Mel Gibson has certainly pulled off a phenomenon with his film “The Passion of The Christ.”
From a purely business standpoint the actor’s investment of about $30 million dollars has more than paid off and it should add at least $100 million to his personal fortune. A synergistically driven merchandising campaign of souvenirs, books and CDs will perhaps net Mel a few million more.
“Passion” now ranks eighth on the top ten list of domestic blockbusters with more than a $350 million gross. It took in $17 million just on Easter weekend reported Coming Soon.net.
But besides its now established status as a box office bonanza, the controversial film released to coincide with Lent and Easter, has become both a media and cultural event.
Gibson made this all possible, first by his fame and name recognition and second through the scrutiny his project received as a work that allegedly contains an “anti-Semitic” message.
However, the savvy star hired a Manhattan PR firm for spin control and got out in front of his critics by mounting something of a crusade amongst evangelical Christians.
It was ultimately those religious connections and not Hollywood that put his film over.
This community of conservative Protestants, despite their historic animus towards Catholics, embraced Mel Gibson like one of their own.
They heaped effusive praise on their “Braveheart” seemingly seeing his movie as somehow a part of God’s plan for redemption.
The actor himself appears to agree. “The Holy Ghost was working through me on this film,” he has said. And Many of those connected to the project appear to think their work fulfilled some divine purpose.
But buying a ticket to Mel’s “Passion” only allows admission to the theater; the film’s director seems to think his Protestant supporters are going to Hell.
In an interview with the Herald Sun in Australia when asked specifically if Protestants are denied eternal salvation the star said, “There is no salvation for those outside the Church.”
He then elaborated, “Put it this way. My wife is a…Episcopalian…She prays, she believes in God, she knows Jesus, she believes in that stuff…she’s better than I am. But that is a pronouncement from the chair” reported MSNBC.
And what that “chair” pronounces, for this Oscar winning director, means what God says as defined by the so-called “Traditional Catholic movement,” which Gibson was raised within and still steadfastly supports.
“The Passion is nothing short of a party political broadcast for this movement,” reported The Scotsman.
Roman Catholics are not immune from Mel’s stern judgement.
“I go to an all-pre-Vatican II Latin Mass,” he told USA Today. “There was a lot of talk, particularly in the Sixties, of ‘wow, we’ve got to change with the times’. But the Creator instituted something very specific, and we can’t just go change it.”
Despite the kind words the Pope had for Gibson’s movie the director/producer may not think that His Holiness is Catholic enough to get into heaven either.
In fact, the only people that may be doing “something very specific” enough to get into heaven are the small flock of less than 100 believers that attend a church Mel built in Malibu. Though some 50,000 or so “Traditional Catholics” might have a shot too.
Is the whole phenomenon of “Passion” then simply an exercise in mutually cynical exploitation?
Gibson selling his movement’s message, not to mention tickets and evangelical Christians using his film as a vehicle to fire up the faithful and make some sort of social statement?
If the director were driven only by faith would he have pursued such a savvy marketing strategy, manipulating both the Jewish and Protestant communities conversely to promote his project?
And what about the fervent Protestant pastors that bought blocks of tickets, what were they thinking? Was it really just Jesus that motivated them or a self-serving media blitz?
It looks like they saw Gibson’s film as a means of demonstrating their clout, in something that can be seen as a social statement measured by ticket sales.
According to the New Testament Jesus once said that many would come in his name, but he would not know them.
He also said that it would be “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.”
This may mean that Mel might have been better off in the hereafter, if he hadn’t made so much money off his Jesus movie.
Postscript: A year ago I wrote, “It seems destined for a very small audience. It certainly won’t be another ‘Braveheart.’” What a difference a year makes, given a slick marketing strategy and the resulting religious fervor at the box office, but don’t expect another Oscar Mel.