined one by one the Greek words with which the Evangelists recount those events; not one historical minutia of those 12 hours in Jerusalem is unknown to me. I have addressed it in a 400-page book that Gibson himself has taken into account. I know everything, or rather, I now discover that I thought I knew: everything changes if those words are translated into images of such power to transform in flesh and blood, striking signs of love and hatred.

The Gamble

Mel has said it with pride tempered by humility, with pragmatism kneaded with mysticism which becomes in him a singular mixture: "If this work was to fail, for 50 years there will be no future for religious films. We threw the best in here: as much money as we wished, prestige, time, rigor, the charism of great actors, the science of the learned, inspirations of the mystics, experience, advanced technology. Above all, we threw in our conviction that it was worthwhile, that what takes place in those hours concerns every man. Our eternity is bound up forever with this Jew. If we don't point this out, who will be able to do so? But we will point it out, I am sure of it: Our work was accompanied by too many signs that confirm it."

In fact, on the set much more happened than what is known; much will remain in the secret of consciences: conversions, release from drugs, reconciliation between enemies, giving up of adulterous ties, apparitions of mysterious personages, extraordinary explosions of energy, enigmatic figures who knelt down as the extraordinary Caviezel-Jesus passed by, even two flashes of lightning, one of which struck the cross, but did not hurt anyone. And, then, coincidences read like signs: the Madonna with the face of the Jewish actress with the name Morgenstern which, it was only noticed later, is, in German, the "Morning Star" of the litanies of the rosary.

Gibson remembered Blessed Angelico's warning: "To depict Christ, it is necessary to live with Christ." The atmosphere, between the Sassi di Matera and the Cinecittà Studios seems to have been that of the sacred medieval representations, of processions of scourged pilgrims before the relics of martyrs. A 14th-century Thespis' cart, with which every evening, a priest in black cassock, of the type with the long line of buttons, celebrated an open-air Mass, in Latin, according to the rite of St. Pius V. Precisely here, in fact, is the real reason for the decision to make the Jews speak in their popular language, Aramaic, and the Romans in a low Latin, of the military, which wounds our schoolboy ears, used to Ciceronian refinements.

Gibson, a Catholic who loves the Tradition, is a strong champion of the doctrine confirmed by the Council of Trent: the Mass is "also" a fraternal meal but it is "above all" Jesus' sacrifice, the bloodless renewal of the passion. This is what matters, not the "understanding of the words," as the new liturgists wish, whose superficiality Mel mocks as it seems like blasphemy to him. The redemptive value of the actions and gestures that have their culmination on Calvary has no need of expressions that anyone can understand.

This film, for its author, is a Mass: Let it be, then, in an obscure language, as it was for so many centuries. If the mind does not understand, so much the better. What matters is that the heart understands that all that happened redeems us from sin and opens to us the doors of salvation. Precisely as the prophecy of Isaiah reminds us on the "Servant of Yahweh" which, taking up the whole screen, is the prologue of the entire film. The wonder, however, seems to me to be verified: After a while, one stops reading the subtitles to enter, without distractions, in the terrible and marvelous scenes -- that are sufficient in themselves.

The Quality

On the technical plane, the work is of a very high quality, so much so that previous films on Jesus might seem reduced to poor and archaic relatives: in Gibson, strategic lighting, skillful photography, extraordinary costumes, rugged and sometimes sumptuous set designs, incredibly convincing makeup, recitations of great professionals supervised by a director who is also one of their illustrious colleagues. Above all, such amazing special effects which, as Enzo Sisti, the executive producer, said to us, will remain secret, to confirm the enigma of the work, where the technique is intended to be at the service of faith. A faith in the most Catholic version -- no accident that it was pleasing to the Pope and to so many cardinals, not excluding Ratzinger, for whom "The Passion" is a manifesto that abounds in symbols that only a competent eye can fully discern. There will be a book (two, in fact, are in preparation) to help the spectator understand.

Very briefly, the radical "Catholicity" of the film lies first of all in the refusal of every demythicization, in taking the Gospels as precise chronicles: The things, we are told, happened like this, precisely as the Scriptures describe it. Catholicism is present, then, in the recognition of the divinity of Jesus which exists together with his full humanity. A divinity that bursts forth, dramatically, in the superhuman capacity of that body to suffer a level of pain as no one before or after ever has, in expiation of all the sin of the world.

But the radical "Catholicity" is also in the Eucharistic aspect, reaffirmed in its materiality: The blood of the Passion is continuously intermingled with the wine of the Mass, the tortured flesh of the "corpus Christi" with the consecrated bread. It is, also, in the strongly Marian tone: the Mother and the devil (who is feminine or, perhaps, androgynous) are omnipresent, the one with her silent pain, the other with his/her malicious satisfaction.

From Anne Catherine Emmerich, the stigmatized visionary, Gibson has taken extraordinary intuitions: Claudia Procula, Pilate's wife, who offers, weeping, to Mary the cloths to soak up the blood of the Son is among the scenes of greatest delicacy in a film that, more than violent, is brutal. Brutal as, in fact, the Passion was. The desperate Peter after the denial, falls at the feet of the Blessed Virgin to obtain pardon. I believe, however, that the theological importance attributed to the Madonna, as well as to the Eucharist -- an importance not spiritualized, not reduced to a "memorial" but seen in the most material, and therefore Catholic, way (the Transubstantiation) -- will create some uneasiness in American Protestant churches which, without having seen the film, have already organized themselves to support its distribution.

If two hours are dedicated to the martyrdom, two minutes suffice to recall that that was not the last word. From Good Friday to Easter Sunday, to the Resurrection, which Gibson has resolved by making a particular reading of John's words: an "emptying" of the funeral shroud, leaving a sufficient sign to "see and believe" that the tortured one has triumphed over death.

Anti-Semitism or, at least, anti-Judaism? Let's not play around with words that are much too serious. From my viewing, I agree with the many and authoritative American Jews who admonish their co-religionists not to condemn before seeing. It comes across very clearly in the film that what weighs Christ down and reduces him to that state is not this one's or that one's fault, but rather the sin of all men, no one excluded.

To Caiaphas' obstinacy in calling for the crucifixion (that collaborator Sadducee who did not in fact represent the Jewish people, but, rather was detested by them; the Talmud reserves terrible words for him and for his father-in-law Annas), more than abundant counterbalance is made by the unheard-of sadism of the Roman executioners. The political cowardice of Pilate that leads him to violate his conscience stands counter to the courage of the member of the Sanhedrin -- an episode added by the director -- who confronts the High Priest crying out that that trial is illegal. And is it not John, a Jew, who supports the Mother? Is not the pious Veronica a Jew? Is not the impetuous Simon of Cyrene a Jew? Are not the women of Jerusalem, crying out in despair, all Jews? And is it not Peter -- a Jew -- who, when forgiven, will die for the Master?

At the beginning of the film, before the drama is unleashed, an anguished Magdalene asks the Virgin: "Why is this night so different from any other?" "Because," Mary answers, "we were all slaves and now we will no longer be so." All, but absolutely all: whether they are "Jews or Gentiles." This work, Mel Gibson says, saddened by aggressions to prevent it, intends to propose again the message of a God who is Love. And what Love would it be if he excluded any one?

Friday, February 27, 2004

An Open Letter to Mel Gibson from a Jew for Jesus
By Susan Perlman
Jews for Jesus

CBN.comDear Mel (is it OK if I call you Mel?),

I hope you won't feel like this letter is an intrusion, but with all the flack you are experiencing right now over "The Passion," I just had to write. This ordeal has to be tough for you to take. All the controversy, I mean. But then you're probably not completely surprised. Anytime anyone makes a statement about Y'shua (Jesus) they stir up a controversy. When he walked the earth, no one could take him lightly. Some were attracted to him and not only believed him but loved him as a best friend. Others were suspicious and all they could let themselves feel was fear or hatred--and if his statements were untrue, who could blame them? After all, Jesus did make some incredible (some might say outlandish) claims:

He claimed to be the Messiah:

See his conversation with a woman: "The woman said, 'I know that Messiah' (called Christ) is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.' Then Jesus declared, "I who speak to you am he" (John 4:25,26).

He claimed he could forgive people of their sins:

See his conversation with a paralyzed man: "Then behold, they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, "Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you" (Matthew 9:2).

He claimed he had the same eternal nature and name as the Almighty:

See his conversation with Jewish leaders: "Then the Jewish leaders said to Him, "You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?" Jesus said to them, "Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM" (John 8:57-8).

Whether or not people believed his claims, Jesus just said and did the things we might expect the Messiah to say and do. That did cause an uproar, ultimately leading to his crucifixion. Which brings me back to your movie. Maybe you didn't expect quite such an uproar for just making this film. Maybe you thought that people wouldn't get all that upset. Please try to understand. It's just that over the years, many so-called "Christians" have blamed my Jewish people for Jesus' death. The hatred and persecution we've endured as a result is tragic, and that's made some Jews very defensive when it comes to the subject of the Passion. As a committed believer in Jesus, I'm sure you recognize that such hatred is the antithesis of what the New Testament teaches, what Jesus intended and what your film portrays. Am I not right? Besides, you and I both know that this "blame game" really misses the point.

