Selling the Savior

By Jack Mathews
New York Daily News -
Sunday, February 22nd, 2004

I haven't seen Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," but it has already distinguished itself in my mind as the subject of the most cynical movie marketing campaign in Hollywood history - at least, in the 25 years I've been covering the beat.

There has simply never been anything like this, where a self-righteous filmmaker claiming to have been guided by the hand of God has manipulated the media and public­ opinion to enhance the value of a commercial product.

Hypocrisy hovers over this enterprise like the mother ship in "Close Encounters." Gibson chooses the most divisive Biblical account of the Crucifixion, one that includes the "blood libel" of the Jews, and makes its predictable controversy the centerpiece of his marketing campaign -all under the guise of spreading the Word.

Months ago, Gibson began cherry-picking an audience of friendly, if dubious, opinion makers (Matt Drudge, for example) to see the movie and counter charges of anti-Semitism made by rabbis and others who'd read an early version of the script. Since then, Gibson has shown the movie to hundreds of evangelical leaders and provided trailers to be shown to their flocks on Sundays to arouse their interest.

The faithful have responded like pilgrims planning a trip to Mecca, buying up tickets weeks in advance of "The Passion's" release.

Recently, he has shown it to selected newspaper and TV editors and to feature writers for publicity purposes. But critics - we pesky, nitpicking, occasionally agnostic creatures - don't see it until tomorrow, two days before its opening. Gibson cried foul over the leaking of his script last year, but it is so commonplace for scripts to slip into the hands of Internet reviewers that he had to know it would happen.

And he had to know how rabbis and Jewish scholars would react, particularly to the toxic line "His blood be on us and on our children," which, according to the Gospel of Matthew, was said by the Jewish mob in accepting blame for Jesus' murder.

It has been reported recently that Gibson removed that line in deference to offended Jews, but he told Diane Sawyer in a prime-time interview last week that it is still there, in Aramaic. What he removed was the English translation, allowing himself to have it both ways.

Gibson's denials of personal anti-Semitism ring very hollow. He has said he set out to make the most honest Jesus movie ever, which suggests that by including the blood libel line he believes it. Either that or he knew what a compelling and attention-getting controversy it would incite.

I don't question that Gibson, in his quest for midlife redemption, has become a true believer. He can afford the $25 million he spent making the movie, and the $25 million more he's spending on its market­ing. But in casting himself as the Great Proselytizer, he is risking the rakishly irreverent image that has made him one of the biggest and highest paid stars of his generation.

Can he go back to spewing obscenities in movies like "Lethal Weapon?" Will he even want to? After Wednesday, he'll be a religious leader, and he could devote the rest of his career to dramatizing the Bible.

One thing's certain: He knows how to sell it.

Jack Mathews has been a critic, reporter, columnist and movie editor for 25 years and for many of the largest circulation newspapers in the country. Before joining the Daily News in 1999, Mathews was senior film critic at Newsday, movie editor and columnist at the Los Angeles Times, senior film critic at USA Today, and senior film critic, columnist, and West Coast bureau chief for the Detroit Free Press. He's the author of "The Battle of Brazil," a book chronicling the behind-the-scenes fight between film d irector Terry Gilliam and Universal Pictures over the final cut of the now-classic movie "Brazil." In the late 1990s, he co-hosted "Cinema," a PBS-aired weekly television program

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