Ever since “The Passion of the Christ” burst onto the scene a dozen years ago – becoming both the highest-grossing religious movie and the highest-grossing R-rated movie in North American history, a record it still holds – there have been calls for a sequel. And now it’s possible those calls will be answered.
The death of Jesus is hugely important to Christians, and Mel Gibson’s film covered it in agonizing detail. But even more important for Christians is the resurrection of Jesus and the promise of eternal life – and Gibson’s film relegated the resurrection to a single shot of Jesus standing up and walking out of the tomb. As epilogues go, it was like the post-credits tag that we now see at the end of Marvel Comics movies: It felt like a promise of something more, and many people wanted Gibson to deliver on that promise by making a movie focused on the Resurrection itself.
Gibson himself showed little interest. From the beginning, he hinted that, if he was going to return to the Bible at all, he wanted to make a movie about the Maccabees – the Jewish rebels who won their homeland back from the Greeks in the 2nd century BC – but those plans were dashed when Gibson got into a bitter feud with screenwriter Joe Eszterhas and Warner Brothers shelved the project in 2012.
In the meantime, others have tried to make their own “sequels” to Gibson’s film. Benedict Fitzgerald – who co-wrote “The Passion” and ended up suing Gibson for several million dollars – wrote a “prequel” about Jesus’ mother called “Myriam, Mother of the Christ,” but his project got derailed by Mexican extortionists. Earlier this year, “Risen” – which starred Joseph Fiennes and Tom Felton as Roman officers who look for the body of Jesus after it vanishes from the tomb – was billed by some as an “unofficial sequel” to “The Passion,” and the studio even released a featurette trumpeting the fact that “Risen” shared an editor with “The Passion.”
And now comes word that Gibson is thinking of making his own sequel after all. Randall Wallace – who directed Gibson in “We Were Soldiers” and wrote the scripts for “Braveheart” and Gibson’s upcoming World War II movie “Hacksaw Ridge” – revealed to The Hollywood Reporter this week that he and Gibson have begun developing a script about the Resurrection, partly, he says, in response to demand from the Christian community.
Will Christians show up for another Gibson-made Bible epic?
Many Christians who defended Gibson against charges of anti-Semitism in 2004 (on the basis that individual scenes from “The Passion” were being taken out of context, or that Gibson should not be judged for his father’s Holocaust-denying beliefs, etc.) felt betrayed when Gibson was arrested for drunk driving in 2006 and made inexcusably anti-Semitic comments to the police officers who arrested him. Matters were exacerbated when Gibson’s marriage fell apart, he fathered a child out of wedlock, and he was caught on tape spewing abusive, racist comments at his girlfriend.
However, Christians are a forgiving lot, and some feel that he was under enormous psychological – and spiritual – stress in the years following the release of “The Passion” and all of the scrutiny it received. Jodie Foster and Robert Downey Jr. have been urging Hollywood to forgive Gibson, and it’s not hard to imagine that many Christians would; indeed, there are already reports that “Hacksaw Ridge,” which tells the true story of a Seventh-Day Adventist who became the first conscientious objector to win the Congressional Medal of Honor, has a “faith-based” appeal of its own. (I have a feeling it could become the “Christian” World War II movie that many evangelicals were hoping “Unbroken” would be, but wasn’t.)
But Christian viewing habits have become hard to predict. Mark Burnett and Roma Downey had a huge hit on the History Channel three years ago when they produced “The Bible,” a 10-part miniseries that devoted two full episodes to the trials and execution of Jesus – episodes that owed a lot stylistically to “The Passion.” But when Burnett and Downey followed it up last year with “A.D. The Bible Continues,” a series that focused on the Resurrection and the rise of the early church, it failed to find an audience even though the series was airing on NBC, a major network with a much wider reach. NBC canceled it after just one season.
And then there’s the question of whether a movie about the Resurrection would play to Gibson’s strengths as a director.
Whatever else we might say about “The Passion of the Christ,” it was clearly a deeply personal project for Gibson, tapping into his ongoing obsession with pain and violence (a la the torture scene in “Braveheart,” or the human sacrifice in “Apocalypto”). Most of the films Gibson has toyed with directing since then – “Hacksaw Ridge,” the Maccabees project, a movie about Vikings that would have starred Leonardo DiCaprio – have been war movies, or movies with a similar potential for violence. But there is no obviously violent “hook” in the stories of the early church, or at least nothing that could sustain an entire film the way the death of Jesus did.
Also, one of the things that made “The Passion” work so well is it followed a narrative structure set by passion plays and similar Catholic rituals; at least one version of the DVD even had chapter breaks based on the Stations of the Cross. But the stories of the early church have no similarly ritualized narrative shape; pulling them together and making a compelling story out of them would require the work of a skilled dramatist. And Gibson’s occasional departures from his ritual narrative structure – like the bizarre flashback in which Jesus prophesies the rise of modern tables and chairs – were some of the weakest bits in “The Passion.”
Still, I can think of one potential benefit to a Gibson-directed film about the early church.
Many people, myself included, noted that one of the flaws of “The Passion” was how it divided all of the Jewish characters into followers of Jesus and enemies of Jesus; there were no characters like Gamaliel, the Jewish elder who, according to Acts 5, encouraged tolerance of the early Christians without actually becoming one himself. If Gibson is making a film about the Resurrection and its immediate aftermath, then he has an opportunity to make up for that earlier oversight by acknowledging the diversity of first-century Judaism in a way that he never did in “The Passion.”
Done right, a film on this subject could give Gibson an opportunity to rebuild some of the bridges he has burned over the past decade. Whether audiences will cross those bridges, however, remains an open question.
Peter T. Chattaway writes about film in general, and Bible films in particular, at Patheos.com.