- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 27, 2004

Hollywood marketers are in a bit of a quandary about what to do with religion in movies. They treated Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” a relatively inexpensive foreign-language movie, like the plague, passing up a pie that, domestically, totaled $368 million, plus another $212 million overseas.

MGM Studios’ new comedy “Saved!,” opening today in area theaters, is the first toe in the post-“Passion” pool.

Co-produced by Michael Stipe, the outspokenly liberal frontman of REM, “Saved!” is an indie-minded comedy set in a fictional Christian school called American Eagle.

Fundamentalist disapproval of homosexuality is under the lights, as is the practice of evangelizing Jews.

Questions to mull this weekend: Is it safe to satirize Christianity when Christians have proven such a formidable market force?

It’s clear enough now that Christian moviegoers can sustain a movie of, so to speak, “Titanic” proportions, but can they — will they try to — bury one that’s offensive?

MGM is on eggshells, according to a May 7 article by Sharon Waxman in the New York Times that itself has become part of Hollywood-in-a-quandary lore.

The conservative Weekly Standard magazine republished an excerpt of the article as a back-page “Parody,” calling it “Not a Parody,” as it does in special cases when truth is more parodic than fiction.

New York’s elites, the Standard implied, view conservative Christians as strange, holier-than-thou laboratory specimens, just like Hollywood does.

Hollywood is “eager to capitalize on the Christian audience that emerged in huge numbers to see ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ [but] movie executives are unsure about what kinds of movies will appeal to it,” Miss Waxman wrote.

Read that last bit again, and savor it: “movie executives are unsure about what kinds of movies will appeal to it.”

Hmmm.

How about, for starters, a movie that doesn’t take parochial schools to be incubators of a soft, sexually-repressed fascism?

“I love this movie, but it is so hard to figure out who the audience is,” Peter Adee, MGM’s worldwide marketing chief, told Miss Waxman. “It has a certain Christian appeal, but it’s also a little irreverent.”

Sandy Stern, a “Saved!” producer, claimed: “The movie is very pro-faith. We never set out to make a movie that was controversial.”

The “Christian appeal” and “pro-faith” aspects of the movie, far as I can tell, have to do with tolerance, a favorite Christian virtue of those who don’t like the sterner stuff, such as the Ten Commandments or Leviticus.

In a happy accident of timing, the “Saved!” test case will occur the same weekend as the 25th anniversary re-release of “Life of Brian,” the 1979 biblical satire from the Monty Python comedy troupe. (It opens today at Landmark’s Bethesda Row and E Street theaters.)

“Brian,” as Pythonites will remember, chronicled the hapless life of a man born on the same day as Jesus and mistaken for a messiah. Still shockingly irreverent to this day — “Saved!” is a picture of piety by comparison — it spoofed the Sermon on the Mount, turned Pontius Pilate into an effeminate French milquetoast and showed Jewish resistance to Roman occupation as ineffectual, bumbling Marxism.

True to form, Python director Terry Jones says it wasn’t just “Brian’s” anniversary that prompted the re-release; he and distributor Rainbow Films wanted to provide a “Passion” antidote.

“Mel or Monty?” is one advertising slogan, according to the BBC.

“On our part, it’s just pure commercial greed,” Mr. Jones, 62, chortles on the phone from London. “It seemed like a good moment to cash in on Mel’s success. We saw a commercial opportunity, and we took it.”

“I don’t think we’re taking customers from him, though,” he adds.

Mr. Jones, an atheist Welshman, is astonished by the vitality of religion in America.

In the late ‘70s, he thought “Life of Brian,” while controversial then, wouldn’t be such a shocker a few decades hence.

“Religion was on the ropes,” he says. “We thought we were flogging a dead horse.”

Give Mr. Jones and the rest of Python credit for brutal frankness. It’s no secret where they’re coming from, and they’re often wickedly funny in the bargain.

But give us a break with all the stewing over “Saved!”

If Hollywood is serious about capitalizing on the success of “The Passion” — and can we all agree that it’s in Hollywood’s financial interests to try? — it’s not off to a very good start.

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