Mel Gibson: The passion of the film star who directed the Holy Ghost

It’s almost always a bad idea for Hollywood stars to indulge their dreams and invest their own money in pet projects others wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. Especially if they involve religion. Just look at John Travolta, who sabotaged what had been a miraculous career revival a couple of years back with Battlefield Earth, the L Ron Hubbard adaptation that was supposed to convert the masses to Scientology but succeeded only in reducing them to helpless snorts of derisive laughter.

And now comes Mel Gibson, who has exposed himself to even greater risk with The Passion, his super-gruesome rendering of the last 12 hours of the life of Jesus Christ, which he is bankrolling entirely out of his own pocket. The dialogue is in Latin and Aramaic and the theology comes courtesy of his bizarre offshoot of the Catholic Church, which thinks the Pope is a heretic and that the Jews bear the brunt of historical responsibility for the crucifixion.

The outcry, as might have been anticipated, has been swift and furious. Gibson has been widely accused of stirring up anti-Semitism – mostly, it must be said, by people who have seen only a version of the screenplay, not the film itself. One religious scholar, Sister Mary Boys of the Union Theological Seminary, has offered the dire prediction that we are about to see “one of the great crises in Christian-Jewish relations”. Another, Paula Fredriksen of Boston University, has warned Gibson he can expect blood on his hands.

This is not an easy controversy to judge, since the film has no distributor and is not expected to arrive in cinemas until next year’s Lenten season at the earliest. Of the chosen few who have been accorded advance screenings, however, conservatives and Gibson’s fellow super-traditionalists have – perhaps predictably – tended to love it, while the Anti-Defamation League, a conservative Jewish group which kicked up a huge fuss until it too was allowed a look, felt – also predictably – that the film confirmed all its worst anti-Semitic fears.

Certainly, Gibson hasn’t helped himself by trumpeting his film as an enduring work of art that corrects all the mistakes of previous versions of the Gospels. “This film will show the passion of Jesus Christ just the way it happened,” he told a television interviewer earlier this year, before the controversy erupted. “It’s like travelling back in time and watching the events unfold exactly as they occurred.” And how, pray tell, can Gibson be so sure that he is right, especially when the Gospels themselves are contradictory and vague on many of the details? “The Holy Ghost was working through me on this film,” he said. “I was just directing traffic.”

The scholars have had a field day with such assertions. For a start, they say, the soldiers of imperial Rome would not have spoken Latin, as they do in Gibson’s film, but Greek. Then there is the question of sourcing. Gibson himself has admitted that his screenplay was based not so much on the Gospels as on the reinterpretation of a 19th-century nun called Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich, whose hypnotic visions of the Passion included many frankly anti-Semitic details missing from the Gospels.

According to his critics, Gibson has the Jews clamouring for the death of Jesus in ways that neither the Bible nor the historical record suggest. Rather, they say, his vision fits right into the long, contentious, frequently violent and now largely repudiated Christian tradition of castigating Jews for the sin of deicide. Several of the scholars who examined the screenplay said they saw no way of correcting the problem without rewriting and substantially reshooting it.

What, you might wonder, was Gibson thinking? He himself has said, only half-jokingly, that this could be “the career-killer film”. Naturally, he denies it is anti-Semitic, but he also says he “can’t hide” the role the Jews played in Christ’s death. Not, perhaps, the most reassuring of answers. The Passion also promises to be a singularly uncomfortable viewing experience, with scenes of Jesus beaten until the skin is hanging off in strips. Gibson hopes the film will be inspiring – in the same way, one supposes, that Steven Spielberg thought Saving Private Ryan would be inspiring. At least Spielberg’s film wasn’t in Aramaic.

The other strange thing is how far this project seems to be from the Mel Gibson audiences have come to know and love – the happy-go-lucky blue-eyed golden boy, with a malicious grin on his handsome face and mischief for ever on his mind. There was always vague talk of Gibson’s deep religious commitment and conservative political views, but they never seemed half as important as his delight in showing up to parties in a bra and wig like an overgrown Aussie schoolboy out to have a good time.

Gibson, in short, has always come across as a good guy. People who have worked with him say he is refreshingly down to earth, unspoilt and devoid of pretension. In Malibu, where he lives in a gated community about a mile inland from the beach, he is known as a committed husband and father and a stellar community activist who has given lavishly to the local public school system, where all seven of his children have been educated. Malibu is full of Jews, and none has ever had a bad word to say about him, even after he started building a church on behalf of his anti-papal Catholic sect recently in the hills above the town. Sure, people know he belongs to some strange religious order, but their attitude has always been that he is an OK guy who is welcome to his beliefs, whatever they may be.

All that may now be subject to re-evaluation. The first thing to know is that Gibson’s ultra-traditionalist sect does not just reject the Pope and insist on holdings its masses in Latin, like Catholics of old. It also rejects the entire body of Vatican teaching since Pope John XXIII, including its apology for the church’s persecution of the Jews and its renunciation of anti-Semitic positions going all the way back to the Council of Nicaea in AD325, when Jews were declared to be “abhorrent to the will of God”. The rite the Gibsons follow was codified at the Council of Trent in the 16th century – the high watermark of the Counter-Reformation that soon led to heretics being burned at the stake all over Europe.

