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Last Updated: Friday, 20 February, 2004, 16:22 GMT
Can religion and the movies mix?
Mel Gibson's new film The Passion of the Christ, about the last hours of Jesus, is the latest in a long line of movies to arouse strong opinions in religious communities.

The Passion of the Christ
Jewish groups say The Passion portrays Jews negatively
Some Jewish groups have accused Gibson of blaming Jews for Jesus' death and depicting them negatively in a film that is a "simplistic, historically incorrect portrayal".

Gibson has denied anti-Semitism, saying his script was based on the New Testament - and he has been backed up by Christian groups.

But it has become one of the most controversial films of recent years - proving religion is still the more sensitive than anything else when it comes to portraying historical stories and characters on the big screen.

More than a year ago, there was a similar battle over the critically acclaimed drama The Magdalene Sisters.

In the film, director Peter Mullan, himself a Catholic, tackled the thorny subject of young girls taken to convents and made to work in the laundries, while subject to abuse by nuns.

Mel Gibson
Mel Gibson co-wrote, directed and financed The Passion
The Vatican press and radio were up in arms after his film won the Venice Film Festival's highest accolade.

The film was accused of being based on false facts and Andrea Piersanti, head of an Italian Catholic commission on the performing arts, called it "anti-clerical".

Mexico also had a recent controversy over the release of The Crime Of Father Amaro (El Crimen del Padre Amaro).

The film, which portrayed a newly ordained priest having a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old girl, went on to break box office records as the highest-grossing homegrown film ever.

"This movie makes fun of the most sacred religious symbols of the Catholic community and of the religious beliefs of Catholics," said the chairman of the Bishops' Conference Luis Morales.

'Wake-up call'

But Father Rafael Gonzalez, spokesman for the Council of Mexican Bishops, saw the movie as a chance for the church to re-examine itself.

"It is a wake-up call for the church, to review its procedure for selecting and training priests, and being closer to the people," he said.

British film Priest, starring Linus Roache and Tom Wilkinson, also touched on the church and sex - this time dealing with sexual abuse in the church and a priest's love for another man.

The Magdalene Sisters
The Magdalene Sisters caused a stir in the Vatican
It was in the US that the loudest voices against the movie where heard, much of it originating from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which claims 200,000 members.

It called on its members to boycott theme parks and products of Disney, which part-funded the film, insisting priests were made out to be victims or villains and the Catholic church was being blamed for society's ills.

Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ was one of the most famous movies to upset the Christian community - who threatened to boycott it even before it had finished filming.

But Scorsese and film company MCA would have foreseen trouble ahead.

When Nikos Kazantzakis' Last Temptation of Christ novel was published in 1955, he was excommunicated from the Greek Orthodox Church and the book was banned by the Catholic Church.

When Scorsese began work on the movie more than three decades later, there had been little change in attitudes.

Protests

The film was accused of blasphemy for its fantasy scenes of Jesus marrying prostitute Mary Magdalene.

Crowds of about 10,000 Christians protested outside Universal Studios in Los Angeles when it opened, and one group even offered to reimburse MCA's full production costs if the film was pulled.

Channel 4 was inundated with complaints when it screened the film in 1995.

While the Last Temptation of Christ was a serious movie about Jesus - although based on a novel rather than the gospels - light-hearted films can cause as much upset.

Life of Brian, from the Monty Python stable, focused on a man born on the same night as Jesus who was continually confused with the Son of God.

Harry Potter stars
Harry Potter was accused of promoting the occult
The message of the movie was one of fighting religious intolerance - but it still managed to provoke an outcry and calls for a boycott on its release in 1979.

But films do not have to be directly about the church to incense sections.

Harry Potter has been accused of being anti-religious because it could encourage children to experiment with the occult.

The congregation of the Christ Community Church in Alamogordo, New Mexico, held a book burning session where Pastor Jack Brock gave a sermon.

"Behind that innocent face is the power of satanic darkness," he said. "Harry Potter is the devil and he is destroying people," he preached.

But there was also a counter-protest as hundreds turned out to accuse Mr Brock of "ignorance".


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