Passion and Fury

The reaction to Mel Gibson’s “Passion” lays bare America’s cultural divide.


Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” ignited its very own culture war even before it was released, pitting left against right, religious against secular, fanatic against moderate, Christian against Jew

It’s a tribute to Mel Gibson’s marketing smarts that this movie was being argued about long before anybody had seen it, some claiming it as a faithful rendering of the Gospels, others as a out-and-out assault on Jews. Some Hollywood types doubted the movie would even find a distributor and be released.

But released it has been, and in a big way: “The Passion” opened on Ash Wednesday on 4,643 screens at 3,006 theaters across the country and earned $117.5 million in its first five days. It made the No. 1 box-office slot for the weekend with $76.2 million from Friday to Sunday and was the seventh-best three-day opening ever.

Now that “The Passion” is out, it seems the preliminary skirmish was just a warmup. The one — the only — thing everyone seems to agree about is that this movie is hard to watch — as blood-drenched as any horror flick. Many wonder at Gibson’s decision to focus so obsessively violence of Jesus’ torture and death at the expense, say, of his message of love.

But then it was Gibson’s intention all along to inspire a strong, even visceral, reaction from his audience — in the service, as he sees it, of something larger. Gibson has been wooing evangelical Christians to promote the movie. He sent kits to churches touting “The Passion” as “Perhaps the Best Outreach Opportunity in 2000 Years.”

Most of the papers sent reporters to do exit interviews with moviegoers, many of whom found “The Passion” affirming. “I knew it would make me feel like this, but actually seeing the Lord suffer,
seeing a picture of it took my breath away,” one viewer in Arkansas said. “It made me so
grateful.” Another viewer at the same Arkansas theater agreed: “People left amazed. I left in a very positive manner, uplifted, a little more strengthened in my faith.”

These supporters say that the film is violent because, well, the story it portrays is violent. One viewer in New York said, “It had to be like that. It had to be as horrible as possible, because that’s how it was.”

The critical response, by and large, has been a lot less positive. Here’s Slate movie critic, David Edelstein:

“You’re thinking there must be something to The Passion of the Christ besides watching a man tortured to death, right? Actually, no: This is a two-hour-and-six-minute snuff movie — The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre — that thinks it’s an act of faith.”

Many critics have pointed out that Gibson has long been into this sort of thing. Think “Lethal Weapon,” “Brave Heart” and “The Patriot.” But David Denby notes in the New Yorker (where an illustration shows Gibson on a cross being doused with buckets of blood) that the stakes get much higher when Gibson moves from fomenting (safely historical) Scottish nationalism and revolutionary fervor, to stoking contemporary relgious fanaticism:

The despair of the movie is hard to shrug off, and Gibson’s timing couldn’t be more unfortunate: another dose of death-haunted religious fanaticism is the last thing we need.

Whatever Gibson’s aspirations, this movie was never really going to be a transforming, much less a converting, experience. It arrives in a polarized cultural landscape and exerts its power of attraction and repulsion in exactly the ways you’d expect. Deeply religious Christians love it; the less religious — and certainly the secular — hate it. Even if every American were to see it, we still wouldnít be able to talk about it, and we certainly wonít be able to see eye to eye about what it all means.

What does the movie, or rather its reception, have to tell us about religion and politics in America today? Maureen Dowd was quick to draw the parallel between Gibson’s fanatacism and George Bush’s, well, fanaticism:

Mel Gibson and George W. Bush are courting bigotry in the name of sanctity. The moviemaker wants to promote “The Passion of the Christ” and the president wants to prevent the passion of the gays.

Rush Limbaugh also has some ideas about what “The Passion” means for the religious right and Republicans in this election year:

What do you think Mel Gibson’s movie is so opposed for? I’ll tell you why. Because Jesus Christ portrayed accurately is going to shore up the Christian movement in this country. And here comes this movie and it’s the worst thing that could happen to the people who want to destroy the culture. And I think there are a lot of leftists in this country actually thought that they had dispatched with (sic) the Christian right. They had successfully gotten rid of Pat Robertson and Falwell and characterized them as a bunch of fluke kooks, and then here comes Mel’s movie. And they’re reminded just how many Christians there are in this country.

While no one has forgotten that more than 80 percent of Americans claim they believe in God and three times as many people believe in the virgin birth as believe in evolution, Limbaugh may be correct that “The Passion” will have an enormous impact in American politics.

The Economist agrees:

“Now, with the crucifixion of Christ vying with homosexual marriage for the nation’s attention, it is clear that… the culture wars are raging as savagely as ever–and the conservative side, if not triumphant, is more than holding its own.

And of course, just as movie screens across the country were beginning to flicker, the candidates weighed in: George and Laura Bush both said they are looking forward to seeing “The Passion,” while John Kerry said that he is concerned about the movie and that we must be careful of anti-Semitism.

The fault-line between the faithful and the secular in America underlies our conversations about gay marriage, abortion, school vouchers, the presidential race. This movie exposes that line, drawing reactions that tell us a lot about ourselves: the differences are there; “The Passion” makes us only more aware of them.

“The Passion” wants to access the viewers’ deepest beliefs and tap their most visceral reactions, and so far it seems to be succeeding, reminding us, in the most high-profile way, how deeply divided — culturally and politically — we are.