This weeks’ column:The Nativity Story, in contrast to Quentin Tarantino’s Die Jesus Die.
When “The Passion of the Christ” — Mel Gibson’s blockbuster depiction of the death of Jesus — opened in February 2004, it was more than a movie. It was a Holy Matinee of Obligation.
Gibson’s film generated weeks of debate about its anti-Semitic undertones and the filmmaker’s claims of Biblical fealty despite its apocryphal elements. The director used his considerable star power to push the movie at every opportunity, and a celebrity-obsessed American public lapped it up.
Reporters and television commentators used the film’s drummed-up controversy to spin tales about a renewed sense of spirituality in America, as though giving Gibson $10 was an act of faith.
Religious leaders swallowed Gibson’s savvy marketing pitch whole, elevating the film into a teaching moment and organizing bus tours and study groups around the movie’s showings.
It opened to packed crowds, religio-celebrity praise, and made $83 million in its first weekend.
Not so for “The Nativity Story,” a conventional retelling of Jesus’ birth starring little-known actors as Mary and Joseph. Despite skilled filmmaking and screenwriting, and an advertising campaign that was hardly anemic, the movie opened to a mere $8 million, less than 10 percent of Gibson’s take.
Which proves nothing except that the number of rear ends in theater seats is a deeply unreliable indicator of the level of religious commitment in America, and that those of us who heralded “The Passion” as a religious rather than pop culture phenomenon ought to be a little ashamed of falling for the film’s skillful hype.