After all, the Hebrew Scriptures predicted that the Messiah would die for the sins of others.

"He was cut off from the land of the living, for the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due" (Isaiah 53:8).

Not only that, but the crucifixion didn't take Jesus by surprise--it was the whole reason God sent him on this necessary but horrific mission.

"No one takes it (my life) from Me, but I lay it down of Myself." (John 10:18) "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).

Most importantly, Jesus did not stay dead.

"Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him" (Mark 16:6).

So how can anyone be blamed for the death of a person who is in fact alive? Messiah's willing sacrifice and resurrection bring hope to a world that is desperately in need of some good news. Jesus stands ready to be our helper and redeemer and friend! Not everyone wants to hear that. Maybe they've never read the records of his life for themselves. Or maybe they've heard things about Jesus that are wrong. Whatever the case, I just want to tell you to hang in there, Mel. There are lots of us Jewish people who are grateful that you made this film. Because of "The Passion," this important topic is being discussed passionately--and that's a good thing.


Susan Perlman
A Jew for Jesus

P.S. If anyone else happens to be reading this letter and would like to talk further about the Passion of the Messiah, check out the message board at

Thursday, February 26, 2004

When the Print Hits the Fans
By Lore Sjöberg
02:00 AM Feb. 25, 2004 PT

SAN FRANCISCO -- While the Web was very much in evidence this past weekend at the Alternative Press Expo, a yearly gathering of independent and underground comics artists, it was clear that the Web is still nowhere near replacing print as the preferred medium for comic art.

To the contrary, the printed page still has a cachet that the Web can't hope to match.

Joe D'Angelo, creator of the Pirate Cove comic strip, says he faces a prejudice against his Web-only comic, even with the free printed strip collections that his booth was giving away. "We've started not telling people that it's just online, because they'll put it down," he explains.

D'Angelo, like many of his Web-based colleagues, spent his time at APE pursuing traditional publication and distribution, leaving copies of his work at the tables of comics publishers Fantagraphics and SLG Publishing in hopes of attracting their interest.

"I gave them copies and I said 'Well, we've got a fan base,'" says D'Angelo.

New comics artists are attracted to the Web, not only because it allows them to build a fan base, but also due to the Web's low cost of entry and its worldwide distribution. It's also a place where creators can find their own audience without having to fit into a predetermined market, but the promise of print still beckons.

When Paige Braddock began Jane's World -- a strip about the daily life of a lesbian and her friends -- she found that publishers and syndicates were uneasy with the content. "I wasn't really gay enough for gay papers," she says of the reaction to the strip. "And I was too gay for straight papers."

After putting her strip online, she was able to find enough of an audience that United Media approached her about syndicating her content into their online service. Her main foray into print has been through compiling the strips that she has published online into comic-book form.

Braddock has high praise for the Web, saying it keeps her honest because of the immediate and personal feedback, but over the years she has come to think of herself not as a Web comics publisher who collects her strips into comic books, but as a comic-book artist who debuts her work online.

"I think I have a personal bias to printed material," Braddock explains. "I love the exposure of the Web, and I love the interaction with the readers, but what I missed was a tangible representation of my work."

Printed comics have another advantage over Web comics: a proven economic model. James Burks, former animator for Disney and the creator of Martin's Misdirection -- a strip about a stage magician and his talking rabbit -- is one exhibitor who appreciates not only the aesthetic of print, but the income as well. He periodically removes old strips from his Web page to help sales of his self-published books.

"That sort of forces people to buy the book if they like the strip," he says. "If you can read everything online for free, then you don't have any instigation to buy it."

Burks' appearance at APE paid off for him in the form of a distribution deal with Diamond Comic Distributors. Diamond is the largest distributor of English-language comic books in the world, and the deal is Burks' key to getting his next strip collection into as many comic-book shops as possible.

Working with Diamond also carries a certain amount of prestige. Burks sees a divide between print comics and Web comics. "There's sort of an animosity that we're not as good because we're not in print," he says. "Anyone can do a Web comic."

Braddock agrees that print gives comics a legitimacy that the Web lacks. "I think people do take things in print more seriously. I don't think they are opposed to Web comics, but I think people prefer the print."

Alison Doran, creator of the online fantasy comic Drwynlyc, got her start in print, creating a comic book called Escapeman in 1998 for an escape artist who sold it at his performances.

When she started Drwynlyc, she put it on the Web for lack of a better idea. "I didn't know how to distribute it. I figured this was the easiest, cheapest way. Plus, my brother's wife knows how to do this."

Doran came to the expo primarily to network with other artists, but she still has publishing and distribution as a goal. "Right now I'm at the point where I'm more for the networking, but I'd love to make a profit," she explains.

While Drwynlyc wasn't available for sale at the expo, Doran hopes that the donation button on her site will help pay for her to publish the strip in book form.

Doran sees the Web as a natural path to being published, and has enjoyed APE not only as a means to her goal, but as an experience in its own right. "This has proven to be very fun, very interesting and very educational."

Transcript: Mel Gibson Talks to O'Reilly While Filming 'The Passion'
Tuesday, February 24, 2004

BILL O'REILLY, HOST: In the "Personal Story" segment tonight: The actor Mel Gibson (search) has been in Italy for months shooting a controversial film that graphically depicts the execution of Jesus. The movie is being financed by Gibson's production company. It's being shot in Aramaic (search) and Latin (search), the languages used at the time.

Mr. Gibson is a religious man and believes there are some in the media who want to discredit him personally because he's making a pro-Christian film. And, indeed, "The Factor" has learned that there is a print reporter trying to dig up nasty personal dirt on Gibson. And the guy has even approached his 85-year-old father under questionable circumstances.

And, in the interest of full disclosure, Mel Gibson's production company has optioned my novel, "Those Who Trespass." So, I do have a working relationship with him. But I believe this situation is troubling.

I spoke with Mel Gibson yesterday from Rome.


O'REILLY: Mr. Gibson, I understand the movie you're shooting right now about the death of Jesus of Nazareth is pretty graphic, pretty explicit.


I've never seen a rendering that equals this for reality. It's usually either -- the versions I've seen either suffer from bad hair, inaccurate history, or not just being real. And somehow, because of that, I think I think you're distanced from them somehow. They're more like fairy tales. And this actually happened. It occurred. I'm exploring it this way, I think, to show the extent of the sacrifice willingly taken.

O'REILLY: You're going to make it in Aramaic and Latin, all right, so that no one is going to even understand what's said. The images are going to be explicit and powerful. What is the point?

GIBSON: Well, the point is that I think you can transcend language with the message through image. And I'm very happy with what we're getting.

O'REILLY: Is it going to upset some people to see the person they believe is God brutalized in this manner?

GIBSON: Well, I think anybody that is in the know about Jesus as God and they believe in that realize that he was brutalized and that I'm exploring it this way, I think, to show the extent of the sacrifice willingly taken. But I don't think people -- I think it's going to be hard to take, but I don't necessarily know that people are going to be upset by it.

O'REILLY: Is it going to upset any Jewish people?

GIBSON: It may. It's not meant to.

I think it's meant to just tell the truth. I want to be as truthful as possible. But, when you look at the reasons behind why Christ came, why he was crucified, he died for all mankind and he suffered for all mankind, so that, really, anybody who transgresses has to look at their own part or look at their own culpability.

It's time to sort of get back to a basic message, the message that was given. At this time, the world has gone nuts, I think. And this film speaks -- well, Christ spoke of faith, hope, love and forgiveness. And these are things I think we need to be reminded of again. He forgave as he was tortured and killed. And we could do with a little of that behavior.

I mentioned what I was going to do to Night Shyamalan. And he thought: "Oh, great. You have the ultimate opportunity to make the perfect anti-date movie."

And I said: "No, no, that's not true at all. I think I refer to it as the career-killer film." And I was only half joking at the time. But it's interesting that, when you do touch this subject, it does have a lot of enemies. And there are people sent. I've seen it happening. Since I've been in Rome here, for example, I know that there are people sent from reputable publications who -- they go about, while you're busy over here, they start digging into your private life and sort of getting into your banking affairs and any charities you might be involved in.

And then they start bothering your friends and your business associates and harassing your family, including my 85-year-old father. And I find it -- it's a little spooky.

O'REILLY: We have heard that there is a reporter trying to dig up dirt on you, and who has bothered your 85-year-old father, trying to get provocative statements from him, and trying to portray you as a fanatic and perhaps a bigot, that this guy is operating right now. He's trying to dig up dirt on Mel Gibson.

And do you believe it's because you're making this movie about Jesus?

GIBSON: I think it is, yes. I think he's been sent. So, that's the way it is. You got to deal with these things. I'm a big boy and I can take care of myself. And you can say what you like about me. I'm a public person, I suppose, although I don't ever remember signing the paper that I said I had no rights to privacy. But you can pick on me. But if you start picking on my family when I'm out of town, get ready.

O'REILLY: But I'm surprised that someone would go after somebody as well-liked as you are and as powerful as you are. And you really believe it's because you're making this movie about Jesus?

