- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 8, 2004

BUCHAREST, Romania - The actress who plays Mary in Mel Gibson’s passion-stirring biblical epic “The Passion of the Christ” says her parents were Holocaust survivors and she does not consider the film anti-Semitic.

If there is a message, it’s more about how people can be manipulated by their leaders, Maia Morgenstern said.

“Mel Gibson is an artist, a director. He never imposed his religious convictions on anyone,” Miss Morgenstern, who is Jewish, said in an interview with the Associated Press, rejecting criticism that the film will fuel anti-Semitism.

The film is to be released Ash Wednesday, Feb. 25. Mr. Gibson, who directed, co-wrote and financed the $25 million film, has denied that his movie maligns Jews. However, it has drawn complaints from those who say it blames Jews for Christ’s death.

“When people go and see the film, they will [primarily] see a work of art,” Miss Morgenstern said. Muslims, atheists, Christians and Jews worked on the film, but race and religion were never an issue, adds the 42-year-old actress.

Any political message the film offers is “about the responsibility and impact political and military leaders can have in manipulating the masses and interfering in people’s conscience, particularly at a moment of crisis as it was then,” said Miss Morgenstern.

“The Roman occupation was terrible and people were very poor. Pontius Pilate was very afraid that there could be a real revolution,” she said, referring to the Roman governor of Judea who caved in to the pressures of a mob and allowed Jesus to be crucified.

Miss Morgenstern, known for her outstanding work in both theater and film, is Romania’s most renowned actress, but her popularity has been generally restricted to Europe.

She has starred in about 30 movies, the best known being “The Oak Tree,” a Romanian-French production, and “Ulysses’ Gaze,” a Greek film.

Miss Morgenstern, whose grandfather died in the Auschwitz death camp, spoke glowingly of Mr. Gibson, praising his professional abilities and the kindness he showed when her daughter became ill in Romania. Mr. Gibson sent her home to spend time with the child, and then allowed the 3-year-old to join her on the set.

Mr. Gibson may be the star of international blockbusters like the “Lethal Weapon” series, but he is not yet a household name in Romania.

Miss Morgenstern’s mother visited her on location, excitedly telling friends that her daughter was filming with “Gib Melson.”

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