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'Passion' goes unseen in Israel

March 15, 2004|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — The terrace of the Cinematheque, Jerusalem's most venerable movie house, offers a sweeping view of the walls of the Old City, whose gold-hued stones have been the backdrop for countless scriptural sagas.

But the most attention-grabbing biblical film epic to come along in years, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," hasn't made the list of coming attractions at this landmark theater -- or for that matter, at any other in Israel.

Before the film opened last month in the United States, Israelis closely followed the debate over whether its message is anti-Semitic. Calls for the movie to be banned in Israel have already come from some ultra-Orthodox rabbis and right-leaning political parties.

But others -- including prominent Israeli film critics, religious leaders and some theater operators -- believe it should be up to the moviegoing public to decide whether the film's graphic depiction of Jesus' final hours constitutes a slur against Jews.

"I would like to have a screening of it here, with a panel discussion by religious leaders, both Christian and Jewish ones," said Lia van Leer, the Cinematheque's director. "People are not stupid -- they can make up their own minds about what offends them or doesn't."

Big-budget, high-profile American films usually arrive in Israeli theaters within a month or two of their U.S. releases, with distribution deals struck well before that. The movie is already playing in Australia, New Zealand and Poland, and this week will expand to countries in Latin America and most other international markets. However, no Israeli distributor has yet sought permission to market the movie here, according to the country's Film Censorship Board, the official arbiter of what cinematic fare is fit for public viewing.

"If someone asks, we'll look at it and decide what to do about it," said Nissim Abouloff, the film board's head. "But so far, no one has asked."

Uri Klein, a film critic for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, recalled a similar tempest surrounding Martin Scorsese's 1988 film "The Last Temptation of Christ." It sparked furious protests when it opened here, then went on to fizzle at the Israeli box office.

"Sometimes a film can arouse great controversy -- we have tremendous arguments about it, but then it turns out hardly anyone wants to actually go and see it," Klein said, laughing.

"But this one I do want to see," he said. "Because I'm curious about it, and because I'm against censorship in any form."

Even among those Israelis who fear the film is a direct spiritual descendant of medieval Passion plays that helped fuel hatred of Jews, there is some sentiment in favor of showing it.

"Expression of anti-Jewish feelings is an important part of Western culture, and Israelis in general are too unfamiliar with this," said Jeremy Cohen, a Tel Aviv University history professor whose specialty is Jewish-Christian relations. "If this film illustrates something that is latent in the culture, we should be aware of it."

Debate over the movie's merits has also illustrated the often-delicate interplay of religious groups in Israel. Christian leaders based here have generally refrained from speaking out in favor of screening the film, even though they say there is avid interest among their flock.

"It's been a very hot topic, of course, but we haven't commented on it, and we're not going to," said David Parsons of the Christian Embassy, a Jerusalem-based evangelical ministry. Also staying silent on the subject was the normally outspoken Latin Patriarch Michel Sabah, the region's highest-ranking Roman Catholic prelate.

"Christians here sometimes feel isolated, so there's a lot of interest in a film with this subject matter," said Wadi Abunasser, a former spokesman for the patriarch who remains active in church affairs. "But I think those who want to see it will wait quietly and find a way to see it later, on video or DVD."

Only two movies have ever been banned by Israel's film board: the explicit and sexually violent 1976 Japanese film "In the Realm of the Senses" and "Jenin, Jenin," a controversial documentary by an Arab Israeli filmmaker about Palestinian civilians caught up in fighting between the Israeli army and Palestinian gunmen in their West Bank refugee camp. The ban on "Jenin, Jenin" was overturned last year by Israel's Supreme Court.

Although at least two major Israeli distributors flatly ruled out handling the Gibson film now or in the future, one hinted it might wait for the outcry to die down, then make a move.

"Now, the time is not right," said Orly Ben Eliahu, marketing manager at Tel Aviv-based Shapira Films, which has business ties with Gibson's production company. "But the answer may be different in a month."

Rabbi David Rosen, an advisor to the American Jewish Committee who has long worked to promote interfaith understanding, said he had concerns about the film's content but did not think banning it was the answer. He did say, however, that Israelis might have other reasons for wanting to skip it.

"From what I understand, it is extremely gruesome, extremely bloody and extremely violent," Rosen said. "And for anyone who lives here ... well, perhaps in daily life you see enough of that."

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