GIBSON: Yes, I think so. Yes, I think there's a lot of things that don't want it to happen.

But, hey, as I said before, it's a film that speaks about faith, hope, love, and forgiveness. That's the basic message. And that's what we need to get back to, I think. And if everybody practiced a little more of that, there would be a lot less friction in the world.

O'REILLY: So, if this guy writes something terrible about you and your father and family, you are going to forgive him?

GIBSON: Yes. You've got to. I already did. But it's just perplexing.


More Controversy Surrounding Mel Gibson's New Film
Monday, January 26, 2004

This is a partial transcript from The O'Reilly Factor, January 23, 2004 that has been edited for clarity.

BILL O'REILLY, HOST: In the "Personal Story" segment tonight, actor Mel Gibson (search) continues to be viciously attacked for his upcoming film "The Passion" (search) about the death of Jesus. Columnist Frank Rich (search) in "The New York Times," and writer Tim Rutten (search) of "The Los Angeles Times," both of accused Gibson of pretty much every heinous act ever committed.

Last Sunday, Rich said Gibson was using the pope to make money. On Wednesday, Retten said, "A good Hollywood publicity campaign does not stumble over technicalities -- like the truth. Still, it takes a particular sort of chutzpah to put a phony quote in the mouth of Pope John Paul II."

Retten goes on to say Gibson and his staff have created a quote from Pope John Paul, which described the movie. The quote was "it is as it was." However, today in that same newspaper, "The Los Angeles Times," a different story. It was written Lorenzo Minos and Larry Stammer.

And it says, "Last month, the ailing pontiff was quoted as having said after a private screening of the film 'it is as it was.' Asked Dec. 19 whether the quote was reliable, Vatican press secretary Joaquin Navarro-Valls (search) told the Times 'I think you can consider that quote as accurate'."

Also today, says, "In summary the position would now appear to be that the Pope did see the film and he did say the comment that was attributed to him..."

We called "L.A. Times" columnist Tim Rutten to explain his attack, in light of the fact that his own newspaper had information that Gibson had told the truth. Rutten did not return our calls.

Joining us now from Dallas is Rod Dreher, editorial writer for "The Dallas Morning News." He's been following this story.

This is, I think, very outrageous, although I would like Retten to put forth his point of view. It seems that his own newspaper had information the pope did say that "The Passion" is as it was. OK? That Rutten had to know that if he did any kind of research or he read his own newspaper. Yet Rutten comes this week and calls Gibson a liar, putting false words in the pontiff's mouth. How do you react?

ROD DREHER, DALLAS MORNING NEWS: Well, it is outrageous, Bill. And it shows you the viciousness with which the enemies of Mel Gibson and this film are reacting to the film and taking this Vatican statement that the pope never said any such thing and using it to hang Mel out to dry. And I'm afraid that the Vatican itself, through its own duplicity and through its own, I'll say it, lying have -- they've thrown Mel Gibson to the wolves.

O'REILLY: Well, I see it a little bit differently than you do. I don't think that the Vatican itself lied. I think Navarro-Valls, the official press secretary, told the truth last December when he said the pope saw the movie and this comment is accurate.

What the Vatican doesn't want to do is get in the middle of the controversy. So it's backing away. It's not defending Gibson. OK? It doesn't want to be -- they don't want the pope's picture endorsing this obviously controversial film. I don't know whether they lied. Maybe an individual did, but I wouldn't put that on the Vatican.

DREHER: No, no, Bill, I would, and I'll tell you why. Navarro-Valls did, we know this now from "The L.A. Times," from ["Wall Street Journal" columnist] Peggy Noonan and from other sources that Navarro-Valls has confirmed back in December that the pope said this.

O'REILLY: Right.

DREHER: Somebody higher up decided that it wasn't convenient for the pope to have said this. And so, Navarro-Valls has backed off this story and held Mel Gibson up in effect to ridicule. And his reputation is at stake here, as you see from the Frank Rich attack and "The L.A. Times," attack. I think Navarro-Valls told the truth the first time, but now he's backed away from it.

O'REILLY: Well, when you say he's backed away, I haven't seen any statements by the Vatican press secretary denying the pope said it. He's just not sticking up for Gibson. And Gibson's under attack.

DREHER: Well, he denied to me in an e-mail to me earlier this week. I wrote about this in "The Dallas Morning News."

O'REILLY: Did he really?

DREHER: I wrote to him, sent him an e-mail I had gotten leaked to someone close to the film, giving -- verifying the quote and giving Mel Gibson's team permission and encouraging them to use it in the promotion of the movie. I sent that e-mail to Navarro-Valls and said did you say this? Is this e-mail accurate? He denied its authenticity. And I think that's simply not true.

O'REILLY: OK, but there's a little bit of a difference. And I want to make sure that the audience understands this. You were saying -- you were asking the man if the Vatican gave the Gibson people permission to use the statement, correct?

DREHER: That's true. The e-mail I sent him was verified, the original Peggy Noonan report that the pope said it is as it was, and that he gave permission for them -- encouraged them to use it in the promotion of the film.

O'REILLY: OK, so -- but he didn't deny it is as it was, did he?

DREHER: I think he did. I sent him...

O'REILLY: I don't see that. I have the e-mail correspondence here. I don't see that.

DREHER: Well, he says the e-mail was fake. I mean, he didn't come out and say the e-mail is fake, but the pope did say this.

O'REILLY: All right, so it's a mess.

DREHER: I think he was told -- it's a mess, yes. And the Vatican looks terrible.

O'REILLY: They do this all the time, because they don't know how to handle. They didn't do -- they didn't respond to the child molestation thing correctly in America. They're afraid.

And I think this is where it stems from. They're afraid to get in the controversy over a movie. They don't -- they think that denigrates the pope. He shouldn't be involved in a movie and all of that.

But at this point, the Catholic press, the national "Catholic Reporter" and the Catholic Web site says flat-out their research confirms the pope said this and that the Gibson people didn't do anything wrong.

DREHER: Well, you know, Bill, some people are saying this is a tempest in a teapot. Why are people so concerned about a movie? I tell you what, it's not a tempest in a teapot to Mel Gibson and his people, who's reputations are on the line.

O'REILLY: You bet.

DREHER: It's not a tempest in a teapot to Peggy Noonan and other journalists whose only mistake was to believe the Vatican press spokesman.

O'REILLY: OK. Now do you believe -- last question.

DREHER: This is serious.

O'REILLY: 30 seconds left, that "The L.A. Times" and "New York Times" consciously want to go after Gibson and destroy the credibility of this film?

DREHER: Well, I think so. You look at the Tim Retten piece in "The L.A. Times," you talked about, basic journalism would have required him to go back and look at what has been reported. I mean, it's a mysterious thing here how this quote got out. I think that they want to get him.

O'REILLY: All right. We'll stay on the story, Rod. Thanks as always.

The Goriest Story Ever Told
Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ is a well-made film. That doesn't mean you'll want to see it

By Richard Corliss

A scene from Mel Gibson's The Passion

You might not expect much controversy from a strenuously reverent film adaptation of some famous chapters from the all-time best-selling book, one found in most homes, churches and hotel rooms. But with mouthy Mel Gibson as the auteur and the Gospels as his text, The Passion of the Christ has stoked a holy word war of an intensity not seen since Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988.

Let's start by saying that this is a movie, and that it has the same right to take the Bible literally as other films have to be comically blasphemous. Faith and piety are so often mocked in modern pop culture that Gibson could seem a radical just for approaching the Gospels with a straight face. The director, who won a Best Picture Oscar for Braveheart, has put his money ($30 million) where his faith is. In dramatizing the torment of Jesus' last 12 hours, he has made a serious, handsome, excruciating film that radiates total commitment. Few mainstream directors have poured so much of themselves into so uncompromising a production. Whatever the ultimate verdict on Gibson's Passion, it's hard not to admire Gibson's passion.

Or his artistry. The film, photographed by Caleb Deschanel (The Black Stallion, The Right Stuff, Gibson's The Patriot), is an attractive clash of eerie blues in the outdoor night scenes, burnished umbers in the trial scenes and blistering whites and yellows on the road to Calvary. The cast, led by James Caviezel as a gaunt, haunted Jesus, is well chosen and smartly directed. The screenplay, by Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald, begins starkly in the Garden of Olives — no loaves and fishes, no wedding feast at Cana — but adds nonbiblical flashbacks to Jesus' idyllic childhood with his beloved mother Mary (powerfully embodied by Maia Morgenstern). It also visualizes Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) as an androgynous creature, a Gollum with weird sex appeal, who slithers through the crowd, working infernal mischief.

Is the film anti-Jewish? Well, which Jews? Start with the Sanhedrin, the rabbinical senate that found Jesus guilty of violating temple law and handed him to the Roman authority for summary punishment. The rabbis had their reasons; they saw the upstart as dangerous, blasphemous, possibly insane for proclaiming himself the Messiah and telling his followers they would live forever if they ate his flesh and drank his blood. The film sees the rabbis as doctrinally pure but politically corrupt. Indeed, it suggests they are a rogue cell calling a midnight caucus for a frame-up. But Gibson also shows many Jews (and no Romans) treating Jesus with a kindness and charity one might call Christian. We acknowledge, then, that The Passion is rabidly anti-Sanhedrin — opposed, as Jesus and other Jews were, to the Establishment of the time. But to charge the film with being anti-Semitic is like saying those who oppose the Bush Administration's Iraq policy are anti-American.

