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The Nation

Stadium Stirred by 'Passion' Preview

A Harvest Crusade crowd in Anaheim gets a four-minute glimpse of Mel Gibson's provocative film about Christ.

August 09, 2003|William Lobdell | Times Staff Writer

Excerpts of Mel Gibson's gritty cinematic depiction of Christ's crucifixion -- unfinished, but already much debated in religious and movie circles -- got a first public screening before a massive audience Friday night: a stadium full of evangelical Christians attending the first night of Orange County's annual Harvest Crusade.

"The Passion," which Gibson co-wrote, directed and financed with $25 million of his own money, has yet to find a distributor.

Based on a look at an early script, some religious leaders have criticized the movie as anti-Semitic, saying it may inflame historically strained relations between Christians and Jews. But several of the more than 30,000 who were shown the four-minute preview at Edison International Field in Anaheim saw it as a powerful reaffirmation of their faith.

"Mel didn't pull any punches," said Bill Glenn, 44, from Ridgecrest. "It's good. It shows what a terrible price [Jesus] paid for sin."

Dan and Cindy Walker brought all five of their young children, but weren't concerned about the graphic images of flagellation and the Crucifixion.

"It's the truth," Dan Walker said.

The four-minute preview graphically depicts the final, bloody hours in the life of Jesus -- who is shown being beaten, whipped, mocked and nailed to a cross. The dialogue is in Latin and the nearly forgotten language of Aramaic; a decision whether to use subtitles hasn't been made.

The film's backers, who hope to release the movie on Ash Wednesday next year, have privately screened a rough cut to small groups across the country to head off criticism. But already the movie has angered some Christian scholars, alarmed Jewish leaders and drawn attention to Gibson's conservative brand of Catholicism.

Controversy began after an early version of the script leaked out in April and was critiqued by a group of Christian and Jewish scholars, who said they found it anti-Semitic, historically inaccurate and ham-handed. They submitted eight specific changes and asked for a screening, but were rebuffed. Instead, Gibson threatened to sue unless the script was returned.

"Gibson might be a brilliant artist," said Sister Mary C. Boys, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York. But judging from the script, he's making a "film with little sensitivity to the long-standing Christian problem" of anti-Semitism, she said.

Critics of the movie are also alarmed that the writings of Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich, a 19th-century mystic known for her anti-Semitism, were among those Gibson researched while conceiving the movie.

Though filmmakers have stressed that the script was an early version, one priest who saw it said revisions are unlikely to make much difference.

"The thrust of the story line was that this terrible cabal of Jews was just out to get Jesus and did everything they could to kill him," said Father John Pawlikowski, director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies Program at the University of Chicago.

"I don't know how they are going to change that without completely reshooting."

Todd Gutnick, a spokesman for the Anti-Defamation League in New York, said that after seeing the early script, the organization was worried about the final product.

"We'd like to see the film," he said. "We have concerns."

Others have risen to defend the movie. Among them is conservative film critic and talk-show host Michael Medved, who is Jewish, and Jesuit priests known for their liberal and independent views.

Medved called the film "the finest Hollywood adaptation ever of a biblical story.

"Some of the bad guys are Jewish, some of the really bad guys are Roman, and virtually all the good guys are Jewish," he said. "It's a shame the whole question of anti-Semitism hangs over the movie."

Father Thomas P. Rausch, one of more than 300 Jesuit priests who attended a screening this week at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, said "The Passion" is a relentlessly bloody, compelling and uncomfortable work but none of the priests considered it anti-Semitic.

"It's a very powerful, credible presentation of the passion of Jesus," said Rausch. "It's almost too much. It's certainly not entertainment. You don't know whether to applaud or stay silent."

Another Loyola Marymount professor who has been a consultant on the film for 18 months also defended it. Father William J. Fulco, a professor of ancient Mediterranean studies, said Gibson has omitted parts of the Gospels that would be especially offensive to Jews, such as the crowd shouting, "Let his blood be on us and on our children!"

Fulco also said he is writing dialogue for the crowd scenes that show many of the Jewish citizens to be confused or outraged by the treatment of Jesus. But Fulco acknowledged that such efforts could only go so far. "You cannot escape that Jews were involved," he said.

Gibson, who doesn't have a role in "The Passion," has said his film shows that the sins of man put Jesus on the cross, and not the Jews or the Romans.

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