Why a Mel Gibson sequel to The Passion is probably a bad idea

SDG Original source: National Catholic Register

Rumors of Mel Gibson working on a sequel to The Passion of the Christ have swirled for years, but now Gibson’s friend Randall Wallace (who wrote the screenplay for Gibson’s Oscar-winning Braveheart, and wrote and directed We Were Soldiers) says he’s writing the screenplay for a Passion sequel — and The Hollywood Reporter says Gibson is on board. (No quote from Wallace in the article confirming this, and Gibson’s people aren’t talking.)

I’ll direct you to my friend Peter Chattaway for a survey of all the film projects (some completed, some not) that have tried to position themselves as sequels to The Passion. Peter also has a piece for Indiewire on why a Passion sequel could be Gibson’s shot at redemption. I’d love to see that happen — but I can’t say it seems especially likely to me. The importance of the story (or stories, given the nature of the material and the endless ways of approaching it) of the aftermath of the resurrection goes without saying, and I’d love to see a filmmaker of Gibson’s caliber tackle it — but I very much doubt Gibson himself is the right filmmaker for this project.

First, though, let’s talk about how right Gibson was for The Passion of the Christ. If there’s one thing that’s clear about Gibson at this point, it’s that he’s both an inspired artist and a tortured soul — and that most of his work, and particularly his best work, is marked both by inspiration and by suffering. It may be, indeed, that the two are so closely bound together that it’s hard to imagine one without the other. Certainly The Passion of the Christ, whatever else it is, is a film haunted both by divine goodness and by satanic evil, portrayed in mythic, iconic terms, beginning with the ancient serpent and the crushing of its head. Luminous virtue and tormented venality stand side by side, most vividly embodied not so much in Jim Caviezel’s Christ and Rosalinda Celentano’s Satan as in Maia Morgenstern’s Virgin Mary and Luca Lionello’s Judas Iscariot.

The Passion is a film that can only be watched, if not as a horror show — and in my view it would be a profound misreading to see it only as a horror show — then as a prayer, an act of worship.

On the one hand, The Passion is a film that could not have been made by a man who had not stared deep into the darkness of his own soul and wrestled long with inner demons. On the other hand, the film is structured in a way that is essentially ritual or devotional, following the beats of the Stations of the Cross or the Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary. The Passion is a film that can only be watched, if not as a horror show — and in my view it would be a profound misreading to see it only as a horror show — then as a prayer, an act of worship. It is not ultimately about demons, but about their exorcism: not about suffering for its own sake, but precisely about finding redemption in suffering. It is about how, on the far side of all the agony and torture and pain this world can throw at us, grace and serenity and resurrection await. The resurrection coda lasts less than a minute, but it is the film’s transcendent final word. This might be the story Gibson was born to tell. It’s not an unproblematic or unflawed movie by any means; Gibson is far too messy a talent to produce a perfect work. But it’s a vital, essential work from a brilliant artist who has not always gotten his due.

Now let’s consider the story of what happens next. Where the story of Jesus’ passion is focused and linear — the point at which all four Gospel narratives most closely converge — the resurrection appearances are scattered and fragmented. With the passion narrative, we follow Jesus every step of the way; after the resurrection, he’s here, there, speaking first with this woman, then with those two disciples, and so forth. In a word, we have a collection of episodes, not a story per se. This is part of the reason there is a long tradition of passion plays, but not of resurrection-appearance plays. There’s very little darkness or suffering here. True, the apostles are hiding in the Upper Room for fear of the Jews, but that’s all smoke and no fire: Jesus comes and stands in their midst. Peter has to stand and face the Lord he denied three times, confessing the limitations of his love (phileo rather than agape), but the Lord forgives and reinstates him. The tone of these episodes is transcendent rather than tortured, mystical rather than mythic. Whatever doubts or struggles the disciples continue to suffer, Christ himself radiates peace, joy, triumph, forgiveness, grace. To his credit, Gibson rose to the challenge of this mood — for less than a minute, in an impressionistic coda. It’s not a tactic that would sustain an entire film; at least not a film I can imagine Gibson making.

To this conundrum I can only see two possibilities: Either Gibson would have to completely reinvent the material, or he would have to complete reinvent himself as an artist. Neither possibility seems very promising. The first approach would essentially inevitably betray the tone of the resurrection appearances. This year’s Risen got away with reinventing the story after the resurrection in part by telling it from the point of view of a fictional character whose story, for the first half at least, barely overlapped with that of apostles — but once the two did converge, it became a completely different sort of story, and even a mildly tense escape scene felt like something of an intrusion. Certainly such a free approach to the material wouldn’t be the post-Easter story in even the qualified sense that The Passion is the passion narrative.

How would a Gibson-directed Passion sequel handle that business about hiding in the Upper Room “for fear of the Jews?”

As for the other approach — Gibson completely reinventing himself as an artist and achieving something entirely new — well, stranger things have happened, I guess, but most artists do what they do because they must, and even a towering artist who attempts a total self-transformation more often than not finds himself in the position of Michael Jordan trying to play baseball. I guess maybe if Gibson had spent the last several years dealing with his demons on some deep level and become a truly peaceful, centered, serene guy…well, let’s just say that would be a far more powerful testimony to God’s power than any movie he might go on to make.

Then there’s the issue of the portrayal of non-Christian Jewish characters in The Passion of the Christ and in this hypothetical sequel. This is an issue I’ve written about more than once, most recently in February when a new Passion Blu-ray was released. Without rehashing everything again, suffice to say that while on this score The Passion was neither as offensive as some detractors charged nor as innocent as some advocates insisted, after Gibson’s drunken antisemitic tirade and subsequent attempts to mend fences with the Jewish community, he would have to be more sensitive to concerns in this area than he once was, or risk giving far more offense.

How would a Gibson-directed Passion sequel handle that business about hiding in the Upper Room “for fear of the Jews?” If it extended into the early days of the church, how would it handle the persecution of the apostles by the Jerusalem Sanhedrin? Would Gibson depict Saul’s days of persecuting Christians? Given Paul’s emphasis on his zealousness as a pious and observant Jew, would we get the story of Saul the Hebrew of Hebrews persecuting Christians until finally becoming one? (This question was raised on Twitter by my friend Victor Morton, who wrote a piece about this story for the Washington Times, in which he quoted my own tweets raising some of the same points I’ve raised here.)

Suffice to say this material calls for great sensitivity. In this, of course, lies the shot at redemption Peter discusses — if Gibson could pull off the film at all. Anything is possible, but some things are more probable than others. Could this project really succeed? I’m not seeing it. Even so, Gibson is a mighty talent. Whatever he does, he has my attention.

Life of Christ & Jesus Movies, Religious Themes