Like most movies, this one favors the underdog, the insurgent, the solitary hero against the powerful. Gibson's Jesus is a traditional movie rebel. He shows steely contempt for authority, chastens his mates for being slackers and argues with his Father — the God who sent him on this sacred suicide mission. This Jesus is so human he almost forgets he's divine. The grotesque pain he endures in his last 12 hours nearly blinds him to his task of redeeming mankind by dying for it. His memories are not those of a distant godhead but of his youth in Nazareth. Gibson's Jesus is a deity who has fallen in love with his human side; only death can restore his divinity.

Gibson has often played heroes like this. In his starmaking Mad Max films he was the postapocalyptic angry young man. In Conspiracy Theory he spouted eccentric political and religious scenarios ("Somebody's got to lift the festering scab that is the Vatican," he barks at two startled nuns in his taxi), one of which, when it turns out to be true, earned him a death sentence from today's Sanhedrin, the CIA. In Signs, the Gibson character saw alien creatures attacking his family; The Passion's Jesus sees Satan everywhere, clouding men's minds, taking the form of snakes and little boys, following Jesus up Calvary to gloat and grimace.

Braveheart was gaudily violent, in spurts. This one is crimson carnage from the moment Jesus is condemned, half an hour into the 127-min. film. One of his eyes is caked closed from a beating by Jewish goons, but the Romans are the pros. They take their time applying 80 or so wince-worthy lashes to his body, and the camera pays avid attention to the whole draining spectacle. He falls three times, which is fine for Catholic fidelity but wasteful and redundant as movie drama.

Inspired as much by Renaissance iconography, the Stations of the Cross and the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary as by the Gospels' terse narratives, Gibson portrays Jesus' agony and death in acute and lavish detail. In the end, all that gore tends to blunt not only the story's natural power but even the sense of horror at what a god-man has to endure to save all men. The Passion may be unique in movie history in devoting most of its length to the torture of one man who doesn't fight back. He takes a flaying and keeps on praying. This is Gandhi as Rocky. It's Bloodheart.

What is the audience for this Passion? Many Christians — who would appreciate the message — may be repelled by the film's unrelenting bloodletting. The teen boys who make box-office winners every Friday night may like the blood, but they want their heroes to fight back and blow stuff up. Nor is this exactly a date movie. No, the audience profile for The Passion of the Christ is fairly narrow: true believers with cast-iron stomachs; people who can stand to be grossed out as they are edified. And a few movie critics who can't help admiring Mad Mel for the spiritual compulsion that drove him to invent a new genre — the religious splatter-art film — and bring it to searing life, death and resurrection.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

The Best of the Worst
A look at the worst films, performances and directors Oscar has rewarded

By Dave McCoy
MSN Entertainment

Roberto Benigni mugs to the crowd as he makes his way to the stage to accept the Best Actor trophy for "Life Is Beautiful"

The only thing Americans love more than controversy is arguing ... and for movie fans, nothing gets us more riled up than the Oscars. Danny Perry, in his book "Alternate Oscars," wrote, "Second-guessing the Academy's Oscar selections has become the national sport of the dissatisfied and disenfranchised." We argue about who should host the awards. We argue about what or who was or wasn't nominated. But perhaps the biggest arguments come after the awards are handed out. "How could they give that film Best Picture?!" "She won Best Supporting Actress?"

When you look back at the 75 years of the Academy Awards, you have that reaction a lot. Simply put, the Academy has made some huge errors, and history has not been kind to their decisions. The most obvious example is "Citizen Kane." Though it's considered by critics and cinephiles alike to be the best film ever made, the Academy didn't even consider it the best film of that year (1941), giving the award instead to "How Green Was My Valley." And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

So, what follows is our look at the Academy's biggest blunders. We're only covering the six main categories. Sorry, we can't do them all. I mean, if we covered the Best Song category, we could write an entire dissertation on the last 20 years alone.

Feel free to argue ...

Worst Supporting Actress
Since the supporting categories were started in 1937, the biggest number of Academy gaffes, by far, reside here. Look down the list of best supporting actress winners and you'll be scratching your head so many times, people may think you've contracted lice. It's so bad, in fact, that we have a tie. The old line goes age before beauty, so let's start with Helen Hayes' win as on old lady stowaway in the clichéd disaster film "Airport" (1970). In the supporting category the winners usually swing between really good newcomers and crusty "Lifetime Achievement Award" old timers; Hayes, who was 70 when she won this award, falls in the later category (she had already won Best Actress in 1932 for "The Sin of Madelon Claudet"). Though her performance is scene stealing, it's hardly Oscar-worthy (Karen Black in "Five Easy Pieces" or Sally Kellerman in "M.A.S.H." were both stronger). On the other end of the spectrum, but equally as baffling, was Marisa Tomei's win for "My Cousin Vinny (1992). You could hear an audible gasp in the audience when Tomei's one-note performance as Joe Pesci's obnoxious, street-smart girlfriend was awarded gold. Twelve years later, it's just as puzzling ... especially to actresses like Judy Davis ("Husbands and Wives") and Vanessa Redgrave ("Howard's End") who were much more deserving.
Dishonorable mentions:
Beatrice Straight -- "Network" (1976)
Judi Dench -- "Shakespeare in Love" (1998)
Whoopi Goldberg -- "Ghost" (1990)
Angelina Jolie -- "Girl, Interrupted" (1999)
Mira Sorvino -- "Mighty Aphrodite" (1995)
Maggie Smith -- "California Suite" (1978)
Ingrid Bergman -- "Murder on the Orient Express" (1973)

Worst Supporting Actor
Unlike Supporting Actress, the Academy has generally redeemed itself when it comes to Supporting Actors. In fact, poring over the list of winners, the only one that sticks out is George Burns for "The Sunshine Boys" (1975). His win isn't offensive or awful as much as undeserving. He played one half of a vaudeville act (Walter Matthau is the other half) who reunites with his old partner late in life despite the fact that they hate each other. Burns' win definitely falls under the "Lifetime Achievement Award" category, as his competition that year blows his deadpan performance away. Jack Warden in "Shampoo," Brad Dourif in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," Burgess Meredith for "The Day of the Locust," and especially Chris Sarandon for "Dog Day Afternoon" were all better choices, but apparently not sentimental enough for the Academy. Does anyone even remember "The Sunshine Boys"?
Dishonorable mention:
Jack Palance -- "City Slickers" (1991)
Ed Begley Sr. -- "Sweet Bird of Youth" (1962)
Peter Ustinov -- "Spartacus" (1960)
Red Buttons -- "Sayonara" (1957)
Don Ameche -- "Cocoon" (1985)

Worst Actress
Of all the major categories, Best Actress is the one where you don't find many mistakes by the Academy. For the most part, they got things right, or at least didn't embarrass themselves. There is always an exception, however, and here it is Elizabeth Taylor winning Best Actress for "Butterfield 8" (1960). Before the film -- a campy, nearly unwatchable drama about a prostitute (Taylor) who falls for a married lawyer (Laurence Harvey) -- was even made, there were problems. Taylor thought the script was offensive, saying, "This is the most pornographic script I've ever read. I've been [at MGM] for 17 years and I was never asked to play such a horrible role ... she's a sick nymphomaniac ..." The problem, however, was that Liz was under contract and obligated to make one more picture for MGM. After many concessions by the studio, Taylor finally agreed to make the film. Critics trashed it, but audiences ate it up, and the film was a hit. She was nominated, but the odds were against her winning her first Oscar. However, weeks before the ceremony, Taylor fell sick with a mysterious illness, and her condition was considered grave after a doctor performed a tracheotomy. Despite her sudden illness, Taylor vowed she'd make the ceremony. In a feat of disgusting empathy, the Academy awarded Liz with her first Oscar (she made the ceremony, and fainted backstage after winning) for a role she never wanted in a film that no one remembers.
Dishonorable mention:
Halle Berry -- "Monster's Ball" (2001)
Grace Kelly -- "The Country Girl" (1954)
Judy Holliday -- "Born Yesterday" (1950)
Cher -- "Moonstruck" (1987)
Glenda Jackson -- "A Touch of Class" (1973)

Worst Actor
Though the list of Academy mistakes in this category is long and impressive, we have to go with Roberto Benigni winning Best Actor for his Italian Holocaust comedy "Life is Beautiful" (1998). We'll spare you the details of why "Life is Beautiful" is one of the most offensive, callous, self-serving, sappy films to ever dupe both the nation and the Academy (it received more nominations than any foreign film in history), for that is another article. Instead, let's focus on Benigni's hyperactive, megalomaniacal "performance." He plays an imprisoned father in a Nazi death camp who tries to hide the reality of the Holocaust from his son by pretending the whole experience is a game. Benigni doesn't give a performance as much as celebrate himself and his "clever" idea. He wants to be Keaton or Chaplin, but we see his jokes coming from miles away. He's mugging and winking at the audience the whole way through and the result is nauseating. His shtick was good enough to fool the Academy, however, allowing Benigni to embarrass himself (again) on national TV by running around like a madman while gushing such drivel as "My body is in tumult ... I would like to be ... lying down and making love to everybody." Nick Nolte, who was nominated for his performance in "Affliction," was robbed.
Dishonorable mention:
Art Carney -- "Harry and Tonto" (1974)
Paul Lukas -- "Watch on the Rhine" (1943)
Dustin Hoffman -- "Rain Man" (1988)
John Wayne -- "True Grit" (1970)
Peter Finch -- "Network" (1976)
Rex Harrison -- "My Fair Lady" (1964)

