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After months of being called anti-Semetic and other names not fit to print, an extremely nervous (and humble) Mel showed the final print of his film to the press, and sat down with members of The Hollywood Foreign Press in a Beverly Hills hotel room to talk about his own passion for The Passion Of The Christ. HFP member Jenny Cooney Carrillo reports.

Mel Gibson is used to being idolized, but villified? This has been the new, more reluctant role thrust upon the Aussie filmmaker following his most personal film yet, The Passion Of the Christ, which he co-wrote (with Benedict Fitzgerald, writer of Wise Blood, In Cold Blood and Heart of Darkness) and directed. The film is adapted from a composite account of The Passion assembled from the four Biblical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and opens in the Garden of Olives (Gethsemane), where Jesus (Jim Caviezel) has gone to pray after the Last Supper. Betrayed by Judas, arrested and tried, he is condemned to death by crucifixion. The film is subtitled as the characters speak mostly Aramaic, a language considered 'dead' these days but commonly spoken at that time. 

Why did you decide to put up your own money to make this movie? I heard that you went through a spiritual crisis twelve years ago. Did that have something to do with it?
Sure. I think all of us have a point in our lives where we sort of hit the wall and itís very painful. But as anyone knows, pain is always a precursor to change and it was no different in my case. I just got to a place of personal misery, so it was time to stop and turn it back and it was through faith that I think I was able to return. It was through my focus particularly on The Passion, which is the central theme of Christian faith, that I was able to come back from there. If you dwell on that as a means of healing yourself, of course itís going to become an integral part of you and whatever is an integral part of you, particularly if youíre an artist, is going to emerge from you and work its way out. In fact, there is no way it couldnít. Guys like Michelangelo and DaVinci, and Iím not comparing myself to them, these were guys who were really venal people and in many ways they had lots of flaws yet the work they produced was exquisite and it comes from pain. We are all damaged goods but we know there is something better out there and we reach for it. 

Do you think you were courageous to make this movie, given the controversy?
I am not courageous. Iím terrified and Iíve been terrified my whole life. When I was a kid, my family was persecuted for being Catholics and I remember that and that happens to everybody. It happens to Catholics, it happens to Jews and theyíre persecuted for what they are by somebody else who is not them and thatís horrible. I believe that the gospels are the truth and thatís what I base all my beliefs on, as do all Christians, and I wanted to have a rendering of that story where it didnít suffer from bad wigs and overacting, because Iíve seen versions that are kind of laughable and gloss over it or are inaccurate.

How do you respond to criticism of the violence in this film?
Itís interesting some say the flagellations never happened more than 39 hits but thereís evidence that this was well beyond that and it would have been hard for any normal human being to survive that. But on the Shroud of Turin, when they found it, the markings on the shroud show there is no skin left on this man, a six foot man who was crucified with a hole in his side and a crown with thorns that they can see from the imprints. I believe that is the image of Christ because itís a First Century weave and has pollens and seeds in it from that part of the world, so that was part of what I went for, plus other accounts that said it was a pretty vicious beating. Itís probably the worst thing Iíve ever seen on film.

Why did you really feel the need to revisit this story?
What weíre made of has to come out and has to be expressed, but also I look around today and see a lot of contradictions. Contradictions inside institutions where there is not supposed to be contradictions. For example, the other day I read theyíre using aborted fetus cells for science in Georgetown University and no matter what side of the argument you fall on there, itís a Catholic university so that is a contradiction. There is an institution where the bishops have shuffled and concealed and covered up members of their fraternity who have taken advantage of the innocence of their flocks and those contradictions remove your faith. There is politics and greed and money and ego. All these other things built up around these institutions to obscure what itís supposed to be about. Itís supposed to be about faith, hope, love, forgiveness. And I felt that the way to cut through all the bullshit was to actually go back to the message on the ground floor, which was The Passion.

