The culture wars over "The Passion of the Christ" seem to be taking a toll on Mel Gibson. He might be lolling around one of the most luxurious hotels in Los Angeles, but he has clearly brought his personal bunker with him. In the course of a half-hour conversation, he appears alternately embattled and exhausted, angry and self-pitying. There is a sense that the world is divided into those who are for him and his "Passion," and those who are against.
His film is on the verge of release, and even the outraged criticism seems to be buoying it toward a big opening. Yet Gibson is not happy. "I'm subjected to religious persecution, persecution as an artist, persecution as an American, persecution as a man," he says.
"These things have happened in the last year. I forgive them all. But enough is enough. They're trying to make me some cult wacko. All I do is go and pray. For myself. For my family. For the whole world. That's what I do."
He has spent the last few days talking to handpicked members of the media, trying to dispel any notion that his film -- which graphically depicts the last 12 hours in the life of Christ -- blames Jews for the killing of Jesus, or is in any way anti-Semitic.
"I've taken every opportunity to say this out there and publicly: This is not the blame game.... I understand that some may have fears
The Passion play has a long history as a vehicle that has fomented anti-Semitism. For the last year, Gibson has been embroiled in a controversy with a group of Jewish and Christian scholars and activists who criticized the script as having the potential to incite anti-Semitism. They now openly criticize the film, which they say portrays Jews negatively. From Gibson's point of view, he was ambushed, his rights as an artist violated before he had even finished making his film.
From the beginning, Gibson, the Oscar-winning actor-director, was going to make the movie he wanted to make. That's why he put up his own money -- $25 million -- to make it. That's why he is supervising the release, and why he is barnstorming the country showing the film to thousands of churchgoers.
Although there is a fiction out there that this is the movie that no distributor would touch, it appears that Gibson really wanted to control the process. At least two studio chiefs have said they called Gibson about seeing the film in order to release it, but were politely rebuffed.
"When he started, he actually said this phrase to me: 'No one is going to see this thing. It's just for me,' " recalls producer Dean Devlin, a friend.
Given that early audience tracking forecasts suggest that "The Passion of the Christ," -- even with its protracted torture sequences, R-rating and dialogue in Aramaic and Latin -- could earn grosses of $30 million in its opening days, it's strange to find Gibson so beleaguered. Yet the 48-year-old actor barely speaks above a whisper, as if trying to keep a tight fist around his emotions.
For Gibson, to focus solely on the background of the story is to ignore the point of the movie, which in his eyes is "the sacrifice made by the savior of all mankind. It's pre-ordained.... Now, the message he brought was one of peace and love and tolerance -- all the messages of tolerance that I put in there, particularly toward the end.... I think it's pretty hard to misunderstand."
Gibson thinks his critics will never give him a fair hearing. He has refused to put any disclaimers at the end of the film, and has refused to show the largely completed work to the people he views as enemies. They include Frank Rich and Tim Rutten, columnists for the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, respectively, who have written critically about the project. In Gibson's mind, they are in the same league with whoever leaked that early script, whoever pirated an unfinished cut of the movie and provided it to the New York Post.
"They want me to be angry, these guys, the Frank Riches, the Ruttens, my detractors," Gibson says. "They need me to be angry at them. I've resisted it. I haven't been angry at all. I have a right to be indignant, I think.... I didn't invite them [to early screenings of the movie] because they already prejudged it."
(Gibson was quoted in the New Yorker magazine last year as saying about Rich: "I want to kill him. I want his intestines on a stick.... I want to kill his dog." Both columnists say they have been rebuffed many times in their efforts to see "The Passion," in Rich's case before he had written about the film or Gibson.)
Still, if he is publicly combative, Gibson appears to have been stewing privately. In his own fashion, he has made concessions. For instance, taking out a line from the Book of Matthew, long used to suggest Jewish culpability: "His blood be on us, and upon our children."