Worst Director
I still remember the moment as if it were yesterday. It was March 24, 2002, I was at an Oscar party and they were just about to announce Best Director. The field was brutal: America's premier maverick Robert Altman for "Gosford Park"; genius David Lynch for "Mulholland Drive," easily the best film of 2001; one-time filmmaking master Ridley Scott for "Black Hawk Down"; rising mastermind Peter Jackson for "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring;" and Ron Howard for "A Beautiful Mind." Ron Howard. The guy that made memorable cinema such as "Gung Ho." And "EdTV." Oh, and how could we forget "Far and Away" or "Backdraft"? I was pulling for Altman -- he had never won, was 77 years old, and "Gosford Park" was remarkable -- but a win by Lynch or Jackson would have been justified too. Even a Scott win I could swallow. But they gave it to Howard. Three of the best directors in film history (plus, Ridley Scott) lost to Opie. Howard is a director who makes safe, bland entertainment intended not to ruffle anyone's feathers. A more challenging director could have made "A Beautiful Mind," and they wouldn't have changed facts about the life of John Nash to make the film more mainstream. Howard signifies everything that is boring and wrong with Hollywood, and his reward was a statue that defines the system. So, maybe, it was warranted. Still, there have been a lot of Oscar blunders, but this one rises above them all.
Dishonorable mention:
Robert Zemeckis -- "Forrest Gump" (1994)
Oliver Stone --"Born on the Fourth of July" (1989)
Leo McCarey -- "Going My Way" (1944)
Kevin Costner -- "Dances With Wolves" (1990)
Robert Redford -- "Ordinary People" (1980)
George Roy Hill -- "The Sting" (1973)

Toughest Call:
John Ford ("How Green Was My Valley") beat Orson Welles ("Citizen Kane") for Best Director in 1941. While Ford is easily one of the top five directors in film history, Welles deserved the award that year. Plus, Ford had already won an award (he went on to win four total). Meanwhile, Welles was never nominated again.

Worst Picture
In 1989, Spike Lee made his masterpiece, "Do the Right Thing," a volatile, edgy ensemble piece about deteriorating race relations in a Brooklyn neighborhood on the hottest day of the year. The film was a much-needed cinematic slap in the face: unblinking social commentary masked as entertainment. It was angry and funny and shocking, fueled by real humanity yet never yielding to cheap sentimentality. Oh, yeah, and it wasn't even nominated by the Academy for Best Picture. Instead, films like the conformity-embracing "Dead Poet's Society," the hyperbolic "Born on the Fourth of July," the schmaltzy "Field of Dreams," the biopic "My Left Foot" and, sigh, "Driving Miss Daisy" instead earned nominations. The same year that Spike Lee opened audience's eyes to the dangerously explosive nature of race relations in America, the Academy looked away, and instead retreated 30 or 40 years. They awarded "Driving Miss Daisy" the Best Picture trophy. That cozy, unthreatening exploration of a relationship between an aging Southern matriarch and her African-American driver was just the type of movie that critic David Thomson calls "feel-good liberalism" that the Academy eats up. It was nice and safe and told you exactly how to feel. The fact that Lee's film was snubbed when the nominations were announced was bad enough; that "Daisy" drove off with the Oscar for Best Picture just showed how out of touch the Academy was -- not only with cinema, but society. Irony has never been more bitter.
Dishonorable mention:
"The Greatest Show on Earth" (1952)
"Around the World in 80 Days" (1956)
"A Beautiful Mind" (2001)
"Titanic" (1997)
"Out of Africa" (1985)
"Kramer Vs. Kramer" (1979)
"Ordinary People" (1980)

US papers give Crying Ladies good reviews
FUNFARE by Ricardo F. Lo
The Philippine Star 02/25/2004

A few issues ago, Funfare reported that Unitel Pictures' Crying Ladies was opening in theaters across America, with producer Tony Gloria leading Filipinos and other film buffs in welcoming his movie calculated to surpass the impressive showing of Unitel’s other movie, American Adobo, which was also shown (in art houses) in the US.

Crying Ladies has been getting good reviews in US papers, including Village Voice, The New York Times and TV Guide which said in an article entitled Wail of a Tale, "...Mark Meily’s formulaic comedy about a pretty con artist reformed by love for her small son is tailor-made for a Hollywood remake of the ‘you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, your heart will be warmed' variety..."

I’m printing verbatim the brief but favorable review by Mark Holcomb in his Village Voice column Tracking Shot:

Simultaneously shameless and streetwise, acerbic and cloying, Mark Meily's Crying Ladies strives for and largely achieves a hard-edged chick-flick aesthetic. Filipina singing/acting/product-endorsing workhorse Sharon Cuneta plays Stella, a down-on-her-luck Manila divorcée who, along with two equally desperate gal pals, hires on as a professional mourner at a Chinese funeral. Cuneta delivers an engaging, surprisingly coarse performance, considering her onetime Philippines-sweetheart status, and the subtle revelations concerning ritual and loss in Meily's story serve her well. More judicious editing was surely called for, but Crying Ladies succeeds as first-rate melodrama.

And here are excerpts from The New York Times review entitled Mourners for Hire by A. O. Scott:

A hit in the Philippines, where it won six awards at the 2003 Metro Manila Film Festival, Mark Meily's Crying Ladies is a loose and genial soap opera about three working-class Manila women who are hired as mourners for a funeral in the city's Chinese community.

According to the movie, the Chinese practice of employing women to wail for the dead, once common, is on the wane, but the Chua family nonetheless insists on a traditional send-off for its patriarch, a philanderer and possible gangster named Washington. His son, Wilson (Eric Quizon), hires Stella (Sharon Cuneta), a sometime petty thief who has lost custody of her young son after serving a year in prison, as a crier.

Stella, a second-generation crier, recruits two of her friends: Choleng (Angel Aquino), a pious Roman Catholic who is nonetheless having a guilty affair with another woman's husband, and Aling (Hilda Koronel), a shopkeeper who clings to the fading memory of her movie career, whose high point was a bit part in a picture called "Darna and the Giants."

In the easygoing, unembarrassed world of Crying Ladies, it seems perfectly natural that a stranger should recognize Aling from her decades-old role as a villager crushed by a marauding monster. This may also be a sly joke by Mr. Meily, since Ms. Koronel, like Ms. Cuneta, is a major Philippine movie star. With a refreshing lack of vanity or pretension, these actresses play their ordinary, hard-luck characters with generosity and grace.

Mr. Meily, who directed the film from his own screenplay, gives the audience quite a few plot lines to keep track of. Some, especially those involving Choleng and Aling, are handled in a fairly perfunctory manner, yielding little emotional payoff...

...The movie wears its many clichés lightly and without embarrassment. If it were more tightly constructed, Crying Ladies would probably also be more relentlessly melodramatic.

But a movie about people who cry fake tears for money, and for complete strangers, would be ill advised to indulge in displays of overwrought emotion. Its most winning attribute is a kind of sloppy, unassuming friendliness, a likability aptly reflected in its characters.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

"Passion" Plays with Critics

Reviews are starting to roll in for Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," which opens wide on Ash Wednesday (Feb. 25). And while early critical reaction is wildly mixed, it doesn't look like the megastar will have much trouble recouping his $30 million investment.

"Two thumbs way up," declare critics Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper, who call it a "great film." Time dubs the ultra-graphic pic, which stars Jim Caviezel as Jesus, "The Goriest Story Ever Told," but concedes that Gibson has directed "a serious, handsome, excruciating film that radiates total commitment. Few mainstream directors have poured so much of themselves into so uncompromising a production." The magazine adds that Mel has seemingly invented a new celluloid genre: "The religious splatter-art film."

"Technically, the film is a beauty," says the Hollywood Reporter, but wishes "Gibson had chosen to highlight spiritual truth rather than physical realism." Variety believes that this long-in-the-works project represents the "very pure definition of independent cinema," adding, "You have to tip your hat to Gibson for putting his money where his heart and soul and mouth are, for putting self-expression before the bottom line to an extent that few major Hollywood figures ever have." The trade's verdict: "The passion according to Mel is potent stuff, but rather like a full course of bitter herbs without as much as a taste of honey."

Newsweek was less enamored of the relentless violence, determining, "Instead of being moved by Christ's suffering, or awed by his sacrifice, I felt abused by a filmmaker intent on punishing an audience, for who knows what sins." The New Yorker was even more brutal: "The movie Gibson has made from his personal obsessions is a sickening death trip...he falls in danger of altering Jesus' message of love into one of hate."