How did you choose which parts of the gospel to use?
I would say my film adheres to the scriptures pretty well. Itís not like I did this in a vacuum. I read volumes on the scriptures. I talked to biblical scholars and Talmudic scholars until they came out of my ears. I talked to all these people over a twelve year period to arrive at this. Itís not the gospel according to Mel Ė although in some aspects it is my interpretation and my vision because the gospel doesnít mention a maggot-ridden donkey, or the mother of Jesus wiping up his blood or a lot of other things. But I donít believe Iíve betrayed the gospels. 

There have been huge religious films made in the past, like King of Kings, The Greatest Story Ever Told and Ben Hur. Why is yours any different to create such controversy?
Itís curious, isnít it? This is the first time Iíve ever experienced the fury of anything like this and even before Iíd finished shooting, the cannonballs were flying and the film was summarily pre-judged and condemned. I am not trying to point the finger of blame but itís been a rough year. Iíve been very silent while people have done character assassinations and nasty editorials and name calling and Iíve had to come to grips with one of the tenets of my faith that Iím supposed to exercise, and thatís tolerance. I could have got nasty and got in the gutter in a clawing match but Iím supposed to take the hits and be a man.

Are you worried about how this movie will affect your career in Hollywood?
Itís been called a career killer. I called up Night Shyamalan to tell him what I was doing and he said, Ďoh, youíre making the anti-date movie!í and I get it. I thought that was pretty funny. Some people have distanced themselves from me and I kind of expected it and other places it happened and I didnít expect it. Itís been interesting to see who does what.

You finally decided to take out the line in your film from Matthew 27:25, ďHis blood be on us, and on our childrenĒ. Was this to appease your critics?
Here is the deal. My detractors have been saying, Ďoh, heís saying there is a blood curse on all Jews for all timesí and thatís not true. The church never taught that and indeed I understand that there are fears about it and I wanted to quell any legitimate fears. I believe every line of the gospel but itís hard to explain the theological nuances of every line because theyíre vast. Itís not about the blame game and I donít want my critics and detractors to say that Iím making it about the blame game. I want it to be about Jesus and his sacrifice. 

Did the subject matter affect you while you were making the film?
I think you canít focus on the material here without it affecting you, so that day to day although youíre focusing on the nuts and bolts Ė like making sure thatís a little more to the right, or more blood or making sure the bird doesnít peck the guyís eye out Ė whatever it is, itís the minutiae of the day to day. But you canít help focusing on the story and it pervades your whole being so that I think I was enriched by it to a great degree. I donít know how much. Iím still a work in progress and flawed but itís actually focused me on my flaws and not on other peopleís flaws, which is an interesting thing.

Were you concerned that the violence would drive people away?
The basis of the film is sacrifice, so that leads to the blood and gore of it for me and makes it necessary because thatís what I saw in my head. Thatís what moved me Ė the severity and the degree to which he was willing to go for the love of everyone and to atone himself for their transgressions. But I didnít want to push the audience to the edge where they run out of the theatre, although some people may do that, but I try and at least hold their hand with the way Iíve shot it, with the music, with the stylization of it, to make it as lyrical as possible and if itís going to be violent, at least let it be a kind of lyrical beauty in that violence.

What was your inspiration for the look of this film?
I really love Caravaggio. The light sources in his paintings are not natural but they look almost filmic in a sense. And the subject matter is always religious and always violent. They were not fun paintings, so I tried to emulate the light qualities and the stories that those guys told. The only thing we know about Caravaggio now is from prison records because he was such a venal, monstrous guy who was in street brawls all the time. But there is that thing about coming from that bestial nature and putting this divine expression on canvas. Even if he was a jailbird drunk, he deserves a couple of points for that!

Can you clear up some confusion? Did the Pope endorse the film or not?
My producer friend went over with the film to the Vatican and apparently he said that (ďit is as it wasĒ) and there were witnesses and someone put out the statement and gave a statement to us, to the L.A. Times and New York Times and it was all confirmed back to the source. Then all of a sudden, Ďno he didnít say that. Now again Ďhe said thatí, so I give up! It doesnít really have much bearing on the work itself anyway.

Published February 26, 2004

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