Mel Gibson

The true story of Army medic Desmond Doss, the soft-spoken Christian superhero

The true story of Army medic Desmond Doss, the soft-spoken Christian superhero

Facing a wall of flames and shellfire, Army medic Desmond Doss had to make an agonizing decision -- retreat with his 77th Infantry Division or stay behind to save the wounded.

On the big screen, this true story is the stuff of Academy Award nominations. The "Hacksaw Ridge" script gave actor Best Actor nominee Andrew Garfield few words to say, but his face had to display shock, confusion, doubt and determination. The film has been nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture.

"What is it you want from me?", Doss prays, in his slow Virginia mountains drawl. "I don't understand. I can't hear you."

Then a distant voice in the flames screams: "Medic! Help me!"

Doss quietly says, "Alright," and runs back into the flames.

Working alone, Doss -- who refused a weapon, because of his Seventh-day Adventist convictions -- lowered at least 75 injured men over a 400-foot cliff during the World War II Battle of Okinawa. He collapsed several times during that night, but kept going with these words on his lips: "Please Lord, help me get one more."

A Japanese soldier later testified that he aimed at Doss several times, but his rifle kept jamming when he tried to fire.

President Harry S. Truman presented Doss with the Medal of Honor on Oct. 12, 1945 -- the first conscientious objector to receive that honor. It took Doss years to recover from his war injuries -- he lost a lung to tuberculosis -- and he devoted his life to church work, dying in 2006 at age 87.

Doss should be listed among the "most heroic figures in American history. He was singular," said "Hacksaw Ridge" director Mel Gibson, during 2016 commencement rites at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., in the hills where Doss grew up.

Mad Mel and the Talmud

Police-beat reporters -- even in Hollywood -- rarely get to quote the Babylonian Talmud.

However, there is a passage in this Jewish text that is relevant right now. The crucial Hebrew words are in tractate Eruvin, page 65b, and they are "be'kiso, be'koso, u've'kaso." This rabbinical text says a person's true essence is found in "his cup," "his pocket" and "his anger."

Witness the rich and powerful Mel Gibson and his roadside rant about the "blanking" Jews who are "responsible for all the wars in the world." His cup was too full and his anger spilled over.

"Ancient Jewish wisdom informs us that one way we can know what a person is really like is by how he behaves when he is drunk. From this we can safely assume that Mel Gibson doesn't think much of Jews," noted Rabbi Daniel Lapin of Toward Tradition, which has received some financial support from Gibson.

"However there is another nugget of ancient Jewish wisdom emphasizing that we owe atonement for that which lies in our hearts only to God. ... We humans are morally obliged to make good to other people only for those things we do."

But what should Gibson do now?

After the superstar's hellish meltdown, many of his critics -- Jewish and otherwise -- called for him to be excommunicated from Hollywood.

Anti-Defamation League Director Abraham H. Foxman slammed his early apology and wrote online: "We would hope that Hollywood now would realize the bigot in their midst and that they will distance themselves from this anti-Semite." Superstar agent Ari Emanuel of the Endeavor Agency went even further, stating that Jews and gentiles alike must "demonstrate that they understand how much is at stake in this by professionally shunning Mel Gibson and refusing to work with him."

Is repentance irrelevant? In his second apology, Gibson tried to discuss his failure in religious terms. The Catholic traditionalist also opened a door to meeting with conservative Jews who have talked with him in the past.

"The tenets of what I profess to believe necessitate that I exercise charity and tolerance as a way of life," he said. "Every human being is God's child, and if I wish to honor my God I have to honor his children. ... I'm not just asking for forgiveness. I would like to take it one step further and meet with leaders in the Jewish community, with whom I can have a one-on-one discussion to discern the appropriate path for healing."

If Gibson desires more than what Christians call "cheap grace," he needs more than a few holy day media events, according to Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. In Judaism, repentance is "a play in four acts" and the first is verbal confession. This must be followed by "complete cessation of the offending behavior" and sincere regret.

The tough fourth act, he said, requires long-range planning and an "acceptance of a way to change that is real, not self-delusional." In a way, fighting anti-Semitism will be similar to fighting the bottle.

"You can't deal with an alcohol problem through a photo-op with the head of the local detox program," said Adlerstein, writing for Jewish World Review. Recovery programs that work, demand "growing self-awareness and lots of time. Not coincidentally, they require the privacy of secure surroundings, far from public scrutiny.