Jim Caviezel Talks About Playing Christ in 'The Passion'
By Shannon Woodland and Scott Ross
The 700 Club

"This film forces you to see yourself, not the way you want to see yourself, but as God sees you. There are no passive onlookers here," says Jim Caviezel. – Jim Caviezel is a respectable actor with a respectable career. The Count of Monte Cristo, The Thin Red Line, Pay It Forward, and Angel Eyes are just a few of his films. But his most recent role may jeopardize his respectability -- Jim plays Jesus in Mel Gibson's controversial film, The Passion of the Christ.

In his first television interview since the filming of The Passion, Jim went to great depths to help 700 Club producer Scott Ross understand what it means to play the crucified Savior.

SCOTT ROSS: How old were you when you played in the film?

JIM CAVIEZEL: It is interesting. The day after I accepted the role, I got a phone call from Mel. He said, 'Hi, this is Mel.' 'Mel who?' For some reason, Mel Gibson, Tom Cruise -- that's how I know them. I don't know them by just first name. He said, 'Hey, Jim, this is Mel.' He started talking about this movie and started talking me out of the role.

SCOTT ROSS: Talking you out of it? This is after he offered it to you?

JIM CAVIEZEL: The next day, he said, 'I want you to be aware of what you are going to go through. You may never work again.' He said that several times publicly. I told him, 'Mel, this is what I believe. We all have a cross to carry. I have to carry my own cross. If we don't carry our crosses, we are going to be crushed under the weight of it. So let's go and do it.' And we began with the film.

SCOTT ROSS: How old were you?

JIM CAVIEZEL: I told Mel, 'It is eerie. My initials are J.C. and I am 33 years old.' That was it.

SCOTT ROSS: What's your initial gut response to it?

JIM CAVIEZEL: I was half exhilarated and half terrified, honestly. I felt that the whole way through.

SCOTT ROSS: What did you bring to it, not just as an actor, but how do you prepare to play the Son of God?

JIM CAVIEZEL: It's a great question. How do you prepare? By fire. Looking back, there were two words, 'unquenchable fire.' What was hard was the physical, the suffering. Makeup time started from 2 a.m. and it went till 10 a.m. -- that alone right there, the boredom, not just the boredom, but the uncomfortable position. You're never sitting down. After day in and day out of this, plus the hypothermia, plus I had a separated shoulder, it forced me to pray. I had to go to a place of something really deep because I was going crazy.

SCOTT ROSS: You said you went into prayer. Is that something you believed anyway prior to the part? You are a believer?

JIM CAVIEZEL: Well, there's no question that I believe. I think many of your viewers know what I'm talking about. Why would you subject yourself to persecution unless you know that that's the truth? And let me tell you, I was on that cross. Many people who looked up there, I may be playing Christ, but a lot of times I felt like Satan. I had obscenities wanting to come out of me. It was so cold it was like knives coming through me. I had hypothermia. I don't know whether you've dealt with that, but one day of hypothermia I was so cold I could barely get the lines out. My mouth was shaking uncontrollably. My arms and legs went numb. I was suffocating on that cross. In the mean time, you watch people have coffee and laugh. They were very indifferent about what you're going through.

SCOTT ROSSS: Was that true across the board with the cast or with the crew?

JIM CAVIEZEL: No, we had very sympathetic people. Like in all humanity, we had sympathetic people and indifferent people and people who were repelled by it. Watching that I wanted to burst out in my own humanity and tell this guy to shut up or take off.

SCOTT ROSS: Which was very opposite of what Jesus did in forgiving His enemies.

JIM CAVIEZEL: Then at that point what do you do? I'm a craftsman. I'm an actor. Where does this place? Where does he go? So I had to seriously get into a prayer not from here [the mind], but from the heart.

SCOTT ROSS: The whipping and the scourging are hard to watch because that goes on for so long. I was literally counting the lashes. I watched people in the theatre in front of me, a small viewing theatre, turn their faces away because they couldn't continue to look.

JIM CAVIEZEL: You said something very critical there: People turn their eyes away when they see it, and what they're seeing is their own sin. It is not wanting to deal, at times, with their own sin. It's that hard to look at. But this film forces you to see yourself, not the way you want to see yourself, but as God sees you. There are no passive onlookers here.

SCOTT ROSS: What part of this has the greatest affect on you? Is it possible to isolate a moment or time?

JIM CAVIEZEL: Oh boy, I'll be honest with you, there are things that I went through that I can't even talk about. I felt like a great presence came within me at times when we were filming. This prayer that came from me was, 'I don't want people to see me. I just want them to see Jesus. And through that conversions will happen.' That's what I wanted more than anything, that people would have a visceral effect to finally make a decision whether to follow Him or not.

SCOTT ROSS: And that's the only choice; either you do or you don't. You're either for Me, or you're against Me.

JIM CAVIEZEL: Throughout this, when people put on Christ when they go outside, that is all nonbelievers see. And we're going to have people reject it, but there are others who make a living at being Christian. This is serious because they know the Body of Christ. They know what that is. And for them, it's even more serious. Many of our Jewish brothers are terrified. I have people come up to me and say, 'Jim,' -- they're Jewish -- 'some of the e-mails, have you read these things? This is frightening. I didn't kill Christ.' I say, 'No, the people standing before Christ and Pilate during the judgment scene do not condemn an entire race for the death of Christ anymore than the actions of Mussolini condemn all Italians or the heinous crimes of Stalin condemn all Russians. We are all culpable in the death of Christ. My sins, your sins put Him on that cross.' I bring this up because it's very important to address. I want my Jewish brothers to see this film. I want people in my own faith who think it's anti-Semitic to see this film. I want non-religious people to see this film. This film does not play the blame game at all. We're all culpable in the death of Christ.

Saturday, February 21, 2004

President Bush Wants to See Gibson Film

President Bush wants to see the controversial new Mel Gibson film, "The Passion of the Christ," his spokesman said Friday.

Asked if the president wanted to see the Crucifixion drama, opening in U.S. theaters Wednesday, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said, "I think he does and I think at some point he probably will."

The White House has a private theater in which presidents can view first-run films.

Gibson directed, financed and co-wrote the movie, which tells the story of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

It has become highly controversial even before its opening, with some claiming that it could spark anti-Semitism by making it seem that the Jews as a people were responsible for Christ's death.

Friday, February 20, 2004

Could Mel Gibson Have Avoided Controversy With The Passion? Maybe Not
By Bruce N. Fisk

Feb. 14— Editor's Note: New Testament scholar Bruce N. Fisk saw a rough cut of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ in November 2003, and wondered: Can a Jesus film be too bloody? Can a work of history make room for legend? Can any telling of this story avoid anti-Semitism?

Emmanuel's Veins

The Passion of the Christ is messy. From Jesus' violent arrest to his flogging and crucifixion, almost every scene is marked by callous cruelty and bloodshed. Jesus' bruised right eye swells shut. Deep lacerations criss-cross his flesh. It's very visceral and very difficult to watch. We've come a long way from the sanitized, dispassionate Jesus of so many Byzantine altar pieces (and we couldn't be further removed from the crucifixion scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian). Imagine, rather, a moving, breathing version of the Issenheim altarpiece [Matthias Grünewald's painted 1515 rendering of the crucifixion], in all its graphic, grisly detail.

How much blood and violence are necessary, I found myself wondering, for the crucifixion story to be authentic? Does Gibson's R-rated account rank among the most faithful Jesus films ever? Or is it simply riding the current wave of "reality" programming? Is it brutally honest, or just brutal? Scroll meets screenplay, or Stigmata meets Kill Bill?

At the church of my childhood, we talked a lot about Christ's blood. Rarely did a week go by without someone asking to sing, "Nothing but the Blood," or "There's Power in the Blood," or "There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood (drawn from Emmanuel's veins)."

When we weren't singing hymns, I would struggle to fill the silence with mental images of Jesus in pain, Jesus bleeding, Jesus pierced for my transgressions. It was almost as if the more pain Jesus felt, the more God's wrath was turned away. The more blood Christ shed, the more deeply I could "plunge beneath the flood." To me, it wasn't enough for his death to be vicarious; it also had to be slow, agonizing and messy.

Roman crucifixions were indeed messy, nasty affairs. A single execution could drag on for days. Many victims didn't survive the flogging, and you'll know why if you see Gibson's film. I had to force myself to watch as a pair of blood-spattered soldiers scourged Jesus, back and front, minute after interminable minute. Watching it felt almost voyeuristic, perhaps because the grisly details of Jesus' flagellation and crucifixion receive such scant attention in each Gospel. Pilate "took Jesus and scourged him," we read. Soldiers "put on" the crown of thorns and "struck" him (John 19:1-3). Even more restrained are the hushed descriptions of Golgotha: "there they crucified him" (Luke 23:33).

