Jesus Christ Movie Star; Mel Gibson's 'The Passion' Defies Expectations and Opens to a Flood of Tears-And Ticket Sales. That May Not Stop It from Being the Most Divisive Movie in History
Byline: David Gates, With Sean Smith in Los Angeles, Julie Scelfo in New York, Mark Miller in Dallas, Jason McLure in Boston and Patrick Crowley in Cincinnati
Whatever you think about Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," it's clear that everything Hollywood insiders knew was wrong. After a massive opening on Ash Wednesday last week--the film took in more than $26 million that day--we're not hearing much from all those folks who said nobody would turn out to see an uncompromisingly gory Christian movie in Latin and Aramaic. The mixed reviews--thumbs up from Roger Ebert, thumbs down from almost everybody else--didn't matter. This was the biggest opening day for any movie ever released outside the summer and holidays. "It's incredible," says one studio source. "I don't know if it's 'surprising,' but it's surreal." Not to moviegoers like Lorrie Delaney of Bloomfield Hills, Mich. "I prayed throughout it," she says. "I'm a very, very devout Catholic. I love my faith. I love my God." Nor to the Rev. Jack Graham, president of the Southern Baptist Convention. "This is a providence of God," he says, "that in the midst of an international war on terrorism, in the midst of a cultural and domestic war for the family, God raises up a standard."
Depending on where you stand, "The Passion" couldn't have been better--or worse--timed. To many Christians, everything from terrorism and the war in Iraq to gay marriage and an Alabama judge's failed effort to display the Ten Commandments in the state capitol are the latest moves--if not the endgame--in an ages-old struggle of good against evil; to them, Gibson's movie offers light in a darkening world. "I left the theater beaming and smiling and so renewed," says Delaney. Secular Americans, Jews and even some mainstream Christians believe the film will further polarize our society particularly because of Gibson's emphasis on the role of Jews in the Crucifixion. Peter Richards, a self-declared agnostic from Cambridge, Mass., booed "The Passion" as most of the audience at a Harvard Square movie house applauded. "Christ's story is being used to make divisions among us when that's not really his message," he says. Such Jewish leaders as Adam Mintz, of the New York Board of Rabbis, worry about the effect of "the image of a Jewish mob screaming for the blood of Jesus." Some Roman Catholics, on the other hand, think such reactions exacerbate anti-Catholicism. William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, has been getting scabrous messages on his answering machine for defending the film. "There's a lot of hate in this country, and it's not just toward Jews and Muslims and African-Americans," he says. "Hello--it's toward Catholics, too. Some of this is sheer demagoguery on the part of the Jews."
But if "The Passion" turns out to polarize Americans in general, it's pulling together Roman Catholics and Protestant evangelicals, who have a long history of mutual suspicion. Gibson is a Catholic traditionalist, but he's successfully cultivated the support of evangelicals; one Baptist businessman in Plano, Texas, bought $42,000 worth of tickets to distribute free of charge. Catholic and Protestant laypeople seem equally untroubled by the accusations of anti-Semitism against the film. "We all put him to death," says Mike Murreey, an evangelical from Saugus, Mass. "It just happened to be the Jews then." Rob DiTonno, a Catholic from nearby Wakefield, adds, "If they call it anti-Semitic, then the Bible's anti-Semitic. …