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Mel's Collection Plate

Rino Breebaart

Easter in Ireland 2004 finds the faithful flocking to the blood-spattered screen; this is how many people want their kids to process a religion based on love and charity.

The Irish make good Catholics for several reasons: they don't beat you over the head about it, and they aren't prone to the worship of icons and relics like some more pagan and Mediterranean variations. With the exceptions of small icons on their dashboards, the Irish are in no way superstitious or flippant about their religion. But I get the creeping suspicion they nonetheless thirst after strong images and iconic representations, for all the heavily obvious visual testaments of faith and suffering, and this could be the reason why The Passion of the Christ has proved so popular here.

The power and direct influence and wealth of the church waned in the early '70s with its separation from state, and besides regular church services and works, the most obvious presence of Irish Catholicism has been in education. There's still a lot of fallout from the systemic abuse of these educational institutions, as elsewhere. But there is no single, majorly symbolic or iconic image of Catholicism in Ireland — no building or work of art or attractive monument which spells out cap "D" devotion for Irishmen everywhere, something they'd carry on their dash in turn, or illuminate in Day-Glo. Barcelona at least has its Sagrada Familia, a work in progress so staggering it could keep any faith alive. Ireland has ruined abbeys . . .

So, along comes The Passion and suddenly the cinema's block-booked by religious groups and communities so all and sundry can partake of the visual event. Despite its warnings of graphic violence and a mere 15PG rating, this is how many people want their kids to process a religion based on love and charity. This, the tenor of many mildly critical reviews so far, could make even cynics advocate the Net Nanny line, armchair moralists suspicious of Mel's methods. Because Dublin cinemas are pretty lax when it comes to enforcing age limitations. The more the merrier.

The film is plied with gratuitous physical torture and bloody lashings. Its spiritual import does seem strongly indebted to acutely tangible images, to a near traumatic cinema experience — but I guess that's the intended vision, the Eucharist become the consumption of the image of Christ. Whether this is heretical is outside of my ken, but I had a strangely disturbing vision of Mel Gibson walking around the aisles of the cinema with a silver collection platter. The cinema has become that new education institution, that massive icon; much like Scorsese always dreamed of blending his desire for church with the collective image-experience of the movies. I don't begrudge Mel's renewed profits over the Easter break, or his sneaky use of a robotic body double, but it's interesting to witness such renewed faith in the power of strong imagery. Interesting to see a nation enrolling in cinema, again — and worshipping collectively again.

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