"We will help you understand your personal demons, but only away from the cameras and the mikes. Redemption will come through the small, still voice of conscience, not at a press conference."

This will be hard, in the hot Hollywood spotlight.

Reporters cannot follow Gibson into the confession booth or interview his priest afterwards. But they can ask questions about his work and his recovery.

While filming "The Passion of the Christ," Gibson told the Eternal Word Television Network that he asked priests to hear daily confessions, including his own, and to celebrate daily Mass. It would be interesting to ask if he seeks similar spiritual disciplines in the future.

Still, Gibson has said that he "disgraced myself and my family." That's a realistic place to start, said film critic Michael Medved, an Orthodox Jew.

"When a long-married, 50-year-old father of seven gets arrested for drunk driving at nearly twice the speed limit at 2:30 in the morning," noted Medved, "it's safe to assume that he faces even more serious problems than exposing his anti-Semitic attitudes."

Passionate news in 2004

For headline writers, 2004 was the year of "values voters," stormy acts of God in Florida, gay marriage rites and countless clashes between "believers" and "infidels" in Iraq, Russia, Spain and other locations around the world.

This may sound like the annual list of the top 10 news events released by the Religion Newswriters Association. But no, these events dominated the 2004 Associated Press survey of the top stories in the world -- period.

In a typical year, at least half of the world's top news stories have a strong religious element. But it was next to impossible to find a major news story in 2004 that didn't raise faith questions of one kind or another. It was just that kind of year on the religion beat.

Thus, it was no surprise that the re-election of President George W. Bush was voted No. 1 in both the AP and the RNA surveys. But the religion-news specialists decided that another story was just as hot as the White House race. The release of "The Passion of the Christ" tied for the top spot and director Mel Gibson was named Religion Newsmaker of the Year, with Bush coming in second.

Truth is, these faith-based stories had much in common, according to Frank Rich of the New York Times, one of the critics on the cultural left who fueled the firestorm that enveloped Gibson and his film. This was the year of the angry fundamentalist in politics, war and pop culture, he said.

"The power of this minority within the Christian majority comes from its exaggerated claims on the Bush election victory," argued Rich, in an essay entitled "2004: The Year of 'The Passion.' "

"It is further enhanced by a news culture ... that gives the Mel Gibson wing of Christianity more say than other Christian voices and usually ignores minority religions altogether. ... In the electronic news sphere where most Americans live much of the time, anyone who refuses to engage in combat is quickly sent packing as a bore."

Cultural conservatives would, of course, disagree with Rich's claim that they were uniquely to blame for the acidic atmosphere that surrounded the White House race and the smashing box-office success of Gibson's epic exercise in sacramental symbolism and bloody special effects. After all, culture wars require at least two armies. One thing is certain: Preachers on the religious and secular left are sure to turn up the volume in 2005.

Here are the rest of the RNA poll's top 10 stories:

(3) Gay marriages are performed for the first time in Massachusetts, but the legal status of the rites remained uncertain. Religious groups mobilize on both sides, as 11 states pass amendments against the redefinition of marriage.

(4) Sen. John Kerry runs for president, setting the stage for several archbishops and bishops to warn that they will deny Communion to Catholics who openly oppose church teachings on moral issues such as abortion and gay unions. A task force of U.S. bishops leaves the decision up to local bishops.

(5) The Anglican sex wars escalate, as a Lambeth Commission report does little to close the global rift caused by last year's installation of a non-celibate gay bishop in New Hampshire. More Episcopal parishes flee, uniting with Third-World dioceses.

(6) Church-state conflicts continue to hit the U.S. Supreme Court, which upholds the Pledge of Allegiance's "under God" language and the right of the state of Washington to block scholarships used for ministerial studies.

(7) Religious groups debate the role of American troops in Iraq, while Shiite clerics emerge in leadership roles that are crucial to that war-torn nation's future.

(8) The United Methodist Church's split on homosexuality is demonstrated by the trials of two lesbian pastors. Karen Dammann is acquitted in Washington State and Beth Stroud is found guilty in Pennsylvania. Some mainline Protestant leaders publicly call for amicable splits in their denominations.

(9) The Catholic dioceses of Portland and Tucson go into bankruptcy because of sex-abuse scandals, while the largest financial settlement in such a case is reported in Orange County, Calif. Former Springfield (Mass.) Bishop Thomas Dupre became the first bishop indicted, but the statute of limitations had run out in his case.

