Gibson film arousing passions

Saturday, August 9, 2003

— Those who have seen Mel Gibson's film about the final hours of Jesus Christ have called it beautiful, magical, a great and important work.

Those who think "The Passion" could fuel anti-Semitism, however, haven't been allowed to see the film. Seven months before its release, this extraordinary vanity project is stirring emotions over Gibson's exclusionary screenings and the potential for a negative depiction of Jews.

Not just Jews are concerned -- the film was first questioned by a nine-member panel that included Christians. Gibson is a member of an ultraconservative Catholic movement that rejects the Vatican's authority over the Roman Catholic Church.

Gibson has said the film was faithful to the account of the crucifixion in the four Gospels and was meant "to inspire, not offend.

The star of the blockbuster "Lethal Weapon" movies and Oscar-winning director of "Braveheart" has spent nearly $30 million of his own money to produce, co-write and direct "The Passion," starring Jim Caviezel as Jesus and Monica Belluci as Mary Magdalene. Filmed entirely in the dead languages of Aramaic and Latin, it has yet to secure a distributor.

In recent weeks, the actor-director has been building support with invitation-only screenings for film industry insiders, conservative commentators, evangelical Christians and sympathetic Jews.

Trailers of the two-hour movie have turned up on some Web sites. A 4 1/2-minute preview will air for tens of thousands of people attending a Christian festival this weekend in Anaheim, Calif.

Cal Thomas, a syndicated columnist, called the film "the most beautiful, accurate, disturbing, realistic and bloody depiction of this well-known story that has ever been filmed."

Internet personality Matt Drudge told MSNBC: "It depicts a clash between Jesus and those who crucified him and speaking as a Jew, I thought it was a magical film that showed the perils of life on earth."

But critics of "The Passion" -- who have not seen the film -- worry that the popular Hollywood superstar will attract millions to see a violent, bloody recounting of the crucifixion that portrays Jews as a frenzied mob eager to watch Jesus die.

"For too many years, Christians have accused Jews of being Christ-killers and used that charge to rationalize violence," said Sister Mary C. Boys, a Catholic professor at the Union Theological Seminary who read an early draft of the script. "This is our fear."

Boys and others on the committee of nine Christian and Jewish scholars that reviewed the script said Gibson might be skewing opinion by screening the film for conservatives.

Paul Lauer, marketing director for Gibson's Icon Productions company, said a screening for Jewish leaders would be within a month. He said Gibson first wanted to vet it before Christian scholars for accuracy.