Who needs studio publicists when every fundamentalist pastor in the country is herding his flock to the multiplex? Why waste good money on TV spots when the Vatican is handing out rave reviews? No doubt about it, Thomas, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ was a phenomenon unlike any in Hollywood's long and florid history -- a product fanatically presold by people who rarely go to movies, a $25 million gamble that won a major ideological victory for Right over Left, an act of faith drenched in blood. What else was it? Depends whom you talked to. Believers said this 126-minute depiction of Jesus Christ's final hours as a mortal earthling was a cinematic "miracle," and many of them returned to watch it four or five times -- with their wide-eyed kindergartners in tow. Appalled skeptics called it medieval anti-Semitism boiling with hatred and the ancient blood libel.
However various beholders took it, Gibson has clearly come a ways since Mad Max. Claiming that "the Holy Ghost was working through me," the action star who's morphed into an extremist Catholic zealot depicted Jesus' agony as a lurid horror movie complete with rods and studded whips, a vengeance-crazed mob screaming for crucifixion and the kind of trip up Calvary that the perpetrators of Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street could scarcely have imagined. Having splashed actor Jim Caviezel's torment-wracked body with quarts of sticky blood, director Mel nailed him brutally to the cross and nailed his vast audiences with the inescapable notion that since his version of the Passion may not be the Greatest Story Ever Told, it may as well be the Goriest.
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Alas, poor Michael Moore was left with no more fluent reply in the U.S. culture war than to bop George W. Bush a few times on the nose in Fahrenheit 9/11. As for Caviezel, he recovered quite nicely from his wounds, thank you. He was spotted just a few months later at the Westchester Country Club, swinging a niblick in something called Bobby Jones, Stroke of Genius, a movie about the resurrection of a golfer.