ARLINGTON, Va. - Rarely has a movie before its release attracted the kind of buzz surrounding Mel Gibson's self-financed The Passion of the Christ. On Ash Wednesday today, people get to see the reason for months of debate and controversy.
What has been lost in the debate about the film and its alleged anti-Semitism - I've seen the movie, and there isn't any - is the central message of Christ's suffering and sacrifice for the redemption of humanity. That message cannot be missed in the film, but it probably will be ignored by most reviewers.
This movie - which should make back Mr. Gibson's $25 million personal investment by the first weekend because of advance sales and the expansion of screens from 2,000 to 2,800 - contains an important lesson for Hollywood. The Passion has been specifically marketed to an audience that has felt excluded by Hollywood. While filmmakers have marketed their work to other groups and depicted every conceivable lifestyle, relationship, foul language, deviant behavior, violence and serial murder, they have ignored - with rare exceptions - subjects that matter most to a major, if not a majority, demographic.
Large numbers of people have ceased going to films, or, like me, rarely buy a ticket, because they don't like paying to witness their beliefs and values mocked.
They are tired of hearing the name of the God they worship blasphemed by trash-talking actors who portray a raging secularism - even atheism - with which they have nothing in common.
The not-so-subtle message Hollywood is sending this large demographic was summarized in a Jan. 11 story in The Los Angeles Times about unbelief in the entertainment industry. Quoting from a book, Celebrities in Hell by Warren Allen Smith, the story revealed a depth of unbelief that is often reflected in the work and personal lives of actors and performers (just as belief is reflected in the life of and at least this film by Mr. Gibson).
Actor George Clooney is quoted as saying, "I don't believe in heaven and hell. I don't know if I believe in God." Bruce Willis says, "Organized religions in general, in my opinion, are dying forms. They were important when we didn't know why the sun moved, why weather changed, why hurricanes occurred. Modern religion is the end trail of modern mythology." Comedienne Phyllis Diller is even more direct: "We were not created by a deity. We created the deity in our likeness." Given Ms. Diller's outrageous appearance, which she has made part of her hilarious comedy routine, that is a frightening thought.
Why aren't people talking about the atheism or agnosticism of such luminaries at least as much as they are chattering about Mr. Gibson and his movie? Could it be that Mr. Gibson's belief offends their unbelief? Or, more profoundly, could it be about the most "controversial" figure in history - Jesus Himself?
While some critics want to focus on alleged anti-Semitism in the film, how about raising the subject of anti-Christian bigotry? The elites who have lambasted Mr. Gibson said nothing about Martin Scorsese's blasphemous and historically inaccurate film, The Last Temptation of Christ. Now that Mr. Gibson has made a film mostly in line with what the Bible says, he is treated as an infidel and bigot by many of his peers. Those people who have condemned conservatives for criticizing films and TV programs they have not seen are now guilty of the same thing with Mr. Gibson's movie.
Go and see this film. It might change your life. It could change Hollywood, if it is willing to receive the message that if you make good movies with good messages, those who now feel excluded and despised will pay money to see the films.
The debate is about to end. As the angel said to the incredulous followers of Jesus at the empty tomb in Jerusalem: "Come and see." It's show time!
Cal Thomas' syndicated column appears Wednesdays in The Sun.