Faith on film sure to cause a scene


Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ has yet to open in theaters, and already the opinionated -- many of whom have yet to see the film -- are lining up to take potshots at it.

But that's nothing new in Hollywood, especially when it comes to movies that deal with religion. From the early days of cinema, the faithful have always been wary of movies that could expose their beliefs to question, or possibly ridicule.

"The notion of blasphemy is very strong in our society," says Robert Sklar, a professor of cinema studies at New York University and author of Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies. "Films that seem to be attacks, particularly on the Christian religion, or on the figure of Jesus Christ, have aroused excitement and protests in the past."

In some ways, The Passion doesn't fit the established mode. For one thing, it's not Christians who say they feel under attack, but rather Jewish leaders, who fear that a film laying at least some culpability for Jesus' persecution at the feet of Jewish officials of the time could lead to a wave of anti-Semitic sentiment.

By many accounts, the most incendiary line of the script -- when a mob, anxious to see Jesus killed, cries out, "His blood be on us and our children" -- has been excised from the film. Still, many Jewish leaders remain nervous; Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League told Entertainment Weekly that he remains offended by the Jewish stereotypes presented in the film, as well as by its "whole mindset."

In addition, The Passion is a deeply religious film, one that glorifies the tenets of the Christian faith and is based on the very books that form the basis of Roman Catholic theology. Yet, even some Catholic theologians are nervous about the film's depiction of the Jews' role in Jesus's death. The Catholic Church, they note, absolved the Jewish people of blame for the crucifixion during Vatican II, a series of meetings from 1962 through 1965 that led to some dramatic reforms in the church (many of which Gibson, a conservative Roman Catholic, does not acknowledge).

Then, there's the simple fact that many people -- although not its most vocal critics -- have seen The Passion. Gibson has shown the film to several select groups, including attendees at a religious broadcasters' convention in Charlotte, N.C., last week. Which means that the film's advance critics are not operating totally in the dark; while they may not have seen the film, others have, and details of what will be on-screen come Wednesday's official release have leaked out.

Hot-button genre

Even given all that, cinema historians see little new when it comes to the vitriolic negative reaction engendered by the film, even before its release.

"There's no question but that religious films generate more heat than any others," says Jerold Simmons, a professor of history at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and co-author of The Dame in the Kimono, a study of film censorship under the old Hollywood Production Code, which lasted from the 1930s to the mid-1960s. "We in this society take religion awfully seriously. People who believe a certain way, I suppose, don't like to see their beliefs challenged on-screen."

Religion has been a flash-point for cinematic debate since the early days of Hollywood, when director Cecil B. De Mille used biblical epics as an excuse to bring half-naked women and drunken orgies to the screen. While things calmed down considerably during the days of the production code, when Hollywood studios assiduously avoided making any movie that might raise the censors' ire, they heated up again with the advent of the motion picture ratings system in 1968. Directors now had the liberty to address all manner of topics, religion included.

Usually, it's the Catholic Church that views itself as under fire from heretical filmmakers. "The power of the liturgy and the ritual of the Mass ... the Catholic faith has very rich atmospherics, in a way which the Protestant congregations don't," says Thomas Doherty, a professor of film studies at Brandeis University and author of Pre-Code Hollywood. And church leaders have always been nervous.

"Even a film like Going My Way" raised concerns, Doherty says. "The Catholic Church was very worried about it, when they heard that Bing Crosby was going to play an Irish priest." (Crosby went on to win an Oscar for his portrayal, and the film became a Catholic-school staple for decades.)

One of the earliest examples was The Miracle, a short film made in 1948 by Italian director Roberto Rossellini and released in New York two years later as part of a movie entitled L'Amore. Rossellini's work, about a girl who sleeps with and has a child by a man she believes is Joseph, husband of Mary, the mother of God, played for only a few days before a protest, led by New York's Cardinal Francis Spellman, led to its withdrawal.

In a way, though, The Miracle would have the last word, as it was the subject of a Supreme Court case that would later bestow First Amendment protection upon films.

Protests aplenty

Among films that have generated the most heated protests from Catholics since the ratings system began are:

* Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979), a comedy in which a baby born in a manger down the street from Jesus' is mistaken for the Messiah (protesters were instrumental in getting the film's name changed from Brian of Nazareth).

* Jean-Luc Godard's Hail Mary (1985), in which the story of the virgin birth is transplanted to modern times, with Joseph working at a gas station and Mary shooting hoops.

* Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), a rumination on the human side of Jesus that suggests he had doubts about his mission on Earth and enjoyed carnal relations with Mary Magdalene.

* Kevin Smith's Dogma (1999), in which a pair of angels trying to prove God's fallibility are pursued by Jesus' last surviving relation, an abortion-clinic worker named Bethany.

All four films were heavily criticized in advance of their release by Catholics fearful that a mockery was being made of their religious faith. None performed spectacularly at the box office. (Hail Mary, its Baltimore run at the Charles Theater accompanied by protesters sprinkling holy water on ticket buyers, enjoyed greater success than would have been expected of a French film by a calculatedly obtuse director. Still, relatively few people saw it.)

Not that religious controversy is restricted to Catholics. In 1978, Muslims protested vociferously against Moustapha Akkad's The Message (originally titled Mohammed, Messenger of God); a group of Hanafi Muslims even invaded three buildings in Washington and held hostages, demanding it not be shown in this country. The film, although it played in some areas, was eventually pulled from wide release.

And it isn't only religious films that generate emotional off-the-cuff responses. In 1991, the release of Oliver Stone's JFK was preceded by a deluge of negative publicity and op-ed pieces decrying its insistence that there was a conspiracy behind the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Although Stone would win a best director Oscar for JFK, that film was not a box-office champion, either. Which suggests that, regardless of advance controversy, The Passion will likely sink or swim on its own merit.

"I think a little controversy helps; any kind of publicity is good for a film," says Simmons. "A protest in front of a theater piques the interest of potential viewers. But it doesn't determine the success or failure of a film, in the sense that word-of-mouth or reviews eventually would.

"If you did a particularly bad film, it wouldn't take long for people to realize it was a particularly bad film, despite the controversy."

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