Will the director rein in the violence in his Passion sequel?
He is risen indeed. I’m talking about Mel Gibson, who after a rather public mid-life crisis (he calls it his “andropause”) and a long stint in rehab, has been reincarnated as an Old Testament prophet. I caught him on the Stephen Colbert show recently, replete with magisterial beard (grown for his next acting role).
In 2011, five years after being arrested for drunk driving, and widely reported as spouting anti-Semitic invective, he did public penance in Jodie Foster’s The Beaver. Gibson played a man in full mid-life meltdown, who resorts to speaking through a glove puppet in order to save his marriage. It was an unusually touchy-feely moment. But that beard signals a fresh start: Mad Mel is back, firing on all apocalyptic cylinders.
Gibson is currently embarked on a press junket for his new movie Hacksaw Ridge, which is how he came to be on the Colbert show. Based on the true story of Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor for non-combatant service during the Second World War, the film seems likely to rank among his best work to date. One thing is undeniable: Gibson knows a good story when he sees one, and he is capable of telling it well, too.
So long as you can take the blood. Watch a series of movies directed by Gibson and red is definitely the colour that stays with you (he’d have fared badly in The Village). Then there’s the pain. Mel is all about pain. While he eventually cut 10 minutes of flagellation from The Passion of the Christ, it can’t have been easy to persuade him. Even in a film that is all about death, there is such a thing as overkill. There’s violence, and there’s gratuitous violence. There’s penitential (“those were my hands hammering in the nails”), and there’s pathological.
Anger is fissile stuff. It feeds a chain reaction which always ends badly. “It’s a pity that one has to be defined with a label,” Gibson told Colbert, “from, you know, having a nervous breakdown in the back of a police car from a bunch of double tequilas, but that’s what it is. Now, you know… that moment shouldn’t define the rest of my life.”
Colbert asked Gibson if he had learned anything from his time in politically incorrect hell. Gibson spoke of earning time off purgatory, which he referred to as being “on the meat rack”. Not immediately grasping the reference, his Catholic host quipped: “Is that Australian Catholicism?”
But Mel is determined to look on the bright side. “You know, 10 years go by, I worked a lot on myself, I’m actually happier and healthier than I’ve been in a long time. So that’s cool. And I’m fortunate, you know. I get to do what I love to do… I get to tell stories.”
The next narrative is the Resurrection. Reassuringly, Gibson is taking his time with this project: he acknowledges it’s a complex plot line. Maybe he’ll hire some new theologians. He is keen to portray the “real bad guys” who are, he says, “in another realm”. Will they all be played by women, as the Devil was in The Passion?
Fortunately, Gibson has shown that he can portray women with dignity: some of the best scenes in The Passion revolve around Our Lady and St Mary Magdalene. But can he portray the unique effect of a God who conquers sin and death through non-violent means? Hacksaw Ridge may bode well in this respect.
So I hope that, in spite of his darker obsessions, Gibson makes a Resurrection movie that’s as good in its own way as this year’s Risen. What works in Kevin Reynolds and Paul Aiello’s film is the way that supernatural realities subtly touch the grim realities of a fallen and violent world. The slow conversion of a cynical but fair-minded legionary is made psychologically plausible. “I don’t know what to ask,” says Joseph Fiennes when he finally gets a private moment with the Yeshua he has been investigating with so much zeal. What holds the attention is the dawning of faith in a human face as it contemplates the face of God incarnate.
For Mel Gibson to complete his own take on the greatest story ever told, this troubled, vulnerable artist needs to dig deep enough in his mortified heart to convey the full “eucatastrophe” of salvation history. He needs to have the genuine hope that redemption brings.
I pray that in this Year of Mercy, Mel Gibson has put all those demonic faces behind him, so that nothing impedes his gaze as it seeks the face of the risen Lord.
This article first appeared in the November 11 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here