Paul's cross language is similarly sparse: "we preach Christ crucified," he says (1 Cor 1:23; cf. Gal 3:1) and "he was obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:8). As a whole, the New Testament offers lots about the meaning of Christ's death: it is sacrifice and example; it is moment of conquest and act of reconciliation and turning point in time (see, e.g., 2 Cor 5:19; Col 2:15; Heb 9:22, 28; 1 Pet 2:21-24; Rev 5:6; 7:14). But for all its significance for early Christians, the lurid details of Christ's death are stunningly absent. Was such punishment simply too familiar in its day to warrant commentary? Or too disgusting? Or too shameful?

Gibson's preoccupation with Christ's shed blood and agony threatens to distract us from another crucial dimension of his death. Survey any Roman legion in the reign of Tiberius and they'll probably say that crucifixion was as much about shame as it was about pain. Ask Paul about the scandal at the heart of his Gospel and he'll point, not to whips and nails, but to the sheer embarrassment and absurd foolishness of a crucified savior. Hebrews says Christ, "endured the cross, disregarding its shame," (Heb 12:2; cf. 6:6). So the cross was not only about cruelty but also about degradation and defilement, exclusion and ridicule, which is why, by the way, it proved such an obstacle to early Christian preaching.

No one who screens Passion will ever be tempted to minimize the horrors of the cross. The Christian trinket industry may suffer. Good Friday services this year will feel different. What is not clear to me, however, is how well the film exposes the shame side of things. I suppose humiliation is harder than suffering to portray on film, and riskier. And we in the West don't really "get" shame. (Witness the popularity of shows like Jerry Springer, Cops, "Girls Gone Wild" and Howard Stern.) I don't know: Maybe the film could stand a bit less blood and a bit more blushing; maybe fewer lashes and more disdain. As it stands, I'm not sure Passion gets the balance quite right.

Veronica's Cloth

The Passion of the Christ is also very Catholic. The storyline borrows bits from each of the four Gospels (with nods toward Matthew and John), but it is also steeped in church tradition and guided by images and symbols long cherished by Catholic worshipers. Jesus stumbles three times on his way to Golgotha, in keeping with the traditional Fourteen Stations of the Cross. The legendary Veronica of Station Six steps forward to wipe Jesus' bloodied face, only to find his image perfectly imprinted on her cloth. And Mary is highly visible and central to the story — a much stronger figure than the two-dimensional, inconsequential Mary of so much Protestant piety. John calls Mary his mother, if I heard correctly, even before Jesus suggests the idea (John 19:27), and Jesus, while praying, self-identifies as "the son of your handmaid" (cf. Psm 86:16; 116:16). At the cross, Mary murmurs "my son, let me die with you" and later cradles her son's dead body, Pietà-like, while gazing into the camera, as if to assure us that all will be well.

I find refreshing a film so firmly rooted in a particular Christian confession. But honoring simultaneous commitments to history and tradition is always tricky. Like Jesus along the Via Dolorosa, the film occasionally loses its footing. Why, for example, would Jesus be forced to carry a whole cross while his two rebel counterparts bear only their horizontal beams? Why would Jesus engage Pilate in Latin instead of Greek? (Fluent Latin wasn't common among Galileans in the 1st century.) Similarly, why does Greek disappear from Pilate's tri-lingual inscription naming Jesus King of the Jews? In each case, sacred memory trumps historical plausibility.

That said, I applaud the film's self-consciously Catholic loyalties. Every account of the Passion must embellish in some direction; every meaningful retelling calls for transformation. This is just as true for experimental projects like Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, Last Temptation of Christ and Jesus of Montreal as it is for openly confessional ones like The Passion of the Christ or last fall's The Gospel of John. Translation entails interpretation, and interpretation cannot happen in a vacuum.

Sibling Rivalry

If we listen to the film's harshest critics, Passion is "dangerous" and "anti-Semitic," sure to "fuel hatred" against Jews worldwide. Disturbing charges, these. But will they stick? Is Gibson conspiring to undo decades of post-Holocaust, Jewish-Christian dialogue?

Let me propose, first of all, that some critics of Gibson's narrative would find Matthew's or John's equally troubling. Perhaps they are worried that a screen version of the crucifixion will pack more punch, and change more minds, in an a-literate, visual culture than would, say, a public recitation of one of the Gospels.

Truth be told, each Gospel depicts both Romans and Jews conspiring to eliminate the Galilean threat. Pilate has the last word, but he can ill afford to ignore the local religious lobby — the priestly power-brokers who have pronounced Jesus a blasphemous Messianic pretender. If the Jewish establishment was all but unanimous in its rejection of Jesus, Roman occupiers had their own reasons for wanting Jesus out of the way. Pilate could hardly tolerate unauthorized royal claimants, even naïve ones, running loose in his territory. The "cause" of Jesus' execution, as it turns out, was neither singular nor simple.

An even trickier question, however, is whether the Gospels themselves spin the story in a pro-Roman, anti-Jewish direction. Are the Gospels anti-Semitic? This is not the place to explore 1st century Jewish disputes about Jesus and how this "sibling rivalry" plays out on the pages of the New Testament. Suffice it to say that a handful of NT texts, especially in Matthew and John (e.g., Mt 21:43; 27:25; Jn 8:44; Rv 3:9), have been roundly criticized for seeming to vilify, or at least disqualify, Jesus' Jewish opponents. To the extent that Gibson's Passion projects this tension from the Bible onto the big screen, it is bound to stir up controversy. Consider the film an invitation to reflect on one of the more pressing theological questions of our time.

The court of public opinion will, I predict, eventually acquit Gibson of all charges of anti-Semitism. And yet I'm left wondering whether Passion missed an opportunity to explore the complex relationship between Jesus and Judaism. Why was it that Jesus failed to gain much of a foothold among his own people? Why did some of them want him dead? Some of Jesus' opponents were no doubt threatened by his charisma, or fearful of slipping in the opinion polls, but surely others felt entitled to question his credentials, or to resist the dangerous tilt of his politics. If the apostle Paul's initial hostility towards the Jesus movement sheds light on things (Gal 1:13; Acts 8:3), we should imagine many thoughtful Jews rejecting Jesus' claims, all the while confident of God's approval. Gibson's project would have been even more impressive, and built more bridges, it seems to me, had it acknowledged the monumental challenge Jesus posed to devout Jews in his day. Given the long, sad trajectory of Jewish-Christian misunderstanding, we can't afford to do otherwise.

After Super Bowl, Will TV Clean Up Its Act?
By Catherine Donaldson-Evans
Thursday, February 19, 2004

Stars have long known that sex-charged stunts bring in the Benjamins, but until the Janet Jackson breast backlash, there seemed to be few consequences for celebs' increasingly outlandish moves on the tube.

But since the Super Bowl incident, networks, Hollywood watchdog groups and the government have been doing more than just snarling like in the past. This time, there’s been bite behind their bark.

A time-delay has been implemented for several live broadcasts, and the Federal Communications Commission has introduced plans to increase fines for broadcasters who air indecent material.

Some people are happy that regulators are cracking down. Others think they should back off. But will any of the tough talk clean up the airwaves?

"It won't change a thing," said Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Popular Television. “I don’t think broadcasting is going to go down gently. They’re having a hard enough time competing with all these cable channels.”

It's that competition with cable and the loss of network TV viewers that's pushed stars and broadcasters to push the limit, he said.

"In an attempt to get people to pay attention, they occasionally have to drop their pants or say a naughty word," Thompson said.

But many parents trying to shield their children are frustrated with the onslaught of suggestive entertainment.

"There should be boundaries set," said Lori Bardsley, a Greensboro, N.C., mother of three and social activist. "They've gotten away with so much — they just keep pushing the envelope. These artists, they don't care about the average family."

The crackdown by the FCC and Congress — which held hearings last week on the Super Bowl incident and broadcast indecency — will likely throw a wrench into things for a while.

At the Grammys, CBS implemented a five-minute delay to keep questionable material out of people's living rooms. The Oscars will air on Feb. 29 with a five-second delay.

But most of the effects will likely be short-lived, according to industry gurus.

"They may have short-term victory," said Neal Gabler, author of "Life: The Movie." "They may win a few battles. But they never win the war, like it or not."

Just last weekend, Beyonce Knowles caused a scandal during a performance at the basketball All-Star game when part of her outfit fell open and revealed much of her breast.

This battle over standards isn't exactly new. Remember all the brouhaha surrounding Madonna, Cyndi Lauper and other pop stars in the 1980s, causing Tipper Gore to call for song-lyric sanitizing? Or the boundary-skirting that went on in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, with sexually suggestive shows like "Laugh-in," "Three's Company" and others?

Part of the problem is the FCC’s hazy definition of indecency and the difficulty in proving that an airwaves incident is “patently offensive.”

“We live in a society where [Super Bowl halftime performers] Kid Rock and Nelly and Justin Timberlake sell millions of albums. To whom are they patently offensive?" Gabler said. "They may be offensive to people, but ‘patently’?”

The FCC defines broadcast indecency as "language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community broadcast standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities."

"This is a very difficult area of enforcing these very vague standards," Viacom President and CEO Mel Karmazin said during last week's congressional hearings. "What we need is a roadmap. … It is not clear what is meant by 'indecency.'"

Still watchdogs like the Parents Television Council are calling for tougher enforcement.

