From the moment when Mel Gibson began promoting The Passion of the Christ–was it only ten years ago?–he has insisted that his goal was to be true to the Gospel text. Words are crucial to his project, so crucial that the film’s dialogue is spoken principally in Aramaic and Latin; and words have consistently tripped him up.
Remember that for his initial, highly publicized attack against his critics, Gibson seized on the actions of an ecumenical group, which had obtained a bootleg copy of his script and expressed strong misgivings. It’s unfair to judge a film by its screenplay, Gibson said, and he was right–assuming, of course, that in shooting The Passion, he had behaved as filmmakers ordinarily do and departed from the written word. If, on the other hand, he really had translated the Gospels to film, then the gap had presumably been closed between source and screenplay, screenplay and image. In that case, the ecumenists could easily have judged the picture by its shooting script, or (even more efficiently) by the Bible.
Gibson fell over his words for the second time when he circulated an endorsement from the Pope, reportedly obtained at a preview screening. “It is as it was,” said the Pontiff, confirming the film’s fidelity to Scripture; but then authorities in the Vatican disowned the remark, leaving the filmmaker with an embarrassing lacuna in his text. Is the incident as Gibson said it was? Or had John Paul never uttered the papal blurb?
Now, as the film is about to open, Gibson falls for the third time. While maintaining that The Passion of the Christ must be seen to be discussed, and seen in its integrity as a work of art, he has declined to let film critics watch the picture in advance. I make no special claims for reviewers. We may do our jobs well, or we may do them poorly; but all of us, however foolish or fallible, are dedicated to the very task that Gibson claims to want performed, although he’d rather not help us carry it out. I can assure you, we have had many more opportunities to preview Eurotrip than to see The Passion of the Christ, which has remained unavailable to every critic of my acquaintance until immediately before the public opening.
As a marketing tactic, Gibson’s decision makes good sense. Enormous advance publicity and a wide release have given him the classic critic-proof opening, with crowds of the curious guaranteed for the first week. More important, he can sustain the box office he generates, having pre-sold The Passion of the Christ to a multitude of churchgoers who don’t ordinarily hang out at the movies and certainly don’t pay attention to reviews. (By now, quite a few members of this target audience will have seen a tract titled “Who Killed Jesus?” which is adorned on the cover with a photo of Gibson and on the inside with a strong recommendation for The Passion of the Christ. I picked up my copy on Broadway, from a Brooklyn-based evangelist.) Under these circumstances, Gibson correctly calculates that he should dismiss the reviewers, having nothing to gain from them.
But then, speaking as one who has been dismissed, I must complain of my unfortunate set of choices. Either I can catch Gibson’s movie on opening day, February 25, and write about it then (in which case the article won’t appear until mid-March); or else I can review The Passion now, unseen.