How Mel Gibson is angering many with his new movie. ''The Passion'' is igniting a religious firestorm

By Jeff Jensen and Allison Hope Weiner
Updated August 29, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT
The Passion: Phillipe Antonello

History is populated with people who’ve gone to extremes in the name of Jesus Christ. Some have died for him. Some have killed for him. And some have made $25 million films about his trial and crucifixion in Aramaic, Latin, and Hebrew without even the benefit of subtitles.

We are referring, of course, to ”The Passion,” Mel Gibson’s controversial new film that gives provocative new meaning to the term passion project. In his directorial follow-up to the Oscar-winning ”Braveheart,” Gibson (who does not act in the film) will begin seeking a distributor for his self-financed labor of love after Labor Day. A Christmas release is possible; if not, next Easter. Among the interested parties: Fox, Warner Bros., Miramax, Lions Gate, and a host of independent studios. Predicts a source familiar with the marketing plans for ”The Passion”: ”The clamor from studios wanting a piece of this will be irresistible.”

But at least two studios have zero passion for ”The Passion”; in fact, afraid to alienate an immensely likable, bankable star by telling him ”no,” they’re praying Gibson won’t come calling. No wonder, given the declarations they’ve been hearing from people like Rabbi Eugene Korn, director of interfaith affairs at the Anti-Defamation League: ”Bigots will love this movie if it comes out as presently constituted. It’s going to feed every hardcore anti-Semite who believes the Jews are guilty of deicide.”

So, you ask, What in God’s name was Mel Gibson thinking? The ”Lethal Weapon” star declined to comment, but here’s the story so far. Starring James Caviezel (”Frequency”) as Jesus and Monica Bellucci (”The Matrix Reloaded”) as Mary Magdalene, ”The Passion” is inspired by Gibson’s Roman Catholic faith. He reportedly chose to focus the story exclusively on Christ’s death, because of its singular impact. His other defining choices — the ancient languages and graphic violence (including a brutal scourging sequence by Christ’s Roman executioners) — were attempts at a realism Gibson believes other films haven’t achieved. ”To me, this film is like a silent movie,” says Bellucci. ”[The] images [are] very strong; you’re going to understand what’s going on.” Gibson certainly spared no expense to realize his version of biblical authenticity: According to one source, the production went $5 million over budget. (Gibson’s publicist insists the budget held at $25 million.) During the five-month shoot earlier this year in Rome, the filmmaker kept priests by his side as advisers. They even heard confession on set.

But then in April, a group of Catholic and Jewish scholars began investigating the film, prompted by a report that Gibson’s father holds anti-Semitic views, and that both Gibsons adhere to a branch of traditional Catholicism that disavows many of the ”liberal” reforms adopted by the Vatican in the 1960s. Those reforms include a repudiation of the incendiary belief that the Jews, as a people, were responsible for Christ’s death — a view that had been used to justify persecution of Jews for centuries. It’s also the recurring theme in a genre of Christian drama known as passion plays. (Gibson might want to consider changing the title. He might have to, anyway: Miramax owns the rights to a novel titled ”The Passion,” a possible vehicle for Gwyneth Paltrow.)