March 17, 2004

Lethal Weapon 3:16

Insofar as self-restraint goes, I consider myself a moral (if mortal) person. Sometimes, however, something touches so many people and sparks so much debate that I can’t help but give in to temptation. That’s right, I went to see Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” I guess you could say the devil made me do it.

Beforehand, I was told alternately that this movie would: 1) change my life in joyously irrevocable ways, 2) cause the screen to cry tears of blood or 3) make me sick to my stomach. Steve Martin joked that the movie was so popular that a book version was sure to follow. If you don’t like it, some said, then head on over to the nearest church and Father Mel will give you a crash course in Mass Excommunication.

Gibson, Hollywood’s favorite Catholic superstud, can always be counted on to faithfully follow the tenets of his faith, whether it’s joking about condoms (“Lethal Weapon 2”), having scads of extramarital sex (“What Women Want” and “Maverick,” among countless others) or striking untold numbers of cheeks (“Lethal Weapon,” “Braveheart” and “We Were Soldiers”). All kidding aside, Mel is a fantastic director and actor who remains one of my all-time favorites.

For months, all we heard about “The Passion” was the controversy and the oddities surrounding it. Accusations of anti-Semitism and Mel’s assertion that the Holy Spirit itself guided his hands on the camera made big splashes, as did Mel’s concern that his wife was going straight to hell.

These anecdotes, however, all but paled next to the bizarre story of Jesus impersonator James Caviezel. Throughout filming, J.C. endured accidental whip lashes and scars, a separated shoulder from the falling cross (watch carefully), being struck by lightning during both the Sermon on the Mount and the crucifixion scenes (!!) and hypothermia. Talk about suffering for your art! I’m inspired already.

Whether or not you believe in the divinity of Jesus, his message gets as close to perfection as humanity can ever hope to achieve: love all, forgive all, never back down or sell out. You don’t have to carry a “John 3:16” sign to live by that every day. Of course, this is Mad Max we’re talking about here; the message inevitably gets lost in the violence.

I won’t spoil it for those who have yet to see the flick, but let’s just say that Jesus suffers a nick or two. The cuts open clearly and graphically, much like on Martin Lawrence’s butt in “Bad Boys II,” but with slightly less comic effect. Still, I’ve never heard so many people crying in a theater, forming a community of the tearfully inspired. Meg Ryan, eat your heart out.

By focusing on the brutal torture of the messenger instead of the message itself, “The Passion” personifies the times we live in. The issue I take with a movie such as this is that it focuses so much on death and says almost nothing about the life that makes people special. This does a great disservice to the impact that their lives had on those they touched.

If anything positive comes out of this film, it’s that Pontius Pilate learns the evil in selling out an innocent man to the bloodthirsty masses. Sounds like a message that our current crop of divinely inspired leaders could use about now.

The best aspect of “The Passion” lies underneath the pomp and spectacle. Simply put, we root for the underdog. Anyone, religious or not, can identify with that. It only makes sense; in a way, we’re all underdogs compared to Mel Gibson.

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