Brent Bozell's Takes on 'The Passion'

Five years after The Passion of the the Christ conquered the multiplex, it might be instructive to recall the media coverage as Brent Bozell chronicled it in two columns. He offered tribute to Mel Gibson and a rebuke to godless Hollywood in the week before the movie came out:

The mass unveiling of Mel Gibson’s cinematic vision of "The Passion of the Christ" on 2,000 screens – a massive debut for a foreign-language film with subtitles -- has the entertainment elite a bit frightened. After all, how many decades have elapsed since Hollywood has been in any way associated with Christian orthodoxy?

The one who is not frightened is Gibson. He is a man who has made his own brave and generous sacrifice, putting tens of millions of dollars and his own film career on the line for a daring and controversial cultural event. He is a man who can sit in front of Diane Sawyer as she looks like she’s sucking on a lemon and honestly proclaim his humble Christian beliefs, to be a "fool for Christ" before the world.

He has dared to make a film that focuses only on the last hours of Jesus, leaving the gentle preachings and healings that some like to imply is the whole of the New Testament behind, honing in just on the cruel and yet necessary crucifixion of the Christ.

For many months, media outlets have promoted controversy over this film, suggesting it may be anti-Semitic, and even if it isn’t anti-Semitic in intention, it could have an anti-Semitic effect. One might argue all this controversy has been good for the film, but that doesn’t mean the entertainment press has been fair or accurate in its coverage of it. Our cultural elites are worried not about how the film is "anti," but how the film is "pro." They know how this film has the potential to light a fire under traditional Christianity in America and around the world.

They are worried because millions of Americans are enthusiastic. As the media boomlet picks up this growing phenomenon, it seems to overflow with secular alienation and dread that some might be using this film to evangelize, that the filmmakers are "marketing Jesus." To the bad-taste specialists that dominate our culture, there is no dirtier word than "proselytize." That, to them, is a very "divisive" act. To the secularists, it is offensive to believe that one creed, one faith is absolutely correct, and therefore the others must be in error.

But why is it not offensive to suggest, as Hollywood so often suggests, that all religions are basically fairy tales for creepy, superstitious people who need the "crutch" of faith to deal with the natural world? And why it is not offensive for Hollywood to serve the country as a sort of 24-hour Temptation Channel for exotic sex, and filthy language, and pornographic violence? The entertainment factories are proselytizers -- for the lowest in human behavior. They are evangelists -- for empty sensationalism.

And isn’t it odd now to see, in the wake of this powerful film, cultural critics trying to curdle its impact by suggesting that the movie, with its body count of one (not counting the Resurrection), is a gorefest? "Mel’s ‘Passion’ for Gore ‘Extreme,’ He Admits," claimed the New York Daily News, mangling his words out of his ABC interview. He said he wanted people to be struck, shocked by the physical pain and suffering endured by Jesus to save each believer. The spectacle wasn’t for blood-loving jollies, like the choreographed mass murder of a Quentin Tarantino film. It was intended for Christian inspiration.

The Los Angeles Times wrote that Gibson made "one of the most brutally graphic and violent depictions in modern cinema" of the last hours of Jesus. But Hollywood has almost no depictions of Jesus in "modern cinema," other than Martin Scorsese’s Jesus-trashing "Last Temptation of Christ," and that’s 16 years old. To show your children explicitly Christian films requires a walk through the oldies section: "Quo Vadis" (1951), "The Robe" (1953), "Ben-Hur" (1959), or "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965).

Don’t worry, film critics: it should be safe to assume that the crowds flocking to this R-rated movie will not be dragging their kids to see the pain inflicted in "The Passion." How wonderful it would be if Hollywood had such tender hearts for the well-being of vulnerable children routinely sneaking into R-rated films with little resistance.

The secular cultural elites have reason to be frightened. Millions of Americans will be dazzled in the multiplexes watching a cast of non-stars speak in non-English about what Hollywood has seen for eons as a non-story. The hubbub should send a powerful message to Hollywood: our culture could use more of this kind of artistic vision and exploration, and less of your nihilistic nonsense. There might be a new fad in town.

Sadly, that trend was minimal. The closest thing to a mass-market Christian film was The Nativity Story, which clearly tried to echo The Passion in its look and titles, even if its vision was subtler. After the film came out, Brent took on the film critics, comparing their loathing for The Passion with their passion for the very unorthodox 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ.

