Thursday, February 26, 2004

TEL AVIV — In the land where the events dramatized in “The Passion of the Christ” were played out 2 millennia ago, it is unlikely that the controversial film will attract mass audiences of Israelis, local film observers say.

A day before actor/director Mel Gibson’s depiction of the final hours of Jesus Christ made its U.S. debut on Ash Wednesday, no Israeli movie distributors had purchased rights to the film and many doubt they will be picked up in the future.

Claims by American Jewish groups that the film revives anti-Semitic libel about the death of Christ have earned the movie a fair share of publicity here, albeit much less than in the United States. Although no one in Israel has seen the film, parliament members from Orthodox Jewish parties already have demanded that the government ban it from being shown in the country.

“It is inconceivable that a movie which undermines the legitimacy of the Jewish people and the state will be shown,” said lawmaker Eli Yishai, the leader of the largest religious party in parliament. “Showing the movie will give a stage to wicked and deceitful ideas.”

A parliament member from the National Religious Party has demanded that a Knesset committee hold a hearing on the film.

The taint of anti-Semitism charges combined with mixed initial reviews from U.S. movie critics is more than enough to make Israeli film distributors think twice before committing to “Passion.”

“It’s a problematic film, which many are saying may stir up a wave of anti-Semitism, and I have no desire to encourage such messages,” said film distributor David Hezki in an interview published on the Internet edition of the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot.

The decisive factor likely to doom the film’s showing at theaters across Israel, however, is the $150,000 price tag for distribution rights. In a country of 6.5 million people, the sum is prohibitive unless it is for a movie sure to be a box-office smash.

“It’s simply too big a risk for $150,000,” said Goel Pinto, a movie critic for the newspaper Ha’aretz. “That’s the price of ‘Lord of the Rings.’ ‘Lost in Translation’ was much less. Who is going to see a two-hour movie in Aramaic? Not even yeshiva students will understand it.”

This doesn’t mean the movie won’t be shown in Israel. Alon Garbuz, director of the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, wants to show the movie so Israelis can judge the film on its own merits.

“The hysteria around it is wrong,” said Mr. Garbuz, who has staunchly opposed campaigns to ban films for their political or religious content. “When the tempest dies down, we’ll try to bring the movie here and have a discussion.”

Israelis have a ravenous appetite for American films, and many films are released here at the same time as in the United States. But the arrival of “Passion” will probably be delayed for several months.

The movie would be subject to a review by the state’s film censorship panel, an obscure body that has banned only two films in the last 14 years.

Last year, the panel disqualified “Jenin, Jenin” a movie made by an Arab-Israeli that is critical of Israel’s invasion of a refugee camp in Jenin in April 2000. Opponents of the film said it deliberately falsified accounts of the fighting, amounting to a libel against the soldiers.

The second movie was Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” which the censorship board banned out of deference to objections from the local representatives of the Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches.

The decision was appealed to Israel’s Supreme Court, which invalidated the ruling of the censorship board. But when the film finally arrived in Israeli cinemas, the turnout was thin.

More than a decade later, culture critics believe “Passion” would get the same response despite all of the publicity.

“Even if this movie arrives here, I don’t think people are going to see it,” said Merav Yudilovitch, a cultural critic for the Yediot Ahronot Web site. “Jesus Christ is a nonissue. We live in a bubble. If it was a movie that has to do with Israel or the Palestinians it would be a different thing.”

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