Judgment day arrives for 'Passion'

Now, at last, the viewing public gets to decide whether Mel Gibson's vision of Jesus' final hours is a blood-soaked failure or artistic and spiritual genius.

"The Passion of the Christ" officially opens in 2,800 theaters today, Ash Wednesday in the traditional church calendar, after months of intense interfaith debate over its portrayal of Jews and R-rated violence. Already, church groups anxious to get a peek at Gibson's crucifixion epic have been seeing the film in private showings.

And the heartfelt discussion over whether the movie focuses too much on Jews as responsible for Jesus' torture and death continued Tuesday at a meeting in Los Angeles. Jewish and evangelical Christian leaders agreed to disagree about the film, and said their respect for each other would survive regardless of the movie.

Gibson's "personal embellishment of the Gospels" denigrates "the masses of Jews who were not followers of Jesus," said Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

President Ted Haggard of the National Association of Evangelicals responded that "we understand our Jewish friends' fears and concerns, born of long historical experience.

"The relationship between us is too important and too strong to be compromised by our differences regarding this film," Haggard said.

The final cut that audiences will be seeing is virtually identical to the version previewed by The Associated Press two months ago. The key changes are in fine-tuning: the soundtrack, mournful music and special effects. Gibson also has added a brief flashback of Jesus teaching disciples to "love one another."

The most incendiary and oft-misinterpreted line in the Gospels and the film, the Jewish crowd's cry "his blood be on us and on our children" (Matthew 27:25), is absent in the English subtitles. However, Gibson says it's included amid the barely audible crowd chatter spoken in Aramaic (the movie's dialogue is in Aramaic and Latin).

Imaginative additions to the Bible's spare version of events, showing Jewish guards as remarkably brutal and the high priests as cold-blooded, remain intact in the film's final version, along with the portrayal of Pontius Pilate as a reluctant executioner that's closer to the Gospel records. These aspects are bound to perpetuate the ongoing outrage from Jewish organizations.


AP Photo

Colleen Gasser, left, and Khristina Gorman, right, try to hold back tears after leaving a private screening of the film "The Passion of the Christ" in Indianapolis. Church groups across the country have had private screenings of the movie recently; the film opens to the public today.

Anticipating such reactions, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations sent members a video to warn against anti-Semitism the movie might foster, and the possible negative psychological impact on any Jews who view it.

Without ever mentioning the film, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a 112-page booklet with texts of church teachings on relations with Judaism -- and warnings about portrayals of the passion and New Testament interpretation.

Whatever the critical and official religious verdicts on the film, it seems bound to be a money-maker.

Gibson spent $25 million of his own on "The Passion," which he produced, directed and co-wrote, and has benefited from a skilled marketing campaign and months of word-of-mouth buzz as the film has been screened for private audiences.

"It is gory. It's a bloody mess," the Rev. Michael Catt said after a Tuesday preview in Albany, Ga., hosted by his Baptist church. "But the greatest message is that he bore our sins on the cross so that we could have forgiveness."


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