Breach of Faith

By David Hazony

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t is no small matter when the American film industry registers a palpable shift in the religious and moral beliefs of its on-screen heroes. Such a shift has indeed taken place in the last few years, and one artist above all has been responsible for it: Alongside his blockbuster action flicks and throw-away romantic comedies, Mel Gibson has, almost single-handedly, led a revolution in the way religion has appeared in American film. Whereas it was once commonplace to suffuse films with devotional themes—one need only think of The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, and Miracle on 34th Street—in recent times religion has endured a near-taboo status, and it has become almost impossible to find a major motion picture with an overtly religious message. In response to this trend, Gibson has staked his prestige and personal fortune on the belief that the film industry has misunderstood something crucial about Americans, and that there is, in truth, a much larger role for God in film than is generally thought.
Gibson’s version of religion has been tailored to his audience. It is a uniquely American religion, in which the righteous are not the meek, but rather those who take initiative, fight for the good, protect their families, and make history. It champions the effectiveness of ideals in this world, and it ennobles political action, common sense, and preferential love. In short, it is a worldly, Old Testament religion—one which has resonated not only with most American Christians, but also with large numbers of Jews.
The success of his new film, The Passion of the Christ, is therefore a kind of fulfillment of a cinematic crusade a decade in the making. But it is also a betrayal. For while Gibson has succeeded in producing a box-office smash out of what he considers to be the fulcrum of his Christianity—namely the arrest, torture, and death of Jesus of Nazareth—he has done so at enormous cost: He appears not only to have alienated quite a few Jewish and Christian fans, but, more importantly, to have sacrificed many of the lofty values which he has long been promoting. The Passion is nothing like the Gibson we know, and his Jesus appears to call into question almost everything his earlier protagonists have fought and died for.
Thus while most of the public debate has focused on the film’s artistic merits, its arresting ticket sales, its overindulgence in gore, and its portrayal of Jews, the real significance of The Passion of the Christ may lie elsewhere: In the tragic repudiation of what had been a filmmaker’s heroic attempt to bring the values of biblical religion back to Hollywood.

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