Thursday, February 26, 2004

Early detractors of Mel Gibson’s hit film, “The Passion of the Christ,” are backing away from their critical remarks after the movie grossed a record-setting $26.6 million on its opening day.

“The Passion,” which opened Wednesday on 4,643 screens at 3,006 theaters, set a record for the biggest opening day for a movie released outside the summer (May-August) and winter holiday months (November-December).

It came in third among all movies that have premiered on a Wednesday, bypassed only by “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” ($34.5 million) and “Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace” ($28.5 million), according to the movie tracking service Box Office Mojo.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) retracted critical remarks made about the film last April by its ecumenical and interreligious committee, which suggested that the film might be anti-Semitic.

In remarks released Wednesday on Catholic News Service, three staff members of the USCCB’s Office for Film and Broadcasting said the film might be overly violent but not anti-Semitic.

“Concerning the issue of anti-Semitism, the Jewish people are at no time blamed collectively for Jesus’ death,” said a review by Gerri Pare, David DiCerto and Anne Navarro. “Rather, Christ freely embraces his destiny.”

The reviewers went on to call the movie “an artistic achievement in terms of its textured cinematography, haunting atmospherics, lyrical editing, detailed production and soulful score.”

Hollywood film company Dreamworks also backed away from remarks published in yesterday’s New York Times suggesting that Hollywood producers will blacklist Mr. Gibson.

Quoting unnamed studio executives, the article said some of Hollywood’s biggest producers were angry over Mr. Gibson’s refusal to repudiate remarks by his father, Hutton Gibson, a Holocaust denier.

In a Feb. 16 ABC interview with Diane Sawyer, Mr. Gibson agreed that millions of Jews died in the Holocaust, but refused to condemn his father.

“He’s my father,” Mr. Gibson said. “Gotta leave it alone, Diane. Gotta leave it alone.”

A spokeswoman for Dreamworks founders Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen released this statement:

“Neither one of us has seen the movie yet, and as such, we have not yet formed an opinion, but we respect Mel Gibson’s rights as an artist to express his views,” it said. “After all, this is America.”

Mark Joseph, an entertainment executive in Los Angeles and author of the upcoming book “The Passion of Mel Gibson: The Story Behind the Most Controversial Film in Hollywood History,” said the film industry is in shock.

“This town is rocking,” he said, “wondering what it all means. This is the film everyone deemed unreleasable.”

According to the Feb. 20 issue of Entertainment Weekly, Mr. Gibson told actor Jim Caviezel, who plays Jesus, that “The Passion” could be a career wrecker.

“You don’t have to do this,” Mr. Gibson reportedly told the actor in fall 2002. “After you finish this film, you may never work in Hollywood again.”

Seattle Rabbi Daniel Lapin, the founder of Toward Tradition who has written extensively on Jews and Hollywood, predicted yesterday that the film will take in $100 million in its first three weeks.

“They used to call such treatment ‘McCarthyism,’” Rabbi Lapin said, referring to the barrage of negative criticism unleashed on Mr. Gibson and his film. “If the film had bombed, that would have hurt Mr. Gibson’s career. Now they are standing in line for it.”

Mr. Caviezel, he added, should at least be nominated for an Oscar.

“If not, [Hollywood] will leave itself open to charges of antireligious prejudice,” he said. Many in the industry, he added, “are prostitutes, and they will go wherever the money is.”

Debate over the film has sprung up across the country. A Denver pastor, the Rev. Maurice Gordon, displayed the message, “Jews Killed The Lord Jesus,” in front of Lovingway United Pentecostal Church Wednesday.

The sign outraged Jewish and Christian passers-by. One bystander brought a ladder and removed the word “Jews.” Church members removed the rest.

Even Democratic front-runner John Kerry weighed in during a visit to Los Angeles yesterday, telling reporters that the movie could be anti-Semitic.

“I am concerned,” Mr. Kerry, a Catholic, told reporters. “I don’t know if it’s there or not, but there’s a lot of it around now. I think we have to be careful.”

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