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April 2004

Gift and Triumph


From the first moment liberal Jews and apostate Christian academics squealed in protest at the prospect of a no-holds-barred portrayal of Our Lord’s suffering and death, The Passion of the Christ was destined for great things.

Baseless charges and malicious attacks against producer-director Mel Gibson and his godly project only served to light the touch paper of free publicity which finally exploded in their faces with the greatest debut in movie history by a film opening mid-week. Takings of $125.2 million edged The Passion ahead of The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, even though the cinemas foolishly limited the number of screens available to show it. The distributor predicts that it could gross as much as $350 million in the United States and Canada alone. It might yet become the biggest independent, foreign-language hit in American movie history. "Could, perhaps, the moguls be a tad annoyed with themselves," wrote one honest liberal analysing fulminations against the film, "that they turned down a sleeper hit they could have nabbed for peanuts last summer?"

It all added up to the most spectacular own goal ever scored: Mel 1 Hollywood and Godless Rabble 0.

The fact that the movie turned out to be a cinematic masterpiece evoking no trace of anti-Semitism further rattled the opposition’s cage. Unnerved and resentful, they resorted to plaints about "gratuitous violence." This from critics never short of superlatives in praise of movie carnage and depravity that would make de Sade blush!

A public raised on screens awash with cinematic gore weren’t buying such rank hypocrisy and phoney pacifism. The film shot straight to the top of the Australian box office: Mel 3 Duplicitous Rabble 0.

As Protestants flocked to see a quintessentially Catholic depiction of Holy Writ and a Moslem, no less, bravely stepped forward to distribute the movie in faithless France, even the ecumenical scorecard mounted in Mr Gibson’s favour. Increasingly desperate, the deeply irreligious chatterati of the entertainment-media then turned their incessant babble to theological considerations. The real problem, it transpired, was the traditionalist director’s ‘pre-Vatican II’ Jesus!

Apparently, the love of this bloodied and broken Jesus (a "harsh and dangerous" love, as Dorothy Day put it) which requires genuine transformation, disturbed their New Age comfort zone of Bali sunsets and Buddhist nirvana. Yet whatever contemporary Christianity has done to emasculate Him and pin Him to fashionable causes, Jesus is simply Jesus, the Alpha and Omega, neither conciliar, nor pre-conciliar, nor post-conciliar. As a secular commentator observed, the lessons of The Passion "have more to do with forgotten Christian basics than with who killed Jesus." Indeed. Basics like atonement and blood sacrifice.

So, as the muscular Mr Gibson hammered the Cross well and truly back into Christianity, the mincing chatterati were revealed not only as hypocrites and poor judges of cinematography, but dire theologians to boot. Mel 6 Blathering Rabble 0.

At this point I stopped scoring. Not because the only scoreline that matters - the number of hearts and souls transformed by the salvific message - is known to God alone. But, rather, because it was a no contest. Especially after The Passion struck the worldlings a crushing blow by positing Christ back in the public square.

The real Jesus, not the wimpy faux Jesus of "Godspell," became the main subject of media discussion worldwide. For the ecclesiastical Modernists and secular humanists there was no escape. The bland, ecumenical, politically correct Christ they had painstakingly manufactured suddenly morphed into a divisive figure dominating radio talk shows, TV panel discussions and acres of newsprint. I gladly confess to a frisson of Schadenfreude at the obvious discomfort of smarmy film critics forced to confront Gibson’s brutalised Jesus instead of Scorsese’s blasphemous milksop; who turned intellectual somersaults to denigrate a cinematic work of art which rebuked their militant materialism. "This film," someone declared, "is the 9/11 of the Culture Wars." An evocative assessment. After all, films come and go. Yet it just about sums up The Passion’s socio-cultural impact across the board.

The merciful affronting of secular sensibilities is only one sign of Providence at work. It is also curious that Jim Caviezel, who portrayed Christ so majestically, not only shares the same initials as Jesus but, at 33, the same age; that he survived being struck by lightning while filming a scene ("Got lit up like a Christmas tree," he confirmed); that the surname of Maia Morgenstern, the Romanian Jew who played Our Lady with such exquisite, heart-rending empathy, means "morning star"; that the actors playing Judas and Peter had conversion experiences.

These and many other indications of Divine favour doubtless owe much to the Catholic faith and devotion poured into the production. Gibson and Caviezel attended Mass each morning at 7.30am, offered by 72-year-old Canadian priest Father Stephen Somerville, who also heard Confessions and provided spiritual direction. Both director and lead actor consider that all their previous works were only providential preparation for this movie.

It is hard to argue with their assessment. Since whichever way you look at it - artistically, spiritually, evangelically, socially, culturally, financially… - the end result is nothing less than a gift to the Church and a triumph.

In a Catholic world full of effete and moribund local Churches, one layman has shown what a robust faith can achieve. "Many films about Christ have been made," said Father Somerville commenting on Gibson’s tour de force. "But this one was made by a master actor and director with profound Christian conviction. He’s a man of intense masculinity, energy and intelligence."

And therein lies a final, vital lesson.

Yes, it is sadly true that Mel Gibson is alienated from the Church, attending Mass at an ‘independent’ chapel he financed himself. Yet only someone with his guts, money and unapologetic Catholic belief could have faced down the liberal ecclesiastical and cultural Establishments. What a mighty societal force the Church would be in America and throughout the West if only the bishops had a fraction of his conviction and drive - and, above all, some of his "intense masculinity."

"That’s another thing about Mel," emails Australian Julian O’Dea. "He is everything Catholic men used to be admired for being: brave, pugnacious, manly. He likes being a Catholic and he enjoys life, and he likes women and having children with one. Whereas the American Church as an institution is, as they say, just ‘gay’."

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