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Mel Gibson's <i> The Passion of the Christ</i> Provokes Worldwide Controversy - 2004-02-25

Hollywood star Mel Gibson steps behind the camera for what has become one of the most controversial films in recent years: a graphic portrayal of the final day in the life of the man Christians worship as the Son of God. Alan Silverman spoke with several cast members for this look at Gibson's The Passion of the Christ

His long hair drenched with perspiration, the bearded Jesus trembles in fervent prayer as his last day on Earth dawns. With a hooded figure of Satan looking on from the shadows in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus cries out to the heavens: "Let your will be done, not mine." The anguish on his face foreshadows the physical punishment he is about to endure; and Jim Caviezel - who, like filmmaker Mel Gibson, is a devout Catholic - says the portrayal of Jesus took him to the limit physically, emotionally and spiritually.

"There is something that I went through that I really can't put into words." he said. "There are no words for it; but it's a bit of heaven and a bit of hell. It's unquenchable fire; but it got me to a place I needed to come from. And I always felt God saying to me 'I don't always choose the best.' [I said] 'Why did you choose me?' 'I don't always choose the best ... so do you want to do this or not?' I accept that responsibility and was honored by it."

Every word of dialog in the film is in ancient tongues rarely heard for centuries: Aramaic, the common language of the Jewish people in the Roman province of Judea 2,000 years ago and Latin, the official language of the occupying rulers - although scholars note that in reality, the Romans would have spoken a dialect of Greek.

Originally Gibson planned to release the film without subtitles, a decision he reversed for the sake of clarity; but Italian actress Monica Bellucci, who plays Mary Magdalene, believes the spoken words are not important to this film.

"I think the concept of the movie is like a silent movie," she says. "I think the vision is so strong and I think the audience is going to understand what's going from the images. Words just come after."

Much of the controversy stems from the film's depiction of the Jewish high priest and Jewish mob angrily demanding that the Roman governor Pilate put Jesus to death by crucifixion: a characterization that, in centuries of so-called "Passion Plays," has been blamed for accusations of deicide - murder of God - which has historically sparked anti-Semitism. Romanian actress Maia Morganstern, who plays Mary, the mother of Jesus, is Jewish and she says director/co-writer Gibson made changes because of her concerns.

"Mr. Mel Gibson knew exactly what he wanted and he is very much aware of the history; but at the same time it is his view as an artist and I brought him my experience," she says. "Only I could bring my emotional experience. It's not that I gave lessons or something like that - not at all - but he trusted me and [the rest of] us so much: a sign of respect. He asked for our opinion and at the same time he explained how he thinks and what he feels like. It helped us very much."

Outcry from religious scholars prompted one of the few changes Gibson agreed to make after filming. He removed from the subtitles the so-called "blood curse" in which a Jewish character says "His blood be on our hands and those of our children;" however, the line remains - untranslated - in the Aramaic dialog. By concentrating on the final 12 hours leading up to the crucifixion, Gibson chose to highlight the most violent chapter in the life of a teacher renowned for preaching peace. Gibson uses every tool of the filmmaker's art to present the torture, humiliation and ultimate execution of Jesus in graphic, excruciating detail. Jim Caviezel, who suffered a dislocated shoulder as he carried the heavy cross, was seriously injured by a whiplash that missed his protective padding during the torture scenes and was even struck by lightning during the crucifixion reenactment - acknowledges that the level of violence in the finished film may be too intense for younger viewers.

"If I had a 12-year-old son I probably would not take him," he admits. "I probably would not want him to see it."

Nevertheless, he defends the choice to show the unimaginable, often unwatchable suffering of his character.

"If you really believe in your faith you will be persecuted for it and there is a sacrifice in each faith that many people won't understand and make fun of," he says. "This film does not play the 'blame game' in any means. You will see, like in all humanity, it is us up there. There are good people, bad people, indifferent people: we are all culpable in the death of Christ and this film portrays that."

Mel Gibson personally financed the $25 million production; and The Passion of the Christ features an international cast and was shot on location in Italy. Instead of the usual studio marketing approach, the intense film has been promoted as a religious event, with many church groups purchasing theater seats for entire congregations and ensuring a huge opening box office that will undoubtedly set a record for a spiritual themed movie.