"Free speech is limited in certain places, and the broadcast airwaves are one area where it's limited," said Lara Mahaney, spokeswoman for the PTC.

But limited-government advocates bristle at that notion.

"On First Amendment grounds, I don't like to see the government in the content-monitoring business," said “Fox News Watch” panelist James Pinkerton, a Newsday columnist. "I hate the thought of government lawyers sitting around studying nipples, breasts and swear words. It's a waste of taxpayer money."

Although the FCC has launched investigations into a host of indecency cases, critics say it only takes real action when extremely crude content or a powerful public reaction is involved.

When U2's Bono gave a Golden Globes speech last year on NBC and said "f—ing brilliant," the FCC originally OK'd it because he used the "f-word" as an adjective, not as a verb describing a sexual act. Only after pressure from parents' groups did the FCC reopen its investigation of the matter.

"We've referred to the FCC as a toothless lion," Mahaney said. "They weren't enforcing the law and that's why we've seen an escalation of indecent material."

Meanwhile, the FCC places most of the blame on broadcasters.

"It is irresponsible of our country's broadcasters to try to push the envelope in the face of commission policies aimed at balancing the needs to protect our children with the interests of the First Amendment," FCC Chairman Michael Powell said at a recent hearing on indecency. "We will continue to enforce our indecency rules with vigor."

As the FCC and interest groups fight over the details, parents are the ones at the battle's frontlines.

"Television enters every home in America," said Bardsley. "The media should be concerned for families and kids. A lot of people who are moms and dads are worried about our young sons and daughters."

In any case, the Janet Jackson incident will likely continue to have an impact on what’s on TV, at least for a while. In addition to the live-telecast delays, scenes in recent episodes of both “ER” and “NYPD Blue” were cleaned up to avoid offending anyone.

"When Dad is mad, you try to be really good for a while until he cools down," Thompson said. "That’s what’s going to happen here as well."

Pop Culture Puts Religion in the Spotlight
By Marla Lehner
Wednesday, February 18, 2004

From the glittering hills of Hollywood to the houses of worship dotting the Bible Belt, tongues are wagging about religion, scripture, history and Jesus’ passion — thanks in large part to pop culture.

Churches are reserving theaters for their congregations to see Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ"; people are returning to bookstores to research the story of Jesus and Mary Magdalene after reading the best-selling novel "The Da Vinci Code"; and TV viewers are tuning in weekly to see Joan of Arcadia communicate with God.

Some experts are thrilled that the entertainment spotlight is shining on religion, but others are doubtful — and even worried — about the impact it ultimately will have on secular America's perception of Jesus and faith.

Ted Haggard, president of The National Association of Evangelicals, who sees the "The Passion" in particular as a tremendous outreach opportunity, is encouraged by pop culture's focus on the spiritual.

"People appreciate movies and theater that acknowledge faith," he said. "People appreciate when 'Touched by an Angel' or 'Joan of Arcadia' or 'The Passion' represents them honestly and not as a caricature."

But some historians are wary of all the God talk, saying lay people may take away only what they want from popular culture versions of scripture.

"Different Jesuses appeal to different people. [These interpretations] are carving apart the Gospels," said George Parsenios, a New Testament professor at Princeton Theological Seminary who points out that "The Da Vinci Code" and "The Passion of the Christ" represent two extremes of Jesus' story.

"Da Vinci" by Dan Brown, a story about searching for the Holy Grail, paints the Catholic Church as a patriarchal, manipulative entity that subverted the real story of Jesus' life. "The Passion of the Christ," on the other hand, claims to adhere closely to the actual Gospels.

In truth, neither version is likely to appease scholars.

"All scholars would say the Gospels represent an interpretation of Jesus anyway," said Parsenios. "They are not just giving the facts, ma'am. Events in one are transposed in another to draw out new meaning from them."

Parsenios is also wary about having pop culture educate people about religion.

"Most college students get their news from Letterman. It’s similar to that," he said.

In response to all the media attention on "The Passion," groups such as The Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College are making an effort to inform the public about the subtleties of religion. They've posted a study guide for portrayals of Jesus' passion, and also held a series of lectures aimed at educating the community.

Ruth Langer, the group's associate director, said the film is, in a sense, providing an opportunity for education, but added that the group would rather not have to fight the possibility of misconceptions that could come from the film.

"Unfortunately, it takes a controversy to bring something to people’s consciousness," she said.

Bishop Savas Zembillas of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in New York is also concerned about how Gibson's film will be interpreted, especially by those not well versed in the Gospels.

"Somebody coming at this cold, if they don’t know Jesus’ story, they are going to be at sea, really," said Zembillas, who screened an early cut of "The Passion."

Like some others who have seen the film, Zembillas expressed concern over its graphic nature.

"[There's] a flogging scene that goes on for a good quarter of an hour," said Zembillas. "By the time it’s over, he’s been flayed. I stopped believing at that point. I can’t believe a man can stand up and carry a tree up a hill for 20 minutes while being lashed."

But Gibson, an action movie star accustomed to on-screen gore, and others who have come out in support of the film say the bloody scenes are appropriate for today's movie-going public.

"People know how to watch movies and people know how to read books.... We know they can differentiate between a documentary and a historical account," said Haggard. "Mel’s movie feels like the real thing.... When people say it’s too violent, they mean 'It’s too violent for me.' I think the fact that audiences are used to violence gives [Gibson] permission to make it authentic."

Haggard added that some people will always take books or films too literally, but reasonable folks will know the difference. "'The Da Vinci Code' is a novel. The same people who believe the Earth is hollow and that's where UFOs come from will believe it's fact."

As for whether "The Passion" will inspire more religious curiosity among people who are not already churchgoers, Zembillas is skeptical.

"I don't think a lot of people do homework after a movie," he said. "If it does that, more power to Mr. Gibson."

Zembillas added that Americans who aren't already faithful to a particular religious sect have probably only marginally been influenced by shows like "Touched by an Angel" and "Joan of Arcadia," as well the surge of mainstream Christian rock bands.

"You have to almost listen for the message to know there is a message," he said.

Ultimately in America, faith, as it's portrayed on television, in films and in popular books, presents so many versions of Jesus that most Americans take what they want from these interpretations of his story, said Parsenios.

"With all these Jesuses floating around for sale," he said, "you can just pick the one you like."

Hating Mel
By: Bill O'Reilly for
Thursday, Feb 19, 2004

Here's a no spin review of Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ," which opens on Ash Wednesday. First off, the film is a faithful rendition of the execution of Jesus according to the four Gospels. Only twice does Gibson stray from scripture. The initial departure is to introduce Satan into the narrative; that does not happen in the Bible.
Second, Gibson beefs up the role of Simon of Cyrene, the Jew who was forced by the Romans to carry Jesus' cross when he could no longer do it. Simon emerges as a heroic figure.

The film runs two hours and at least half of it is explicitly violent. The pain Jesus endured at the hands of the brutal Roman soldiers became numbing to watch after a while, at least to me. Gibson clearly wants the audience to be uncomfortable, because the torture scenes are unrelenting. This kind of exposition, of course, is not for everyone.

If you are familiar with the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, nothing in the film's script will surprise you. There are Jewish villains and Jewish heroes. Most of the Romans are awful. The story line does not depart from traditional Christian teaching. Yet the movie and Gibson himself continue to be viciously attacked. Why?

Even Abraham Foxman, the militant leader of the Anti-Defamation League, now admits the film is not anti-Semitic. Yet Foxman continues to object to it on the basis of what it might do. And that's the crux of this matter. Some Jews believe persecution is just a shout away, to quote Mick Jagger. This perspective must be respected. For thousands of years Jews have been treated with brutality and disrespect, often by the followers of Jesus.

So fair-minded people can understand the emotion that some Jews feel when they hear that a Jewish character, Judas, betrays Jesus and another Jewish character, Caiphas, who agitates for his death in the movie. The apprehension is real and understandable, but it is wrong to use it as an excuse to vilify a man who wants to tell a scriptural story that he believes illustrates his faith.

As the Muslim killers on 9/11 and the pedophile Catholic priests prove, there are bad people in all religions. Rational individuals understand that although evil has many faces, it does not reside in any particular race. Even at the height of Third Reich atrocities, there were good Germans.

People who hate Jews don't need a movie to fuel their neurosis. Haters will find a way. And ironically, Mel Gibson's movie is about love. Christians believe Jesus loved mankind so much that he was willingly gave up his life to give human beings redemption from their failings. Also, please remember that Jesus, above all, was a Jew.

The brutal attacks on Gibson may themselves create bad will. Most Americans who see this movie, I believe, will respect Gibson for making it. They may well see the defamation that has been heaped on him as grossly unfair.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have done some business with Mel Gibson. His company optioned my novel "Those Who Trespass" for the movies. This was long before "The Passion" was in production.

So I know the guy a bit and I know his passion is to persuade people that Jesus was a man to be admired and imitated. It is Gibson's prerogative to use the Gospels to make that point. It is also the prerogative of his critics to frown on the project.

But trying to destroy the man's reputation is something else. It reminds me of Roman justice: guilt or innocence really didn't matter as long as the harsh punishment set a frightening example. Ad hominem, indeed.