By Indiewire | Indiewire February 25, 2004 at 2:00AM
With $10 Million in Pre-Sales, Newmarket and Mel Gibson Unleash Excessively Bloody and Graphic "The Passion of the Christ"
by Eugene Hernandez
When it debuts nationwide today, on the Ash Wednesday holy day, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of The Christ" will open with more than 3,000 prints on some 4,650 movie screens. The controversial new film, which has already racked up more than $10 million in advance ticket sales according to distributor Bob Berney, is by far the widest release ever tackled by Berney and his team at the upstart independent distribution company Newmarket Films.
Critics, media-types, commentators, religious groups, and members of the film industry have been talking about the "The Passion of the Christ" for months, amidst charges of anti-Semitism in the movie and now buzz about the extreme violence in its portrayal of Jesus Christ's crucifixion. While not many people outside of religious groups have seen the movie, film critics (and two indieWIRE editors) lined up for special screenings on Monday in New York and were met by television crews and reporters seeking reactions after the showing. Reviews of the film were presented on the front pages of New York's tabloid newspapers yesterday and after just a few industry and media screenings, awareness of the movie has intensified and those who have seen the picture are in some cases quite sharply divided.
The most striking aspect of Gibson's "Passion" is the non-stop, shockingly detailed and precise gore and violence on display. The two-hour movie is at its core one long torture sequence, intercut with a few flashbacks. From the moment that Judas (Luca Lionello) betrays Jesus (Jim Caveziel) in the opening scenes of the film, what follows is a brutal and unflinching account of Jesus' twelve-hour punishment, thankfully reduced to a mere two-hour visual and aural assault on the character and the film's viewers. Unforgettable and at times unwatchable for its brutality is a particularly vicious, blood-splattered and drawn out scourging scene early in the film in which Jesus is whipped over and over and over. Later, when the final nail was hammered into Jesus' hand numbness has set in. And by the time a crow pecks out the eye of a man who is being crucified alongside Jesus late in the movie, the film's violence has become laughable. The inclusion of such grotesque scenes was a hot topic among those who discussed the movie on Monday. Even the most liberal-minded viewers agreed that by no means should anyone younger than a mature teenager be permitted to view this 'R' rated film that is drawing wide interest from church organizations around the country. No doubt for some, the violence in "The Passion of the Christ" will overwhelm any feelings of enlightenment that could have come from a film that explores such a seminal aspect of people's religious beliefs.
"I don't think anybody is encouraging young kids to go to the film," Newmarket's Bob Berney told indieWIRE on Tuesday. "The word out is that this is a really graphic film." Continuing he added, when asked about the critical reactions, "The violence will polarize people -- I am not sure that some people can separate the film itself from what they saw or read from [interviews with] Mel (Gibson)."
Indeed critics have been polarized and in many cases charges of anti-Semitism have been replaced by criticisms of gratuitous violence and sadism. Notably passionate reviews in The New Yorker on Monday and The New York Times this morning took Gibson to task for his the violence in his film. Many devout viewers seem shocked but accepting of the violence, saying that it merely underscores the extreme sacrifice made by Jesus. While on conservative talk shows and cable news networks last night, defenders of the movie labeled those who are criticizing the film (including the Times and the New Yorker) as part of a media elite who are against religion.
"In 'The Passion of the Christ,' Mel Gibson shows little interest in celebrating the electric charge of hope and redemption that Jesus Christ brought into the world," wrote Denby, who went on to call the film "a sickening death trip, a grimly unilluminating procession of treachery, beatings, blood, and agony."
"For two hours, with only an occasional pause or gentle flashback, we watch, stupefied, as a handsome, strapping, at times half-naked young man (Jim Caviezel) is slowly tortured to death," wrote Denby, "Gibson is so thoroughly fixated on the scourging and crushing of Christ, and so meagrely involved in the spiritual meanings of the final hours, that he falls in danger of altering Jesus' message of love into one of hate."
"'The Passion of the Christ' is so relentlessly focused on the savagery of Jesus' final hours that this film seems to arise less from love than from wrath, and to succeed more in assaulting the spirit than in uplifting it," writes New York Times critic A.O. Scott in today's paper. "Mr. Gibson has constructed an unnerving and painful spectacle that is also, in the end, a depressing one. It is disheartening to see a film made with evident and abundant religious conviction that is at the same time so utterly lacking in grace."
