Agreed: All the Publicity Is a Triumph for 'Passion'

By Rabdy Kennedy
New York Times
February 28, 2004

They argued about many things, but the group of experts who gathered on Thursday night for a public discussion of the impact of Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ" agreed that Mr. Gibson had succeeded wildly in at least one respect: fostering a publicity frenzy that has attracted millions of moviegoers, in part by playing on their prejudices and divisions.

Some members of the group added that they believed that both the movie's critics and the media had helped greatly in promoting the movie by allowing themselves to be drawn into a running argument with Mr. Gibson over whether he and his movie were anti-Semitic. Rabbi Eugene Korn, the former director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League and a longtime critic of the movie, said he believed that he and others made a "strategic error" by debating Mr. Gibson in the media over a period of several months before the movie opened on Wednesday, earning more than $23 million.

"Then Mel Gibson won the battle because we took our eyes off the ball," Rabbi Korn said, describing the public arguments with Mr. Gibson as a "he said, she said," that resolved nothing.

The discussion, on Thursday, was sponsored by the Center for Jewish History on West 16th Street and was moderated by Edward Rothstein of The New York Times. It drew 400 people, many of whom had just seen the movie. Three members of the panel — Rabbi Korn; Sister Mary Boys, a professor at the Union Theological Seminary in New York; and Paula Fredriksen, a biblical historian at Boston University — have a long history with the movie. They were part of an ad hoc group that read an early screenplay and warned publicly that it could inflame anti-Semitism, angering Mr. Gibson.

Sister Boys said that since the group made those criticisms she and other members have been attacked by supporters of the movie as "anti-Christ, the arrogant gang of so-called scholars, dupes of Satan, forces of Satan and other terms that I cannot use in polite company."

She said, "I am deeply concerned by the polarization that these terms represent, by the way in which this film has become a sort of a lightning rod in which people can use religion as a tool to bludgeon other people."

Peter J. Boyer, a staff writer for The New Yorker who served as another panel member on Thursday, said he saw the movie in White Plains on Wednesday night. And while many people at the theater appeared to have come for a religious experience, he said, there were also "a bunch of folks who were just there because of this thing — the thing we do in America — the hot thing of the moment."

Mr. Boyer, who wrote an article last September about the making of the movie and the debate surrounding it, added: "This movie opened with $25 million yesterday, and it did so for a reason. And the reason has much to do with us, and the controversy. And for that — not that I would ever pretend to speak for Mel Gibson — but for that, I'm sure, Mel Gibson thanks you all."

Another panel member, Deal W. Hudson, the publisher and editor of Crisis magazine, a Catholic monthly, said he loved the movie and found no anti-Semitism in it. He said he believed it could represent a rebirth of religious art in America. But he said that he watched Mr. Gibson's promotional tactics "with a vague sense of embarrassment" because he believed the movie deserved better.

But he and the other panel members agreed that it was effective. Professor Fredriksen said she believed Mr. Gibson's real victory — perhaps one that even he did not expect would work so well — was to pull off an "ecumenical cross-marketing coup" by bridging a very old gap between many conservative Catholics and Protestants.

"He has taken this now somewhat old-fashioned, quintessentially Roman Catholic fixation on blood and pain, and sold it to Sun Belt Protestants," she said. "It seems likely that at no prior point in U.S. history have so many Baptists known the date of Ash Wednesday."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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