(10) The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) votes to pull investments from companies profiting from Israel's occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict decreases somewhat from recent years.

Hollywood after the Passion, Pt. II

The Rev. Mac Brunson recently took his kids out and, while the movie was forgettable, the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas was hooked by one of the coming attractions.

It was a trailer for the comedy "Raising Helen," in which Kate Hudson plays a hot New York City fashion star whose life changes when she has to raise her sister's three children. Five-hankie chick flicks require hunky love interests and, lo and behold, this time the blonde falls for a handsome, charming pastor.

"I thought, 'No way Hollywood will get that right,' " said Brunson, senior minister of the 12,000-member Southern Baptist superchurch. "You see a pastor in a movie today and he's almost always going to be an idiotic, dangerous, neurotic pervert or something."

Brunson aired some of these views when interviewed for a People magazine cover story called "Does Hollywood Have Faith?" What happened next was a parable about studio insiders trying to do their homework in pews and pulpits. It's a trend that predates "The Passion of the Christ," but is surging along with Mel Gibson's bank account.

After reading Brunson's remarks, publicists working for Disney called and made the preacher an offer he couldn't refuse. Before long, Brunson was sitting in the Tinseltown multiplex in suburban Dallas, watching an advance screening of "Raising Helen" with 200 church members.

The tough Baptist crowd was pleasantly surprised, said Brunson. Yes, the Lutheran pastor was played by John Corbett of "Sex & the City." Yes, this is the rare pastor who never mentions Jesus, faith, church and the Bible with a woman who has three children in his Christian school. But it's clear that Helen is seeking moral stability and she ultimately decides to embrace her children, rather than worship her career. And the romance was clean.

"It was just a normal movie, or what people used to call normal," he said. "This pastor is a moral guy. He falls in love. He gets to be natural. He's romantic and he kisses the girl. ... At the end it's clear that he's helped stabilize things and they're becoming a real family.

"So hurrah for Disney, on this movie. They got something right and we ought to praise them for that. Let's hope and pray that they do it some more."

But bridge-building efforts like this are tricky. While Disney is making progress with one powerful Baptist -- remember that the Southern Baptist Convention has been boycotting Disney for seven years -- MGM is traveling a rocky road trying to evangelize church groups on behalf of its edgy satire called "Saved!"

An online mini-guide for youth leaders says the movie presents "Christian teens who make poor choices, have a crisis of faith, seek answers and ultimately emerge with a genuine faith." Studio executives say it contains a pure Christian message of tolerance and love. Meanwhile, producer Michael Stipe -- the androgynous REM lead vocalist -- has said it's a high-school vampire movie, "only here the monsters are Jesus-freak teen-agers."

The movie's American Eagle Christian Academy has a giant plastic Jesus figure (in running shoes) and born-again gunners practice at the Emmanuel Shooting Range ("An eye for an eye"). One girl has a vision to sleep with her boyfriend to cure his homosexuality. The pseudo-hip Pastor Skip has an affair with a troubled mother (the area's top Christian interior decorator). The villain is a true believer who rules the popular girls ("The Christian Jewels") with an ironclad Bible.

The executives behind "Saved!" simply haven't done the "cross-cultural homework" required to reach religious believers, said Walt Mueller, head of the national Center for Parent/Youth Understanding in Elizabethtown, Pa. While much of the movie's satire is accurate and even constructive, it's the actual theological message that will offend most Christians.

"If you're into a real postmodern, smorgasbord, all-tolerant blend of Christianity and every other conceivable faith in the world, then you're going to love this movie," said Mueller. "What is amazing is that the people marketing this movie don't seem to realize that they are attacking lots of people's beliefs. ...

"The bottom line is that there are good Christians and then there are bad Christians and Hollywood gets to decide which is which. We're supposed to buy that?"

Movies after the Passion, Part I

When it comes to judging Hollywood, critics in pulpits and pews have been chanting the same mantra for decades.

All together now: There's too much sex and there's too much violence. Amen.

Then a strange thing happened. An evangelical named Randall Wallace wrote "Braveheart," which a Catholic named Mel Gibson turned into an Oscar-magnet about freedom, faith, sacrifice and truth. It was bloody violent and its wedding was followed by a nude wedding night. Many conservative believers cheered and began to have second thoughts about their R-rating phobias.

Then Gibson made "The Passion of the Christ."

