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Hollywood's Christ

There's no doubt that "The Passion of the Christ" has reached epic proportions, at least, in terms of the box office. But Hollywood is no stranger to the biblical epic.

Over the decades, the way the Christ story has been told has been a reflection of the filmmakers who were telling it, and the audiences who were watching it. The Early Show Entertainment Contributor Laurie Hibberd reports.

Gregg Kilday, film editor of the "Hollywood Reporter" notes, "The story of Christ has been read differently throughout history, and filmmakers have returned to it periodically. I mean there's been the standard Hollywood movie like "King of Kings," which is a kind of big, epic movie."

Other films about Christ are "The Greatest Story Ever Told," the "Life of Brian," or "Ben Hur." Kilday says, "To a certain extent, you know, Ben-Hur was a '50s movie, in that it was big, it was safe, it was all-embracing."

Like the current "Passion of the Christ," "Ben-Hur" was the right film at the right time, winning big at the box office and at the Oscars.

But amid the political upheaval of the 1960s, Italian director Pasolini chose to portray Christ as somewhat of a social revolutionary in "The Gospel According to Saint Matthew." And during the "self-help" era of the 1980s, Martin Scorsese focused on Christ's humanity, rather than his divinity, in his controversial "Last Temptation of Christ."

"Last Temptation" also fueled a media frenzy, but the mass audience turned its back on a less-than-divine Christ, and the film made less than $10 million.

Kilday says, "Now Mel Gibson chooses to focus on Christ's suffering and the redemptive act of dying on the cross as opposed to his teachings. 'The Passion of the Christ,' you could argue, reflects the very polarized times we live in. And so the movie opens in one of these noisy cultural moments where sides are clashing, and in some cases using this movie as a weapon to beat each other over the head."

Another movie about Christ's life was released last year - a more literal re-telling of "The Gospel of John." It made only a few million dollars. Apparently with Mel Gibson's "Passion," audiences are responding not just to the story, but to the way it's been presented and promoted.

"Contrary to the Gibson approach, we didn't have a specific agenda," Garth Drabinsky, producer of "The Gospel of John" notes. "The difference, I guess, is that we did not seek to or cultivate controversy within the producing and marketing of our motion picture."

"The Passion of the Christ" is apparently the eye of a "perfect storm," in which waves of artistry, marketing, and culture combine.

A moviegoer waiting on a long line to see the film says, "I wanted to see what all the big hoot is about. And actually, I kind of think he's doing a good thing."

Kilday says, "I think it both reflects the interest of individual filmmakers; and to the extent that the movies then connect with audiences at the box office, it does suggest something about the times we're living in."

In movie history, if you're doing a story about Christ, the rule has always been to keep it safe, and avoid controversy. Mel Gibson has turned the conventional wisdom on its head an dfound success. It will be very interesting to see what Hollywood does next.

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