Sunday, July 6, 2003

Filmmaker Mel Gibson, whose upcoming movie on the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus has drawn charges of anti-Semitism from Jewish and Catholic scholars, is shopping his film to a more receptive audience: evangelical Christians, conservative Catholics and Orthodox Jews.

On June 26, he surprised a group of 900 evangelical pastors meeting at the 9,200-member New Life Church in Colorado Springs with a four-minute trailer from “The Passion.”

That afternoon he also showed the entire film to about 30 Christian leaders at Focus on the Family, one of the nation’s largest evangelical ministries.

The latter showing was a high-security arrangement, complete with nondisclosure agreements signed by the participants, says Rob Brendle, the associate pastor at New Life.

Mr. Brendle calls the film “very positive” and says “we are confident the film is true to the Scriptures,” a reference to charges by Jewish groups that Mr. Gibson, 47, has included extrabiblical and anti-Semitic elements in the two-hour film.

Paul Lauer, director of marketing for the film, says various religious leaders have been quietly making their way to Los Angeles in recent weeks to view “The Passion.” One fan is Bishop Charles J. Chaput of the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver, who defended the movie in the Denver Catholic Register.

“I find it puzzling and disturbing that anyone would feel licensed to attack a film of sincere faith before it has even been released,” the archbishop wrote.

“When the overtly provocative ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ was released 15 years ago, movie critics piously lectured Catholics to be open-minded and tolerant. Surely that advice should apply equally for everyone,” he said.

Scheduled for release next spring, the movie is due in Washington this month for a select viewing at an undecided site.

“A number of Christian conservatives I’ve talked to have seen the movie,” says Michael Medved, a Seattle-based radio talk-show host and former New York Post movie critic. “But two of the most prominent Jewish organizations have attacked [Mr. Gibson]. People are trying to strangle this movie while it’s in its cradle.”

The Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith in New York and the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles have both condemned the movie, based on an early version of the screenplay.

Mr. Gibson’s company, Icon Productions, says the script, which was examined in April by a nine-member team of Catholic and Jewish scholars, was illegally removed from the company’s premises.

The committee, the ADL announced, unanimously agreed the screenplay was full of “objectionable elements that would promote anti-Semitism.” They say the film depicts Jews as responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion and death.

“The film doesn’t say ‘the Jews’ were to blame for Christ’s death,” Mr. Lauer says. “His mother and disciples were Jewish. But there were certain leaders, secular and religious, who had serious problems with [Jesus] for political and religious reasons. But Jewish people who have seen the film — who were predisposed to look for elements of anti-Semitism — all told us they could find none.”

Jewish publications began a running debate while the movie was in production in southern Italy. The actors speak only the main languages of first-century Palestine: Latin and Aramaic. Mr. Gibson only reluctantly agreed to add subtitles.

The film shows graphic scenes of Jesus being whipped and crucified. Such violence is historically accurate, and the crucifixion was viewed by early Christians with such horror that it was several centuries before the cross was used in decorative art and in churches.

“I think that the true horror of ‘The Passion’ will surprise people,” Mr. Gibson told the National Catholic Register. “Understanding what He went through, even on a human level, makes me feel not only compassion, but also a debt: I want to repay him for the enormity of His sacrifice.”

The life of Christ has been a fertile subject for filmmakers since the silent era, with the most notable example being Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 epic, “The King of Kings,” which was remade as a sound film in 1961, starring Jeffrey Hunter.

Similar films since include the Italian production “The Gospel According to Matthew” in 1964, the American film “The Greatest Story Ever Told” in 1965, Franco Zeffirelli’s TV movie “Jesus of Nazareth” in 1977, and “The Last Temptation of Christ,” directed by Martin Scorsese, in 1988.

Mr. Gibson, who directed the 1995 blockbuster “Braveheart” and has starred in many films, including “Signs,” “The Patriot” and “We Were Soldiers,” has been nurturing the idea of a film about Jesus for at least a decade. Icon Productions is footing the entire $25 million bill for the venture.

But criticism has grown since March, when the New York Times magazine profiled Mr. Gibson’s father, Hutton Gibson, who denies the Holocaust happened. It also explored the younger Mr. Gibson’s involvement with an ultratraditional Catholic group.

“That is so out of bounds, so inappropriate, to be interviewing someone’s 82-year-old father,” Mr. Medved says. “It’s such a cheap shot. You wonder why the New York Times would run it. Shouldn’t someone in this country have the right to make a movie that follows the Gospel account closely? If there are people in the Jewish community saying Christians have to disregard certain passages in Scripture or else they will be accused of anti-Semitism, then that’s a bridge too far.

“I don’t want Christians telling me what aspect of my faith I must accept or disregard as price of communal peace in United States,” says Mr. Medved, who is an Orthodox Jew.

An Italian Web site linked the movie to “The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ,” a book of mystic visions of the crucifixion written by an 18th-century nun. This alarmed the Catholic scholars at the Anti-Defamation League, who said using a nun’s writings in a movie “would directly violate Catholic teaching.”

Mr. Lauer says the nun’s book did not inform the script. Others question whether the film will last a day in Hollywood. “There’s a lot of feeling in the entertainment industry this is not a good movie for Mel Gibson and that it may damage his career in the long run,” says entertainment publicist Michael Levine, “This film has all the makings of a [box-office] bomb.”

“Plus, there’s a bias in many quarters against the right, particularly in liberal Hollywood. … It’s easier to declare yourself a gay drug-addicted kleptomanic than a born-again Christian. Saying you are a born-again Christian at an elite Hollywood party is like wearing a swastika to a B’nai B’rith fund-raiser. There is visceral, palpable contempt.”

Ralph Winter, the producer of the 2000 movie “X-Men” and the recently released “X2,” says no one should criticize the film until after its final edit. “I’m never going to bet against Mel Gibson. Here’s a guy who has enormous talent. I’m sure there’s a lot of others like myself in Hollywood who feel that if Mel wanted to direct the Yellow Pages, it’d be interesting.”

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