"A movie comes along that is, in the words of one Los Angeles critic, 'a two-hour execution,' and people of faith everywhere are embracing it and being moved to compunction, repentance and spiritual renewal," said screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi, speaking at a global cinema conference last week in Valencia, Spain.

"What we are learning from all this is that the problem is not with violence on the screen. It is meaningless violence that is wrong in entertainment. The Passion reconnects violence to its source in rebellion against God. It never objectifies the subject of the violence, nor does it dehumanize the perpetrators of violence. It shows the effects of violence in all its horror."

Aftershocks continue in the marketplace and in churches, while Gibson's epic keeps climbing toward the $370-million mark at the U.S. box office. Meanwhile, Hollywood is trying to learn how to mine this bizarre demographic Gibson has discovered -- Middle America.

Nicolosi has argued that the big lesson is that masses of the faithful will buy tickets when a talented, name-above-the-title superstar finances, produces and directs a theologically sophisticated movie. But there's the rub. How many celebrities make that A-list?

Meanwhile, debates about the Passion may help traditional believers learn more about the craft of making movies for the modern marketplace, she said, in her written text. Questions about the film's shocking use of violence were highly symbolic.

"This movie will challenge future filmmakers to make the violence in their films just as meaningful," said the former Catholic nun, who leads the Act One screenwriting project. "It will also open the people of God to a broader artistic sensibility. ... My young filmmaking students are very concerned about the place of the artist in the world. They want to talk about an ethics that would go along with the power of the mass media.

"They want to know what is good for people to watch and what might harm people to watch. This is very good."

Anyone can make violent movies, she said. It takes talent, skill and vision to show violence that means something. The same thing is true of sexuality, after 40 "shameless years" in which "cinema has shown us every possible permutation of two naked bodies writhing around." The same thing is true of symbols and themes of faith and spirituality.

There are signs of change in Hollywood. Nicolosi called it the "Don't Show How Things Look, Tell Us What They Mean" movement. Are religious leaders paying attention?

Nicolosi is not the only conservative arguing that filmmakers must stop assuming that safe, squeaky-clean predictability is the same thing as artistic quality.

Even Christian consumers would rather watch "Spiderman" than "Left Behind -- The Movie" and they would choose "Toy Story" over another "Touched By and Angel" rerun on a family cable channel, according to Dallas Jenkins, president of Jenkins Entertainment. He created the company with his father, Jerry B. Jenkins, who is best known as co-author of the bestselling "Left Behind" novels.

At some point, religious critics must humbly study the art in films such as "Taxi Driver," "Traffic" and "Pulp Fiction" as well as criticize their moral content, he said. It is even more important to study edgy films that combine personal storytelling with issues of faith, such as "Schindler's List" and "The Pianist."

"Why can't we make movies like that about our faith? ... Great films, no matter how specific their subject matter, have universal appeal," said Jenkins, writing in Relevant Magazine.

"Where are the thought-provoking, morally important rated-R films? Every year there are dozens of big, successful family films, but only two or three landmark, important films for adults. Can't at least one be made by a Christian?"

NEXT WEEK: Hollywood struggles to understand the church.

The Passion according to Judas

It's hard to watch Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" without concluding that the suicidal Judas Iscariot was chased by demons into the pit of hell.

On the other hand, it's hard to watch the ABC television movie "Judas" without concluding that somehow, before he hanged himself, his sense of remorse put him back on the road to redemption.

These movies offer radically different takes on the Passion and events that led to it. While Gibson has been attacked for his stark, traditional Catholicism, "Judas" (March 8, 9 p.m. EST) offers a modern, made-for-television, post-Vatican II Catholic approach.

"It's hard to have your little movie compared to a $25 million epic by an Academy Award winner," said Charles Robert Carner, who directed "Judas" when it was filmed back in the summer of 2001. "We don't want people to see this as some kind of cheesy TV rip-off of this big movie. ...

"We did our thing long before anybody knew Mel Gibson was making the Passion. We're just thankful that our movie finally has a chance to be seen."

Produced by the Catholic media pioneers at Paulist Productions, "Judas" began nearly a decade ago as one of the final projects of the late Rev. Ellwood "Bud" Kieser, founder of the Humanitas Prize. The goal was to create a miniseries called "Jesus and Company," which would tell the same story a number of times, only seen through the eyes of characters such as Peter, Mary Magdalene, Judas and others. In the end, only "Judas" became a reality.

