Wednesday, January 21, 2004

ORLANDO, Fla. — Famed film actor and producer Mel Gibson told 5,000 pastors yesterday that “there will always be opposition” to films on the Gospel, “but you have to stand your ground and slug it out.”

Mr. Gibson also told the gathering of evangelical and charismatic Christian clergy at Calvary Assembly of God Church that he was grateful for their “spiritual support.” The pastors had assembled for a showing of his soon-to-be-released film “The Passion of the Christ.”

“I think this work can change things,” Mr. Gibson said. The film officially opens in 2,000 movie theaters nationwide on Feb. 25, Ash Wednesday.

“To atone for the sins of everybody, it boggles the mind,” said Mr. Gibson, who spent close to $25 million from his personal funds to make the film. “[Christ] could have done it by pricking His finger and shedding His blood. He didn’t choose to do that. He went all the way.”

The 47-year-old producer paid tribute to the co-founder of the conference, Bill Bright, the leader of Campus Crusade, who before his death in July released remarks praising the film, saying it captures Christ’s agonies “with explosive poignancy.”

The movie, Mr. Bright added, “will forever change your view of God Himself and what He did for us all on that dark day in history as He endured an ignominious trial and hung on the cross.”

Mr. Gibson, a Roman Catholic, personally has been showing the movie to various groups to garner support. The showing last night was aimed at evangelical Protestant pastors in the hope of building anticipation for the film, which is R-rated and shot in Aramaic and Latin, with English subtitles.

Speaking for about 15 minutes, he asked the assembly to pray and promised that the film “will change your heart.”

Mr. Gibson said he showed it to one agnostic friend, “and the next day, he read all four of the Gospels.”

The crowd gasped.

“Like he saw the movie, and that made him want to read the book,” Mr. Gibson said.

The showing, which began at 9 p.m., was a big gamble by the director of such celebrated movies as “Braveheart” and “The Man Without a Face.” Mr. Gibson hopes that pastors nationwide will promote “The Passion” so their congregations will flood theaters during the opening week.

Evangelical and Catholic leaders ranging from National Association of Evangelicals President Ted Haggard to Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput have seen and praised the cinematic endeavor. But several Jewish groups have condemned “The Passion,” saying it may provoke anti-Semitism. The criticism has spurred Mr. Gibson to show the movie only to audiences that are favorably disposed.

The showing last night, from which reporters were banned, was heavily guarded. Participants had to sign confidentiality statements to enter, with an exception for pastors wishing to speak in support of the movie.

Mr. Gibson also showed the film to Pope John Paul II, who, upon viewing the film last month at the Vatican, is reported to have said, “It is as it was.”

Although that quote has been disputed by the Catholic News Service, the apparent papal thumbs up counteracted a far more negative reaction in April from a nine-member team of Catholic and Jewish scholars appointed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

The committee said the version of the screenplay they received was full of “objectionable elements that would promote anti-Semitism” because it depicts Jews as responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion and death.

The USCCB eventually disavowed any connection to the scholars and apologized for the remarks.

Because of the criticism, all major Hollywood studios decided to pass on “The Passion.” The film was without a distributor for months until Newmarket Films agreed to distribute it for Mr. Gibson’s company, Icon Productions.

Church groups nationwide have put in large ticket orders to see the movie, despite the graphic violence surrounding the crucifixion.

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