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Mel Gibson - My ultimate hope is that this story’s message of tremendous courage and sacrifice might inspire tolerance, love and forgiveness

Feature by: Jack Foley

MEL Gibson said his intention, when making The Passion of the Christ, was ‘to create a lasting work of art and to stimulate serious thought and reflection among diverse audiences of all backgrounds’.

I doubt even he could have predicted the groundswell of opinion which has subsequently resulted. The Passion of the Christ is nothing short of a cinematic phenomenon, the type of which comes along all too rarely.

It has been accused of being dangerously anti-Semitic, one of the most hate-filled films of all time, and an overly violent depiction of the final 12 hours of Christ’s life. Yet it has had audiences flocking to see it, breaking box office records, in America, and being credited with reviving what had been a ‘pretty lousy year’ so far.

Gibson first began to research the scriptures and events surrounding The Passion more than 12 years ago, when he found himself in the midst of a spiritual crisis which led him to re-examine his own faith, and, in particular, to meditate upon the nature of suffering, pain, forgiveness and redemption.

He states: "My ultimate hope is that this story’s message of tremendous courage and sacrifice might inspire tolerance, love and forgiveness. We’re definitely in need of those things in today’s world."

Having undertaken to make the movie, Gibson quickly realised he had a unique opportunity to put his art where his heart resided, and imagined bringing the full power of modern motion picture technology to the subject of The Passion.

He subsequently co-wrote a screenplay, with Benedict Fitzgerald, that drew faithfully from the Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as the script’s main sources, but which also included some artistic embellishments from the director, himself.

He knew from the start that he was venturing into largely unexplored artistic territory - into an arena where art, storytelling and personal devotion would meet.

"When you tackle a story that is so widely known and has so many different pre-conceptions, the only thing you can do is remain as true as possible to the story and your own way of expressing it creatively," he maintains. "This is what I tried to do."

And commenting on his decision to highlight the physical realism of the events, he continued: "I really wanted to express the hugeness of the sacrifice, as well as the horror of it."

In order to accomplish this, he paid particular attention to the work of renowned Italian artist, Caravaggio, who was equally as unflinching in his depiction of the events surrounding Christ’s death.

"If you go round the churches in Rome, his art is everywhere, in the cathedrals and it’s tremendous. He’s pretty dark, and pretty violent and it is kinetic.

"The way it’s lit, the sense of light in his imagination when he did these pictures is just amazing. It’s beautiful. We emulated that where we could."

His film is not merely about the suffering, however, as he states: "I also wanted a film that has moments of real lyricism and beauty and an abiding sense of love, because it is ultimately a story of faith, hope and love. That, in my view, is the greatest story we can ever tell."

Not that everyone has agreed, however, given the backlash which has met the film, in certain quarters.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops, for instance, published a 128-page document, reaffirming its objections to the movie, following its release, while the Anti-Defamation League has persistently accused Gibson's vision of threatening 'to undo four decades of positive Catholic-Jewish relations'.

A Vatican sermon, by Father Raniero Cantalamessa, said that if the film spread the belief that all Jews were responsible for Christ's death, it should be criticised. But ‘if it restricts itself to showing an influential group of Jews’ were to blame, then it could not.

He added: "The Jewish people, as such, are not responsible for the death of Christ, and The Passion is a film to be criticised if it seeks to advance the belief that all Jews, at the time and in succeeding generations, are responsible for the death of Christ.

"But it cannot be accused of betraying the real story if it restricts itself to showing an influential group of Jews at the time playing a determining role in the death of Jesus Christ."

The controversy surrounding the film has merely served to heighten people’s interest in it, however, and there is no doubting that it has helped to turn the world’s focus back onto religion, at a time when man’s inhumanity to man has seldom seemed so apparent.

The film broke the five-day box office record, held by The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, raking in a staggering $125.2 million (£68.2m), following its release, in America, on Ash Wednesday, and has been just behind Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning epic in terms of box office performance ever since.

It is also now sixth in the all-time list of films' first weekend takings, which is no mean feat for a movie that, when first announced, struggled to find a distributor in the United States, due to the fact it was filmed in the ‘dead’ languages of Latin and Aramaic.

As for Gibson, himself, who is said to have invested £25m of his own fortune into realising the project, he has admitted to being overwhelmed by the response to it, especially from those who have sought to criticise without even seeing it.

At one point, he responded to the continued claims of anti-Semitism, by arguing that he had been 'subjected to religious persecution as an artist, as an American and as a man'.

But he added: "I forgive them all. But enough is enough. We will always have demented bigots around. But I don't believe that we can let those people dictate how we live, how we believe, how we make art."

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