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April 13, 2004

The Passion of Christ : throking the flames of prejudice or renewing faith?

Even a month and a half after its release, audiences were still clapping when the screen went dark. As I glanced at the many grimacing faces scattered throughout the theater, it was obvious that this was much more than a $354.8 million-grossing blockbuster—for many it was an experience of personal reevaluation, especially during the Easter holiday.

Perhaps people have become hungry to find new meaning in their lives, especially in a reality of increasing skepticism, when the idea of faith becomes transient and superfluous.

But it has been debated whether The Passion of the Christ progresses or stifles this very cause. Recently, the debate intensified as the film reclaimed the top box-office spot for Easter weekend, grossing $17.1 million domestically. So far it has hit number eight on the all-time domestic charts—becoming the highest-grossing R-rated and highest-grossing independent movie of all time—and has attracted even more heat from its international debut in early April.

Released on February 25—Ash Wednesday—the film aroused an unprecedented amount of controversy due to its subject matter and provocative marketing strategy. I must admit—after 10 years of Catholic school—I, too, was initially critical of the idea of a mainstream movie star producing a Hollywood version of one of the most sensitive topics in human history.

Questions of propriety bombarded the film's production as Gibson was compelled to finance the entire project himself. Breaking a few rules of thumb in the entertainment industry, he refused to hold any type of press junkets and avoided heavy network TV- advertising. Instead, he initiated a grassroots marketing effort aimed at Christian moviegoers and local church groups.

There were no premieres at the usual L.A. and New York hotspots, no high-salary superstars to incur unmanageable debt, and no inappropriate Hollywood promotional tie-in campaigns to pervert the sensitive nature of the film. What would have been marketing suicide for any other feature became a boon for The Passion.

By keeping the masses from previewing the film, Gibson smartly added more fuel to the film's media frenzy. In addition, he couldn't have picked a better time for its release—Ash Wednesday, the day that marks the Christian period of Lent before the resurrection of Christ at Easter. It is during the time of Lent that Christians are typically obliged to atone for their sins for 40 days. Christians believe that this time culminates in the soul's renewal of life through the death and resurrection of Christ.

Since the release of the feature, its impact has stirred new kinds of "activism" as well as debate concerning anti-Semitic public backlash.

To attest to the polarization of sentiment, the Chicago Tribune noted a young Arab woman's opinion of the film after it was released in Egypt. "Mel Gibson's epic unmasked the Jews' lies," she stated, "and I hope that everybody, everywhere, turns against the Jews."

Additionally, the Chicago Sun-Times quoted the secretary-general of the Islamic Action Front as saying, "The Jews are most upset with the movie because it reveals their crimes against the prophets, the reformers and whoever contradicts their opinions."

I ask myself: Is Gibson's Passion actually doing what it intends—portraying the incredible torment that Christ endured when (as Christians believe) he atoned for the sins of mankind? This kind of international reaction has made many religious leaders quite uneasy—as audiences can (and do) interpret the picture in ways that would only intensify religious polarities during a global war on terror.

The Sun-Times, quoting a theology professor at the American College of Greece, noted, "There are fundamentalists in every religion—Christian, Muslims and Jews. Films like this get extremist feelings going."

In the media, Gibson denies any anti-Semitic overtones in the film, but what he must recognize are the political and religious liberties individuals will take in their interpretations of the movie.

Historically, the film depicts the story of a loving Jewish mother, her Jewish son, and the strife he endured when the Jewish leaders of his community, the Pharisees, had him crucified by the sadistic might of Roman brutality.

I would not assume that the film strove to create animosity among the religions of the world. However, if it did intend to lend a kind of spiritual renewal, it did so in the wrong way. The film's official website is filled with all kinds of merchandizing such as "Witness cards," Bible cases, symbolic jewelry, and online minor release forms for kids to get past the R-rated cut-off.

What struck me most were the supplemental websites connected with the film such as mylifeafter.com, whydidhedie.com, and hispassionforyou.com. Don't get me wrong: I believe a renewed spirituality is one of the greatest gifts in the world. But perhaps it should be left up to those ordained to instill this religious awakening. Or better yet, it should come from personal examination of one's spirituality, without seeing it through the lens of Hollywood.

One Kansas priest noted, "The movie is still Hollywood. I've told [my congregation] to look first and foremost at what is in the Bible and then see the movie."