"What makes the movie so grim and ugly is Mr. Gibson's inability to think beyond the conventional logic of movie narrative," continues Scott in the Times. "In most movies -- certainly in most movies directed by or starring Mr. Gibson -- violence against the innocent demands righteous vengeance in the third act, an expectation that Mr. Gibson in this case whips up and leaves unsatisfied."
Film critic David Ansen of Newsweek agreed, writing, "I have no doubt that Mel Gibson loves Jesus. From the evidence of 'The Passion of the Christ,' however, what he seems to love as much is the cinematic depiction of flayed, severed, swollen, scarred flesh and rivulets of spilled blood, the crack of bashed bones and the groans of someone enduring the ultimate physical agony." Continuing he wrote, "The film that has been getting rapturous advance raves from evangelical Christians turns out to be an R-rated inspirational movie no child can, or should, see. To these secular eyes at least, Gibson's movie is more likely to inspire nightmares than devotion."
"I wanted it to be shocking," Gibson told ABC News' Diane Sawyer last week. "And I also wanted it to be extreme. I wanted it to push the viewer over the edge... so that they see the enormity -- the enormity of that sacrifice -- to see that someone could endure that and still come back with love and forgiveness, even through extreme pain and suffering and ridicule." Gibson, who financed the film independently to the tune of an estimated $30 million, added that Jesus Christ "was beaten for our iniquities." Continuing, he said, "He was wounded for our transgressions and by his wounds we are healed. That's the point of the film."
Some critics have praised Gibson's "Passion." The film garnered two thumbs up from Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper during the broadcast of their popular weekly TV movie review show. "It's the only religious movie I've seen, with the exception of 'The Gospel According to St. Matthew' by Pasolini, that really seems to deal with what actually happened," explained Ebert. Roeper added, "This is the most powerful, important, and by far the most graphic interpretation of Christ's final hours ever put on film -- Mel Gibson is a masterful storyteller, and this is the work of his lifetime."
Distributor Bob Berney told indieWIRE that he increased the film's run this week in response to increased interest in the movie from theater owners and late Tuesday he was still tweaking the number of runs. The film could hit up to 4,700 individual screens with its 3,006 prints by the time the doors open for business today, with many theater owners showing the same print on multiple screens at multiplexes. Berney added that the $10 million in advance ticket sales is for showings over the next few days, and is based on sales figures that are a few days old. In many cases, church groups targeted by the "faith-based" marketing strategy employed by Gibson have purchased blocks of 5,000 and even 7,500 tickets at one time from exhibitors and via organizations like Fandango, the online ticket seller.
A service deal for the film's release brought together Mel Gibson's Icon Productions and Newmarket, with Newmarket receiving 10 percent of the film's box-office receipts according to a report in The New York Times. That's an uncharacteristically lucrative deal for a distributor engaged in a service deal. Berney declined to comment on the specifics of the pact with Icon but said he has an incentive for the movie to do well. "The better the film does, the better for everybody," he said. The movie, which will likely make between $30-$50 million through this coming Sunday, is being released with a mostly even distribution of prints throughout the country, similar to other wide-release pictures, Berney explained, adding that there has been a slight increase in runs in the Midwest and the South. The film will open at 10 theaters in Manhattan today.
"It's exciting and challenging on a purely operational distribution basis," Berney said, "To pull off something that is usually done by companies much much larger." He added, "We are energized by the size and challenge of the project. It seems pretty obvious that we'll have the number one movie, to be on that level, for people in distribution, that's a real milestone."
At the same time Berney has Patty Jenkins' "Monster" on nearly 1,000 screens with the Oscars and Spirit Awards on tap this weekend ("Whale Rider" star Keisha Castle-Hughes is also nominated). If Charlize Theron wins the Academy Award for best actress on Sunday, Berney estimates that they can add a few hundred runs of the film for the following weekend, otherwise he explained that they will likely hold tight at the current number. "It sort of puts us into a different level, for an independent film, if the right conditions are there you certainly can go wide and get the number of theaters. If you look back at how New Line started or Miramax, being able to maximize theatrical is really important."