The residents of Gypsum, Colorado were in for a surprise the other day. Someone hit the wrong button in the county’s communications center, triggering an automatic broadcast over four radio stations warning residents to evacuate immediately on account of the tsunami headed their way. That’s an interesting weather development for this landlocked community, 6,334 feet above sea level.

It’s not often screaming alarms are so demonstrably false, and the wise course of action at times like this is simply to turn them off and publicly recognize the error.

So why, then, won’t the false-alarm-clanging critics leave "The Passion of the Christ" alone? After all the trashing of the film (and its creator), and all those warning bells about potential anti-Semitic violence, what’s happened? Only this: the movie’s $150 million take after only one week makes this one of the most successful films in the history of Hollywood. And the anti-Semitic backlash? Zero. Zilch.

But still they won’t stop their attacks. Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post complained first not about the artistry, but the history. The film "engages in some troubling assumptions, for starters by treating the Bible's four Gospels as literal eyewitness accounts of Jesus's arrest, torture and crucifixion."

A reader might wonder: if critics like Hornaday were so tremendously concerned with historical accuracy, what would she have said about "The Last Temptation of Christ," Martin Scorsese’s Christ-mangling film of 1988? That Christ figure fantasized about fornicating with Mary Magdalene; claimed he was not divine and sinless; even said he was a bit satanic, had "Lucifer inside him"; and as a carpenter, he callously constructed crosses for the Romans so they could crucify Jews with them.

Sadly, you don’t even need a database to find out. Four days after the debut of "The Passion," Hornaday recommended "Last Temptation" to Post readers with great enthusiasm – and equal loathing of the Gibson film: "But now that ‘The Passion of the Christ’ is, with any luck, on its way out of theaters, it's a good time to reassess Scorsese's movie, whose lyricism and meaning and spiritual heft have grown with time....The film is one of the most provocative, haunting and devout meditations on spiritual sacrifice and commitment ever made."

Only a film critic could find something "devout" about a movie with the snide, scabrous, and completely unbiblical portrait of Jesus.

In 1988, Newsweek critic David Ansen similarly claimed that Scorsese had made "one of the few truly religious movies Hollywood has bothered to finance in the past decade." He added that "most moviegoers may have more doubts about the esthetics than the theology."

So what does he think of "The Passion"? Ansen can’t find the "truly religious" angle in it: "Others may well find a strong spirituality in "The Passion" -- I can't pretend to know what this movie looks like to a believer -- but it was Gibson's fury, not his faith, that left a deep, abiding aftertaste."

Time critic Richard Corliss’s review carried the offensive (and trite) headline "The Goriest Story Ever Told." (Compared to what? The remake of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre"?) Corliss, who received exclusive looks at the film before its debut, mildly honored Gibson’s passion and artistry, but advised Time readers to avoid the theatre, suggesting it’s only for "true believers with cast-iron stomachs; people who can stand to be grossed out as they are edified."

But in 1988, Corliss lauded Scorsese’s "masterpiece" on Lucifer Christ. Scorsese’s screen violence "is emetic, not exploitative. The crowning with thorns, the scourging at the pillar, the agonized trudge up Calvary show what Jesus suffered and why. [Willem] Dafoe's spiky, ferocious, nearly heroic performance is a perfect servant to the role. He finds sense in Jesus' agonies; he finds passion in the parables."

In 1988, the New York Daily News found in Scorsese’s film "integrity, reverence, and a good deal of cinematic beauty." But this time around, critic Jami Bernard could only smear Gibson’s film as "the most virulently anti-Semitic movie made since the German propaganda films of World War II." If Ms. Bernard is concerned with real anti-Semitism she needs to read Joel Rosenberg’s recent article for National Review Online discussing the Syrian miniseries "Al-Shatat," which features Jews slaughtering a Christian boy and spilling his blood into Passover matzoh bread.

Films like Gibson’s "Passion" remind us that film critics see themselves as far more than advice columnists. They view themselves as the (don’t laugh) moral arbiters of the popular culture. But in the case of "The Passion," the harshest critics are dead wrong, and every day’s tidal wave of tickets washes away their disbelieving, deconstructing attempts to ruin its powerful effect on American hearts and minds.

Never in history has the chasm between the critics and their public been deeper.

Months before the film came out, Brent also deplored New York Times columnist Frank Rich for distorting Gibson's words into a tale of anti-Semitic paranoia.

Richard Corliss Ann Hornaday David Ansen
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