The movie was shot in only 23 days in Morocco with a $5 million budget. The 106-page script came from executive producer Tom Fontana, who is best known for his gritty work in crime dramas such as "Oz" and "Homicide: Life on the Streets."

"Judas" was supposed to have aired during the Easter season in 2002.

"The movie is coming out now because of 'The Passion' and all of the publicity it has generated," said the Rev. Frank Desiderio, president of Paulist Productions. "Our movie deals with some of the same material, but in a very different way. We would like to bring more light, rather than heat, to some of the issues that are being discussed."

"Judas" opens with a crucifixion, only the man on the cross is one of hundreds of Jews being executed by the Romans. The man is Judas' father and this event plants a fierce hatred of the "Roman bloodsuckers" in the heart of his young son. Judas grows up to become a bitter urban rebel and his anti-establishment anger prevents him from grasping the peaceful, sacrificial message of Jesus.

The goal was to look traditional and sound contemporary. Jesus is shown performing miracles that literally take place onscreen, while speaking in modern, even chatty, language. Some viewers and critics may find it jarring, but the "Judas" team did this intentionally.

Desiderio is also unapologetic about the movie's hopeful ending.

Judas, of course, hangs himself in a fit of guilt, despair and madness.

Still, the voice of Jesus is heard in a flashback, telling Judas: "I want you to spend eternity with me _ with my father. It's not too late. It's never too late."

Later, Peter and two apostles pray over the traitor's lifeless body, because that is what Jesus would have wanted them to do.

So did Judas go to heaven? This may seem like a radical idea, said Desiderio. But it's a logical question for modern Catholics.

"Without that flashback, I would never have made the movie," said the priest. "That's the point. It's never too late. That's the message to Judas and to each and every one of us. ... The Catholic Church teaches that there is a hell, but we don't know if anyone is in it. Only God knows if Judas was somehow able to repent and find forgiveness.

"That is what this movie is saying: It's never too late to turn back to God."

Conservative thumbs down for 'Passion'

Classics scholar John Granger will not be joining the throngs of other Christian conservatives as they pack theaters to witness "The Passion of the Christ."

Why not? Granger answers with four words: "Gone With the Wind."

Think about it, he said. Long ago, this best seller was devoured by legions of devoted readers. Then it was made into a Hollywood blockbuster, with Rhett Butler played by the charismatic Clark Gable. The film ruled.

"Ask yourself, after reading this 900-page novel, what your mental picture of Rhett Butler is," said Granger, an Orthodox Christian best known for his "Harry Potter" critiques. "If he does not look like Clark Gable, you are a remarkable reader. If you are that rare bird who has read the book and not seen the movie, write down what you see with your mind's eye when you hear the name 'Rhett Butler.' Then see the film.

"Now repeat the previous test. Is Rhett looking a lot like Clark?"

In other words, Granger is worried that images from Mel Gibson's cathartic epic will replace -- in the memories of many devout Christians -- those handed down through scripture, prayers, music, poems, icons and two millennia of holy tradition.

Yes, the vivid, violent visions of this film may grip the imaginations of many who know little or nothing about the faith. But something will be lost, as well as gained.

"I value very much the relationship I have with the Christians who have come before my time," said Granger. "I know that if I see Gibson's movie that I will never understand the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ as they did, which is to say, from reading the scriptural accounts, by experiencing these events liturgically and in hearing about the life and death of Christ as church and elders explain it."

Granger is not alone in these concerns. French Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger recently said that he worries about all attempts to film the Passion, because this art form "can be very ambiguous."

The cardinal told reporters that pious devotional practices, such as the prayers and rituals of the Stations of the Cross, are different because the faithful actively take part, rather than merely "sitting in an armchair." As a rule, he added, "I prefer the icon to a photo of an actor playing Christ and I prefer the Blessed Sacrament to any icon."

The conservative Catholic journalist Philip Lawler has reached the same conclusion. While many Christian leaders believe "The Passion of the Christ" will be an effective tool for evangelism, he said he not sure it is wise to focus these efforts on such a raw, emotional version of the Christian faith. After the tears are dry, will anything remain other than bloody images of torture and death?

"The graphic display of violence can have a destructive effect on viewers who are unbalanced or immature," said Lawler, editor of Catholic World Report. In addition to adults, "theater audiences will ... include impressionable youngsters and teenagers who have been formed by Hollywood to revel in the display of gore. I worry how this film might affect them."

