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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 August, 2003, 17:04 GMT 18:04 UK
Why Gibson's film provokes Passions
Mel Gibson
Gibson's film will not be in English
Mel Gibson's latest movie about the death of Christ, The Passion, has sparked huge debate despite the fact it is not being released for seven months.

The nature of religious movies, which tend to rely on one viewpoint to the detriment of another, often cause controversy.

But talk surrounding The Passion has already reached vitriolic levels, and with very few people having actually seen it.

But by focusing on the last 12 hours of the life of Jesus, Gibson cannot have been surprised at the intense speculation and criticism the film has already received, concerning both Jewish and Catholic bodies.

The furore over Gibson's film, which he has co-written and directed, began after a script was leaked, leading religious parties to attack it, particularly Jewish sectors who fear a rise in anti-Semitism.

But by speaking out on an unfinished and largely unseen film, it has already sparked interest in a film which may only have appealed to a limited audience - the dialogue is entirely spoken in Latin and Aramaic with no plans for subtitles.

Jewish groups fear that the film, which is largely based on the Gospels, could castigate Jews by showing them clamouring for the death of Jesus.

Mel Gibson (right) directing Jim Caviezel as Jesus (centre) in The Passion
Mel Gibson (right) directed and co-wrote The Passion

But Gibson has been listening to concerns and has slightly altered the film to show more "sympathetic" Jewish characters who were not calling for the execution of Jesus, and has strongly denied any personal anti-Semitism.

"We believe we have softened the story compared to the way the Gospel has told it," Paul Lauer of Gibson's production company Icon told the Washington Post.

But the film is also thought to be partly based on an interpretation of a work by 19th Century nun, Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich, the mystic and stigmatist author of The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which blamed Jews for the crucifixion.

Gibson has allowed limited viewings of the film, but this has done little to stem the harsh criticism already directed at it from those who have or have not seen it.

America's Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has taken the strongest position against the film's release, fearing a rise in anti-Semitism.


"The film unambiguously portrays Jewish authorities and the Jewish mob as the ones responsible for the decision to crucify Jesus," said Abraham Foxman, the ADL's director.

"We are deeply concerned that the film, if released in its present form, will fuel the hatred, bigotry and anti-Semitism that many responsible churches have worked hard to repudiate."

Some are also concerned the tone of the film could undo the years of work done to promote Jewish-Catholic relations.

Gibson's own religious beliefs are based on a "traditionalist Catholic Church", which rejects the Pope's second Vatican Council edict which sought to clear Jews of responsibility for Jesus' death and repair relations between Jews and Catholics.

'Great crises'

"If the new film seeks to undo that it would not be uncovering truth," Rabbi Marvin Hier, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told The New York Times.

"Rather, it would unleash more of the scurrilous charges... directed against the Jewish people, which took the Catholic Church 20 centuries to finally repudiate."

A panel of scholars, made up of three Jews and six Catholics convened by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Anti-Defamation League, studied an early version of the script and said they found it alarming.

"When we read the screenplay our sense was this wasn't really something you could fix. All the way through, the Jews are portrayed as bloodthirsty," said Sister Mary C Boys, a professor at New York's Union Theological Seminary.

"We're really concerned that this could be one of the great crises in Christian-Jewish relations."

Extreme views

But the comments of the panel have been dismissed by Gibson, who accused it of illegally obtaining a copy of an early script and threatened to sue.

The extreme and outspoken views of Gibson's father, Hutton Gibson, have also gone some way to help damn the film for those who have yet to see it, although the actor does not share the same beliefs.

Hutton Gibson is a Holocaust denier and has also made the claim that the 11 September tragedy was not the work of Al Qaeda and the planes "were crashed by remote control".

But not everybody is against Mel Gibson and his dream of making the film.

Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, was invited to a screening and described it as "a beautiful, wonderful account of the last 12 hours of the life of Jesus Christ. It is consistent with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John."

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