Made in Italy for a thrifty $30 million, Mel Gibson’s bloody rendering of Jesus’ last 24 hours was turned down for distribution by the major studios and hooted at by the cognoscenti, most of whom hadn’t seen it. The brouhaha served to confirm conservatives’ view that liberals are those people who will defend to the death your right to agree with them. (Read TIME’s take on the controversy.) It also fortified the faithful. Families made pilgrimages to the multiplex, insisting that their wee kids see an R-rated movie with as much explicit violence as a gross-out horror movie. The picture earned $371 million at the domestic box office, plus another $241 million abroad, to become the top-grossing foreign language film of all-time.
The language was foreign everywhere, since Gibson had the actors playing Jews — including James Caviezel as Jesus and Monica Bellucci as Magdalene — speak a form of ancient Aramaic. (The Romans spoke Latin.) That was just one of his strategies to give fresh life to some famous chapters from the best-selling book of all time — one found in most homes, churches and hotel rooms. The director imagines Jesus as an angry rebel, enduring the abuse of idiots, putting his life on the line for his beliefs. In other words, the hero of almost any Hollywood melodrama. In other words, Mel Gibson: a Braveheart Jesus.