Gibson surprised by “Passion” controversy

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Actor-director Mel Gibson says he is surprised by the intensity of controversy spawned by his upcoming film, “The Passion of the Christ,” criticised by some Jewish leaders as a work that could incite anti-Semitism.

“It kind of put me back on my heels a little bit,” Gibson said in an interview featured in the March edition of Reader’s Digest that hits newsstands on February 24. The film makes its debut in North America on February 25, Ash Wednesday.

Gibson said he “expected some level of turbulence because when one delves into religion and politics — people’s deeply held beliefs — you’re going to stir things up.”

“But it was a surprise to have shots being fired over the bow while I was still filming, and then to have various loud voices in the press — people who hadn’t seen the work — really slinging mud,” Gibson said.

The interview was conducted by Peggy Noonan, a speech writer for President Ronald Reagan and then-Vice President George Bush who was credited with coining such Bush campaign phrases as “a thousand points of light” and “kindler, gentler nation.”

“The Passion of the Christ,” starring Jim Caviezel, is Gibson’s look at the final 12 hours in the life of Jesus Christ. It is based on Gospel narratives and contains dialogue only in Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic, the vernacular of ancient Palestine.

Gibson, a Catholic, has fielded sharp criticism from many quarters over his interpretation.

Jewish leaders in particular have expressed concern for months that the movie could spark anti-Semitism because it portrays Jews as responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.

Some religious groups support the movie, saying it hews closely to literal interpretations of the Gospels. Gibson and his Icon Productions film company have been screening the film for selected audiences to gain feedback ahead of its release.

GIBSON’S SPIRITUAL RENEWAL

“Passion” was even screened for Pope John Paul II in the Vatican, but the pontiff’s closest aide, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz last week denied recent media reports, based on church sources, that the pope had praised the film’s biblical accuracy. Dziwisz told the Catholic News Services that “the Holy Father told no one of his opinion of this film.”

Gibson told Noonan that he was “relieved” at the reaction of various Christian leaders in the United States, such as Billy Graham and Pat Robertson, who, Gibson said, see the movie “as a faithful depiction.”

Gibson said the movie had been “incubating” in his head for 12 years. “I was spiritually bankrupt, and when that happens, it’s like a spiritual cancer afflicts you,” he said of the period when he first began delving into the film’s subject matter.

He credits his wife of 24 years, Robyn, with helping renew his sense of religious faith, as well as many people he feels were “sent” to him. “Even people who have been hostile to me have been beneficial,” Gibson said.

Gibson said “Passion” is about “faith, hope, love and forgiveness,” which he hopes can be something of a remedy for the current state of affairs in the world — war and genocide being two tragedies he mentions.

“My detractors would say that it (the movie) is going to promote hatred. I disagree. I think that’s utter nonsense. The absurdity of that staggers me,” Gibson said.

A spokesman for the actor said Reader’s Digest was chosen for the interview due to its wide reach — the magazine claims some 40 million readers — and mostly adult audience.

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