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Mel Gibson's Controversial Film on Jesus, <i>The Passion</i>, Opens Wednesday - 2004-02-23

The controversial film The Passion of the Christ will open Wednesday, amid charges that it may inflame anti-Semitism. The film from director Mel Gibson has angered some Jewish groups, but been praised by Evangelical Christians.

The film is yet another attempt to retell the story of Jesus, and director Gibson says he has tried to keep it faithful to the text of the Christian New Testament.

The dialogue is spoken in Latin and Aramaic, languages of the time, to give the film an air of authenticity. Viewers follow the story line by reading subtitles.

But many Jewish leaders say the film fosters anti-Semitism by blaming Jews for the death of Jesus, not the Roman rulers of the province of Judea, where he lived.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, says Jews in the film are depicted negatively.

"The Jews are bloodthirsty, the Jews are vengeful, and the Jews are the angry ones," he said. "The Romans are loving and kind and forced by the Jews into the crucifixion."

Mel Gibson says the film simply tells the story of the final 12 hours of the life of Jesus as recorded in the gospels. He says the film places the blame for the death of Jesus on humanity, not on the Jews.

However, he reportedly cut one scene that Jewish groups found offensive, in which the Jewish high priest calls down a curse on the Jewish people. Aides to Gibson say the scene was removed because Christian viewers found it offensive in test screenings.

The director financed the film himself with $25 million, and says it reflects his artistic vision and religious commitment.

"This is the ultimate hero story for all mankind," he said. "He suffered, died, and he still won."

Some Evangelical Christians have championed the film and church groups have bought at least $2 million worth of advance tickets.

Critics worry the movie will revive old prejudices toward the Jewish people, as medieval passion plays once fueled anti-Jewish fervor in parts of Europe. American Jewish leaders plan no formal protests, but say they will continue addressing issues raised by the film.

The Passion of the Christ will open in 2,800 theaters Wednesday, which is Ash Wednesday in the Western Christian calendar. It marks the beginning of Lent, the 40-day season that ends with Easter.