- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Longtime Hollywood star Mel Gibson of “Lethal Weapon” and “Braveheart” fame, may have come up with the ultimate hero movie with his newest offering, “The Passion of the Christ.” The film grew out of Mr. Gibson’s near suicide 13 years ago.

“I found myself trapped with feelings of terrible, isolated emptiness,” he says in the forward of “The Passion,” a photo collection of scenes from the movie, published by Tyndale House. “Because I was brought up to be a good Christian and a good Catholic, the only effective resource for me was prayer. I asked God for His help.

“It was during this period of meditation and prayer that I first conceived the idea of making a film about the Passion.”

In contrast to the Protestant-style Jesus film that adheres solely to biblical texts, “The Passion” is an artist’s film, inspired by Italian Renaissance artists such Caravaggio, Mantegna, Masaccio and Piero della Francesa. The acting is vivid to the point that Mr. Gibson had to be talked into supplying English subtitles.

“A closer investigation of the Gospels, of the story, of the whole piece, was demanded of me,” he told Zenit, the Vatican news agency. “This film will show the Passion of Jesus Christ just the way it happened.”

“The Passion” was shot mostly in Matera, an ancient town in southern Italy, near where Pier Paolo Pasolini filmed the “Gospel According to St. Matthew” in 1964. Mr. Gibson purposely did the outdoor shots in November to capture the region’s late-autumn light on its limestone rock formations and stunning vistas.

He had barely finished shooting the film interiors in Rome when the New York Times magazine ran an unflattering profile on Mr. Gibson last March, revealing that his father, Hutton Gibson, is a Holocaust denier. The piece, for which Mr. Gibson was not interviewed, revealed the actor belonged to a traditional Catholic group that denies the legitimacy of the Second Vatican Council and all subsequent popes.

Rumors began leaking that the movie would be the most violent film about Jesus’ death ever made.

An early copy of the script was leaked to an interfaith team of Catholic and Jewish scholars, who released an 18-page report in early May, saying the movie is filled with historical and theological errors.

Its cover letter was on stationery from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and signed by Eugene Fisher, the USCCB’s associate director for ecumenical and interreligious affairs and Rabbi Eugene Korn, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League. Mr. Gibson threatened to sue the USCCB, accusing the scholars of stealing the script. The USCCB quickly backed off, claiming it was not responsible for the scholars’ actions.

By then, word was out in the Jewish community that “The Passion” could revive the claim that Jews are responsible for Christ’s death. The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles called the film “particularly alarming.”

But David Klinghoffer, an Orthodox Jewish commentator, reminded readers in the May 2 issue of the Forward magazine that renowned 12th century Jewish philosopher Maimonides said Jews had a hand in Jesus’ death and were justified in doing so.

Meanwhile, Mr. Gibson was doing an end run around the USCCB by getting key support from Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput and the Rev. William J. Fulco, a Jesuit at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Father Fulco did the Aramaic and Latin translations for the film, plus the subtitles.

On July 21, Mr. Gibson showed the film to a select group at the Motion Picture Association of America office in the District. Viewers included MPAA President Jack Valenti — who praised the film — columnists Peggy Noonan, Cal Thomas and Kate O’Beirne, cyber scribe Matt Drudge, Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute and failed Labor Secretary nominee Linda Chavez.

His biggest coup came in December, when Pope John Paul II saw the film in DVD format, reportedly responding, “It is as it was.” The Vatican later denied the story, then on Jan. 22 said the pope had no official comments about the movie.

Most of the viewers had to sign confidentiality agreements, a policy that worked until mid-January, when Mr. Gibson previewed the film to 5,000 pastors attending a conference at Calvary Assembly of God Church in Orlando, Fla. Several journalists sneaked in and wrote about it, as did two staff members from the Anti-Defamation League, who posed as pastors from the “Church of Truth” in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The ADL staffers faulted Mr. Gibson for including the retort, “His blood be on us and our children,” that two Gospels attribute to Jews demanding Jesus’ death. According to news accounts, Mr. Gibson has reportedly cut the offending sentence.

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