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Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Unassisted thumbs up!

It's a shame that Jesus didn't have Mel Gibson around the first time to manage his publicity. After all, if Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John had simply remembered to write down everything that really happened, just as they witnessed it their very own selves, we wouldn't have to depend on the visions of a nineteenth-century nun when we set out to write "historically accurate" screenplays! If Mel had been there, we wouldn't even need the four gospels, with their confusing inconsistencies and contradictions. We could have the Fair and Balanced Gospel According to Mel, end of story.

Happily, Braveheart the Apostle — one meek little peacemaker — is fighting the culture war just the way Jesus would want it fought. (Wait! Didn't Jesus have a zealot among his disciples?) Never mind the fact that Gibson won't take communion from a priest ordained since Vatican II — that just makes him more Catholic, right? — or that the church he attends is openly schismatic. Hey, if the pope doesn't seem to mind, breakaway Catholicism must be okay.

And you can't knock Gibson's marketing brilliance. He's so clever he even managed to convince the pope, who is suffering from Parkinson's disease, to "watch" his "historically accurate" cruciflick on DVD and give it the papal thumbs-up. Hmm. I bet that's "historically accurate," too, don't you? Frank Rich's curiosity was aroused:

I wondered whether the reports of the gravely ill John Paul's thumbs up for "The Passion" were true. A week after the stories first appeared, the highly respected Catholic News Service also raised that question, quoting "a senior Vatican official close to the pope" as saying that after seeing the movie, the pope "made no comment. The Holy Father does not comment, does not give judgments on art."

I sought clarification from the Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls. His secretary, Rosangela Mancusi, responded by e-mail that "this office does not usually comment on the private activities of the Holy Father" and would neither confirm nor deny the pope's feelings about "The Passion." But she suggested that I contact "the two persons who brought the film to the Holy Father and gathered his comments" — Steve McEveety, Mr. Gibson's producer, and Jan Michelini, the movie's assistant director.

Mr. McEveety declined to speak with me from Hollywood, but last week I tracked down Mr. Michelini, an Italian who lives in Rome, by phone in Bombay, where he is working on another film. As he tells it, Mr. McEveety visited Rome in early December, eager "to show the movie to the pope." Mr. Michelini, it turned out, had an in with the Vatican. "Everyone thinks it's a complex story, the pope, the Vatican and all," Mr. Michelini says. "It's a very easy story. I called the pope's secretary. He said he had read about the movie, read about the controversy. He said, 'I'm curious, and I'm sure the pope is curious too.'"

A video of "The Passion" was handed over to that secretary — Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, whom Vatican watchers now describe as second in power only to the pope — on Friday, Dec. 5. "McEveety calls me like crazy, 20 times that weekend, saying, 'I want to know what the pope thinks,'" Mr. Michelini continues. On Monday, the archbishop convened a meeting with Mr. McEveety and Mr. Michelini in the pope's apartment. There, Mr. Michelini says, the archbishop quoted the pope not only as saying "it is as it was" but also as calling the movie "incredibile." Mr. Michelini was repeating the archbishop's Italian and said that "incredibile" translates as "amazing," though Cassell's dictionary defines the word as "incredible, inconceivable, unbelievable." But why quarrel over semantics? Followed by an exclamation point, it will look fabulous in an ad, perhaps next to a quote from Michael Medved, the conservative pundit and film critic who has been vying with Ms. Noonan to be the movie's No. 1 publicist.

(The International Herald Tribune entitles its truncated version of Rich's New York Times column "Chutzpah and Spiritual McCarthyism." The Times goes with this headline: "The Pope's Thumbs Up for Gibson's 'Passion.'")

But wait! There's more. Alongside the Gospel According to Mel, we now have the Gospel According to Archbishop Dziwisz:

Pope John Paul II never said "It is as it was" after watching Mel Gibson's film on the passion of Jesus, said the pope's longtime personal secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz.

"The Holy Father told no one his opinion of this film," the archbishop told Catholic News Service Jan. 18.

But the New York Times adds that there may be yet another "historically accurate," if conflicting, account. Let's call it the Gospel According to a Beloved but Anonymous Disciple:

One prominent Roman Catholic official close to the Vatican, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said he had reason to believe that the pope probably did make the remark about the film.

"But I think there's some bad feeling at the Vatican that the comment was used the way it was," the official added. "It's all a little soap-operatic."

Ya think? Now if only we knew who to trust.

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 20 January 2004 at 5:47 PM

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