The sad reality is that these young viewers may be precisely the audience Gibson was trying to reach, said Bishop Savas, chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. He attended a summer screening of an early cut and discussed some of his concerns with the director.

It is almost impossible to view this movie without seeing that it is rooted in Gibson's faith and devotion to traditional forms of Roman Catholic worship and prayer, said the 46-year-old bishop. Yet these elements have been fused with the lessons he has learned in the Hollywood marketplace.

Gibson knows how to get inside a modern viewer's head and shake things up.

"Mel Gibson is trying to find a way to pierce the emotional hides of people -- especially the young -- who have become callous from years of overexposure to the violence that permeates our media today," said the bishop.

"Now I am not squeamish about these kinds of things. ... I know what the violence in this story is supposed to mean. I know what the symbolism means. I can see what he was trying to do. But I still have to ask: Did he really need to go this far?"

The passion of old words and symbols

Jesuits rarely receive frantic calls from Hollywood megastars rushing to finish movies that are causing media firestorms.

But Father William Fulco is getting used to it, as Mel Gibson completes his cathartic epic "The Passion of the Christ."

While mixing dialogue the other day, Gibson hit a scene in which a man standing at a door lacked something to say. The director needed a line -- right now. Fulco's first question was unique to this project: Was this character supposed to speak Latin or first-century Aramaic?

"Mel said the camera was not on the speaker's face, so we did not need to synchronize what he said with his the movements of his mouth," said Fulco, who translated the screenplay into the two ancient languages, with English subtitles.

"The character needed to say something in Aramaic in the ballpark of, 'What do you want?' So I had him say in rather colloquial early Aramaic, 'MAH? MAH BA'EH?' That is literally, 'What? What wanting?' "

That worked.

It has been nearly two years since Fulco answered the telephone and heard a strange voice blurt out: "Hey Padre! It's Mel!"

Gibson's proposal was unusual, but fit the Jesuit's skills as a professor of ancient Mediterranean studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Fulco began digging into Hebrew texts seeking the roots of the now-dead Aramaic language, while simultaneously exploring dialects such as Syriac spoken today in tiny Christian enclaves in Iran, Syria and Turkey. He also stepped into heated academic debates between those who favor a more Italian-friendly Latin and those who reject this approach.

"I'm getting hate mail about Latin pronunciations," said Fulco. "On guy wrote who was angry about what he called 'these ecclesiastical bastardizations' of the Latin. Not only was he going to boycott the movie, he said he was going to call his high school Latin teacher and tell her to boycott the movie as well. ...

"I have to keep reminding people: This is not a documentary. We had to make artistic choices."

Legions of critics, of course, oppose the film for other reasons. Liberal Catholics and some Jewish leaders claim the script is tainted by anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, Gibson -- who has invested $25 million in the project -- has previewed early versions to rapt audiences of traditional Catholics, evangelicals and others. The film opens on 2,000 U.S. screens on Feb. 25, which is Ash Wednesday.

It is crucial to realize that the images and language at the heart of "The Passion of the Christ" flow directly out of Gibson's personal dedication to Catholicism in one of its most traditional and mysterious forms -- the 16th century Latin Mass.

"I don't go to any other services," the director told the Eternal Word Television Network. "I go to the old Tridentine Rite. That's the way that I first saw it when I was a kid. So I think that that informs one's understanding of how to transcend language. Now, initially, I didn't understand the Latin. ... But I understood the meaning and the message and what they were doing. I understood it very fully and it was very moving and emotional and efficacious, if I may say so."

The goal of the movie is to shake modern audiences by brashly juxtaposing the "sacrifice of the cross with the sacrifice of the altar -- which is the same thing," said Gibson. This ancient union of symbols and sounds has never lost its hold on him. There is, he stressed, "a lot of power in these dead languages."

Thus, the seemingly bizarre choice of Latin and Aramaic was actually part of the message. The goal of Gibson's multicultural, multilingual team was to make a statement that transcended any one time, culture and tongue.

"We didn't want another movie with Jesus as some kind of Aryan superman or Jesus as a surfer," said Fulco. "We saw one movie in which Jesus was almost this Michael Jackson kind of character. Try to imagine that. ...

"We didn't want an American Jesus, or a Japanese Jesus or a French Jesus. What we wanted was a language that allowed Jesus to be none of these nationalities, so that he can be all of them at the same time. This is a universal story."