Gibson’s “Passion” Continues to Stir Controversy

Does The Passion accurately portray the final hours of Jesus Christ, or it is just fuel for anti-Semitism?

Amidst reports of its potentially depicting Jews in a negative light, Mel Gibson‘s religiously charged film The Passion, which stars Jim Caviezel as Jesus and Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene and filmed entirely in the languages of Aramaic and Latin, is getting its first reactions from a series of exclusionary screenings Gibson set up, The Associated Press reports.

The actor/director had been building support with invitation-only screenings for film industry insiders, conservative commentators, evangelical Christians and sympathetic Jews, AP reports. Trailers for the two-hour movie have turned up on some Web sites. A four-and-a-half minute preview was shown Friday for thousands of people attending a Christian festival at Anaheim, Calif.

It was also shown in Houston on Friday to an audience that included for the first time an official from the Anti-Defamation League, which fights anti-Semitism. Audience members signed confidentiality agreements before attending the screening, AP reports.

“We still have grave concerns,” Rabbi Eugene Korn, director of the ADL’s Office of Interfaith Affairs in New York, told the Houston Chronicle in Saturday’s edition.

Ted Haggard, president of the National Evangelical Association, saw a screening in late June with about 30 evangelical scholars. The scholars are very strict about adherence to Scripture, so Gibson “had no assurances that we would be friendly toward that movie.”

But Haggard apparently gave it a big thumbs up. “I thought it was the most authentic portrayal I’ve ever seen,” he told AP.

Cal Thomas, a conservative 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.”

Critics of The Passion–most who have not seen the film–worry that the Gibson with his star power will attract throngs of moviegoers to watch a violent, bloody recounting of the crucifixion which also shows 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,” Sister Mary C. Boys, a Catholic professor at the Union Theological Seminary who read an early draft of the script, told AP. “This is our fear.”

Boys and others on a committee of nine Christian and Jewish scholars–who reviewed an early draft of the script and began questioning the film’s intentions–said the script she read presented the Jews as more culpable for Christ’s death than the Romans who executed him. She explained it only recounts the last 12 hours of Christ’s life without going into the context of the Jewish leaders’ involvement. “It seems to me that the film looked on Jews as antagonists, Jesus as this perfect victim,” she said.

Paul Lauer, marketing director for Gibson‘s Icon Productions company, told AP the committee obtained a stolen, outdated script that is completely different from the rough cut of the film being screened.

Gibson, who put up Passion‘s nearly $30 million budget, has said the film is faithful to the account of the crucifixion in the four Gospels and is meant “to inspire, not offend.”

“My intention in bringing it to the screen is to create a lasting work of art and engender serious thought among audiences of diverse faith backgrounds,” Gibson said in a statement to Variety. “If the intense scrutiny during my 25 years in public life revealed I had ever persecuted or discriminated against anyone based on race or creed, I would be all too willing to make amends. But there is no such record,” the actor’s said.

Yet, according to AP, Gibson is a member of an ultraconservative Catholic movement that rejects the Vatican’s authority over the Catholic Church, including the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which in 1965 rejected the notion that Jews were collectively responsible for killing Jesus. The actor is building a traditionalist church in Malibu, Calif., for about 70 members and intends to hold Sunday services there in Latin, AP reports.

His father, Hutton Gibson, was also quoted in a New York Times magazine article in March as denying the Holocaust occurred.

Meanwhile, the film has yet to find a distributor but Lauer said that at least three major studios are interested. Also, although the recent screenings have included English subtitles, Icon hasn’t decided whether to include them in a major release.

“I don’t know that he will be able to find a studio that will distribute this,” Esquire magazine film columnist Kim Masters told AP. Masters said industry people who have seen the film respect its quality, but said it is disturbingly graphic.

“It’s not a family film, from what I understand,” she said. “It’s a really difficult film.”