The second thing to know about Gibson is his 85-year-old father, the original traditionalist in the family and author of numerous religious tracts displaying some hair-raising religious and political beliefs. At various times, Hutton Gibson has said he believes burning heretics is “an act of charity”, that Pope John XXIII usurped the Holy See after threatening to drop a nuclear bomb on the Vatican, that the Second Vatican Council was a “Masonic plot backed by Jews”, that the Holocaust never happened, that al-Qa’ida had nothing to do with the 11 September attacks, and that income tax was and remains a communist plot inspired by Karl Marx himself.

It is important, of course, to distinguish the views of the father from the views of the son, and Mel Gibson would have been thrown out of Hollywood long ago if he had gone round repeating such incendiary nonsense. Nevertheless, these are the views Mel grew up listening to, forming at least one strand of the religious tradition he has chosen to follow.

Although many people think of Mel Gibson as Australian, he was in fact born in Peekskill, New York, where his father had a job on the railways. Then, when Mel was 12, a bizarre twist of fate caused the family to emigrate. Hutton won a disability settlement from his job following an injury, and went on to win big on the television game show Jeopardy. The parents and their 11 children took the money and left for New South Wales.

The teenage Mel toyed with becoming a priest, but applied to drama school at the insistence of one of his sisters. The National Institute of Dramatic Arts opened up an entirely new world for him: he played Romeo to Judy Davis’s Juliet, and shared digs with Geoffrey Rush. His film career took off relatively quickly, first with Tim, a succès d’estime in which he played the mentally disabled title role, and then with the Mad Max films, which earned him a mass audience from around the world.

From the start, Gibson was pegged as a heart-throb and a rather nuggety sexpot. That reputation rather obscured his acting talent, displayed to fine effect in the Peter Weir films Gallipoli (1981) and The Year of Living Dangerously (1983) but later buried under a welter of commercial crowd-pleasers, especially after he moved from Australia to Hollywood in the mid-1980s. Even Braveheart, his 1995 Oscar-winning portrayal of the William Wallace uprising which also marked his directorial debut, was perhaps not all it was cracked up to be; it has since appeared with alarming regularity on lists of the worst Academy Award-winning films ever made.

If one wanted to look for reasons why he would yearn to make a such a film as The Passion, they aren’t too hard to find. By the late 1990s, Gibson was too old to make the Sexiest Men in Hollywood lists any more and seemed stuck in lucrative but less than meaningful films such as Payback, an unnecessary remake of the John Boorman classic Point Blank, and the umpteen instalments in the Lethal Weapon series, opposite Danny Glover. Who can blame him for taking his money – he’s been worth $25m a picture for the past few years – and putting it into something a little more substantial?

The problem, of course, is the nature of that something. Religion is never an easy topic for the movies – just think of the trouble Pasolini had with his Gospel According to St Matthew, or Martin Scorsese with The Last Temptation of Christ. Gibson can take comfort that the furore over such films tends to precede their release and fade considerably once they have actually been seen by real live audiences. (The Vatican now loves the Pasolini film, and the cries of sacrilege hurled at Scorsese are but a distant memory.) That assumes, though, that the anti-Semitic charge has either been overblown or can be fixed in the editing room. If it can’t, and he really does incite a full-blown crisis in Christian-Jewish relations, he might just wish he had made Lethal Weapon 5 instead.

LIFE STORY

Born: Mel Columcille Gerard Gibson on 3 January 1956, in Peekskill, New York

Family: Sixth of 11 children. His father, Hutton Gibson, worked as a railway brakeman until a work-related injury and a winning streak on a popular game show persuaded him to move the family to Australia when Mel was 12. His mother, Ann, was the daughter of an Australian opera singer.

Career: Studied at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts in Sydney. Shot to stardom with Mad Max (1979), then acquired critical kudos with his turns in Gallipoli (1981) and The Year of Living Dangerously (1983), both directed by Peter Weir. Made his US film debut in The Bounty (1984) and soon fell comfortably into the Lethal Weapon series, starting in 1987. Won Oscars for directing and starring in Braveheart (1995). More recent films include The Patriot (2001) and Signs (2002). The Passion is due out next year.

Personal life: Married Robyn Moore, whom he met through a dating service, in 1980. They have seven children. Does not touch alcohol. Now building a traditionalist church in the hills above Malibu.

They say: “That’s the way you should do it. Take a garbage role for the money, like Lethal Weapon 4, and then do what you want to do.” – Actor Peter Stormare

“When violence breaks out, Mel Gibson will have a much higher authority than professors and bishops to answer to.” – Paula Frederiksen, Professor of Scripture, Boston University

He says: “I want to be as truthful as possible.”

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