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Controversial film on Jesus’ final hours opens

Matt Bramanti | Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Controversy and accusations of anti-Semitism have been swirling around “The Passion of the Christ” nationwide since March, when a New York Times Magazine article interviewed director Mel Gibson about the project. While today’s 2,800-theater release of the film will allow Americans to finally see the movie, it won’t put to rest the contentious issues it addresses.Some reviewers have criticized the film’s graphic depictions of the scourging, crucifixion and death of Jesus, saying they’re unnecessary and emotionally draining. In an interview with Diane Sawyer for ABC’s “Primetime” – which aired last week – Gibson acknowledged the R-rated film contained lifelike, brutal violence, but said it must be viewed in the context of the broader story.”I think it pushes one over the edge so that they see the enormity, the enormity of that sacrifice,” Gibson said.Gibson, a traditionalist Catholic, has come under fire from Jewish groups, who say the movie could fuel anti-Semitic sentiment. Gibson is a member of the Catholic Church’s “Holy Family” sect, whose followers still attend Mass in Latin and reject many of the reforms instituted by the Second Vatican Council in 1962. One of the documents issued by that council said the Jews should not be held culpable for Christ’s death.The Anti-Defamation League, a prominent national Jewish organization, released the results of a survey indicating that one in four Americans thinks Jews were responsible for Jesus’ death. Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, said “The Passion” could inflame that view. “It is troubling that so many Americans already accept the notion of Jewish guilt,” Foxman said Monday in a statement.”We are concerned that Mr. Gibson’s film – with its unambiguous blaming of the Jews – will not only reinforce those views, but could exacerbate the problem by convincing even more people that his version of the story of the Crucifixion is Gospel truth.”Gibson defended the movie, saying such criticism is unwarranted.”To be certain, neither I nor my film are anti-Semitic,” Gibson said in a statement last year. “Nor do I hate anyone, certainly not the Jews.”But statements made by Gibson’s father Hutton intensified the debate by downplaying the significance of the Holocaust. Last week, Hutton Gibson told New York talk radio host Steve Feuerstein that the Holocaust is “maybe not all fiction – but most of it is.” Hutton Gibson also claimed Jewish banking executives, the Vatican and the U.S. Federal Reserve System are part of a conspiracy to create “one world government.”In the ABC interview, Mel Gibson refused to address his father’s remarks. “He’s my father,” Mel Gibson said. “Gotta leave it alone, Diane.” He went on to describe the Holocaust as “an atrocity of monumental proportion.”After failing to secure a major studio’s financial backing, Mel Gibson invested more than $20 million of his own money in the venture. The film marks his first venture into directing since 1995’s “Braveheart,” which earned him Academy Awards for best picture and best director.