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Last Updated: Friday, 13 February, 2004, 10:44 GMT
Religious battle over The Passion
David Willis
By David Willis
BBC correspondent in Los Angeles

The Passion of the Christ, written and directed by Mel Gibson, has aroused strong debate among religious groups ahead of its release in the US on 25 February.

The Passion of the Christ
The film tells the story of the final hours and crucifixion of Jesus Christ
It is a harrowing film which spares few details in its harrowing depiction of the suffering of Christ.

Hailed by some as an epic, to others it is one of the most offensive films ever made.

Jewish human rights advocates like the Rabbi Marvin Hier, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, say it leaves no-one in doubt as to who was responsible for Jesus' death.

"It wasn't the Romans, they were too timid - they were even compassionate about it," he said.

"It was only the Jews. That portrayal will have a negative impact, even if it doesn't cause instant anti-Semitism."

No religious film had ever stirred as much reaction within the Jewish community, he said, adding Gibson had stereotyped Jews "in a very negative manner".

"They appear pushy, greedy, with sinister eyes, with Rasputin-like features," he said.

'Simply horrible'

Mel Gibson
Jewish groups have said Gibson portrayed Jews in a negative way
"In two hours, not a single Jew says anything intelligent - even a sentence, even half a sentence. All they say is the rantings and mantras of a mob.

"The portrayal of the Jewish people - all of them - is simply horrible."

It was a "simplistic, historically incorrect portrayal", he said.

"Given the climate of unprecedented anti-Semitism throughout the world, this will further poison the atmosphere - poison the minds of young people."

Mel Gibson, who co-wrote, directed and financed the film, denies the charges of anti-Semitism.

Described as a conservative Catholic, he says the script for the film was the New Testament and his inspiration was the Holy Spirit.

Gibson is criss-crossing America promoting the film to church groups and Christian colleges where the film is seen as a recruitment tool - a means of spreading the word among the unconverted.

The Passion of the Christ
Jim Caviezel plays Jesus and Maia Morgenstern plays Mary, mother of Jesus
The dean of California's Azusa Pacific University, Jon Wallace, said the movie "absolutely accurately portrays" what scripture says about the suffering of Jesus.

It would encourage people who were unconvinced about the Bible to go home and read the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, he said.

Mel Gibson - who visited the college on Saturday - wanted the audience to be transformed by his film, Mr Wallace said.

"I think he intended for people to sit in the audience, be exposed to the Biblical truth of who Jesus Christ is and experience transformation.

"I think God will use this film for the Holy Spirit to allow people to be transformed - absolutely."


Even the Pope has become involved. He was initially reported to have seen the film and liked it - only for the Vatican to backtrack, saying the Pope never comments on art.

The Passion of the Christ
The film "does not play the blame game", Caviezel said
One thing this controversy guarantees is ticket sales. Experts predict Mel Gibson will recoup the $30m (16m) he spent making this film in the first weekend of its release.

In Hollywood, the film's star Jim Caviezel, who plays Jesus, came to its defence.

There were "certainly" going to be people who disagreed with the film, he said.

"But this does not play the blame game. It does not condemn an entire race for the death of Christ."

The film was a faithful representation of the gospels, and did not set out to be controversial, he said.

"It was supposed to tell the truth. Not much has changed in 2,000 years - Jesus was [controversial] and they killed him. We all killed him, and he died for it."

Jewish groups are urging Mel Gibson to add a postscript, pointing out that Christ died for all mankind. Currently, no such changes are planned.

  • The Passion of the Christ is released in the US on 25 February, and will reach cinemas around the world in March and April.

    'Violent' review for Gibson film
    11 Feb 04  |  Entertainment
    Churches book up Passion tickets
    06 Feb 04  |  Entertainment
    'Faith' inspired Gibson's movie
    04 Feb 04  |  Entertainment
    Campaign against Gibson's Passion
    02 Feb 04  |  Entertainment
    Pope 'did not endorse Jesus film'
    20 Jan 04  |  Entertainment


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