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<i>The Passion</i>: New Mel Gibson Movie Prompts Controversy Long Before Release - 2003-08-11

Academy award-winning actor and filmmaker Mel Gibson is accustomed to attracting people's attention by this point in his career. But the star of such films as "Braveheart" and "Lethal Weapon" may not be used to the kind of attention he's been attracting lately. A number of prominent Jewish and Catholic leaders are concerned about a film Mr. Gibson recently directed, which is scheduled for release some time next year.

The film is entitled The Passion, and it's about the last hours of Jesus Christ's life. Christians believe the central figure in their religion suffered great physical and emotional torment before being crucified, and dramatizations of this torment have a long tradition in the Christian faith. Mel Gibson's film will join a list of so-called "Passion Plays" that can be traced back to the 13th century, a time when Christians began to take a particular interest in the human qualities of their savior. The 13th century was also a time of rising anti-Semitism, and for hundreds of years, this antipathy toward Jews was reflected in the various adaptations of Christian scripture that became Passion Plays.

That's one of the reasons the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights group, was concerned about Mel Gibson's film when they first learned of it. And according to Ken Jacobson, associate director of the ADL, when group members got hold of a preliminary script that was leaked to the public without Mr. Gibson's permission, they didn't like what they saw. "They seemed to feel that there was much too much of an emphasis on the role of the Jews, as opposed to the role of the Romans," he said.

The role of the Jews, that is, not only in Christ's execution, but also in the injury and humiliation he suffered before his death. For many centuries, the Catholic Church taught that Jews were partly responsible for Christ's crucifixion. In fact, it wasn't until the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s that that interpretation of Scripture was renounced. Ken Jacobson says since that time, great strides toward reconciliation have been made between Jews and Catholics.

But not all Catholics embrace the dictates of the Second Vatican Council. There's a splinter group known as "Traditionalist Catholics" that rejects most of the intended reforms of what came to be called Vatican II, and this group counts one very prominent film actor among its members. "Gibson himself calls himself a "traditionalist Catholic," and involved in that position are some very strong criticisms of the modern Church, including what we would call the revolution in attitudes toward Jews within the Church which has taken place over the last 35 years," says Mr. Jacobson.

It's been estimated there are about 100,000 traditionalist Catholics in the United States. That's not even one percent of the entire American Catholic population. One of the most vocal and radical traditionalist voices, however, is that of Hutton Gibson, Mel Gibson's father. Hutton Gibson lives in Texas and has published a book that characterizes every pope since Vatican II as an "enemy" of Catholicism. In a recent interview with The New York Times Magazine, Hutton Gibson also denied that six million Jews could have been killed in the Holocaust.

It's statements like that that prompted the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to ask a group of scholars to review the preliminary script to Mel Gibson's film. Those scholars expressed concern that the script may be drawing upon an eighteenth-century adaptation of Scripture that exaggerates the role of the Jews in Christ's death and violates current Catholic teachings on the subject. Mel Gibson's publicist did not return any of VOA's phone calls, but in a published statement, the actor and director insists his film is not anti-Semitic, saying that anti-Semitism is "contrary to the core message of my movie." Mr. Gibson says the film is meant to "inspire, not to offend."

Father Kevin Ashe is director of the oldest, continuous Passion Play in the United States. It's been produced by the Park Theater in Union City, New Jersey, every Easter since 1915. Father Ashe says it is possible to do a Passion Play that doesn't offend Jews. He suggests the script should emphasis that Jesus himself was a Jew, something Father Ashe says his own theater's version didn't always reflect. "We missed that entirely," he says. "We would point out that people who were against him were Jewish, but what happened was no one pointed out that Jesus was Jewish, and that his disciples were. So it gave a very lop-sided thing, and when you'd walk away from it, you'd say, 'Oh, those people are against Jesus. The Jews are against Jesus.'"

Father Ashe says in the 1960s, people involved with the Park Theater Passion Play voluntarily removed a lot of the dialogue from the nineteen-teens and twenties that depicted Jews as blood-thirsty. But it wasn't until the 1980s, when theater officials asked members of the Anti-Defamation League to review the script, that Christians working on the play realized the need to emphasize Christ's Jewish identity.

Father Ashe says it's important that Christians not blame Jews for their savior's death because when they do, they miss the fundamental message of Christianity. "Jesus died because of the sinfulness of all human beings. That's part of our spirituality as Christians, that we have in a way participated in the crucifixion of Jesus because of our own failings, and what we have done to our fellow man," he says. "If you have a dramatization that says the Jews become the scapegoats, it's harder for people to link that, 'Hey, maybe I have a part to do in this.'"

The Anti-Defamation League has asked to view Mel Gibson's film, to see whether they think the final version is as problematic as they believe the preliminary script to be. Meanwhile, The Passion continues to attract both supporters and critics, long before its release.