LOS ANGELES — Actor/filmmaker Mel Gibson expected his new biblical saga “The Passion of the Christ” to be controversial, but he said he was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the negative response to the film.
“Any time you delve into the area of religion or politics, you are going to stir up people’s feelings,” said a subdued Gibson in a Los Angeles hotel suite last week. “The emotions surrounding those subjects run very deep in people.
“But I never realized it would be an avalanche. I never anticipated this level of controversy. I’ve seen other movies made about Jesus — from Martin Scorsese’s `The Last Temptation of Christ’ to Franco Zefferelli’s `Jesus of Nazareth’ and George Stevens’ `The Greatest Story Ever Told’ — and they didn’t get anything like this. I think this is all new.”
The Oscar-winning director is breaking his silence on “Passion,” which has endured intense criticism by some Jewish leaders who fear the film’s depiction of the last 12 hours of Jesus Christ’s life will heighten feelings of anti-Semitism. Gibson has screened the film to numerous selected groups during past months and appeared at some screenings, but has not yet responded to the controversy in the media.
Gibson said he is wounded by accusations that his film is irresponsible and emphatically denied that he is anti-Semitic. He seemed incredulous at times when asked if he thought his movie could incite anger or violence towards Jewish individuals or the State of Israel.
“Frankly, that hurts,” Gibson said of the accusations. “I am offended by that. It’s simply not true.
“Anti-Semitism is the deliberate abuse of Jewish people simply for being Jewish. That is not only stupid, it’s morally wrong. By what I believe, it is not only boorish and bigoted, it is a sin. It is a moral crime. To be racist in any form is to be un-Christian.”
Gibson said he does not expect Christians who see the movie to leave the theater with anger or hatred toward Jewish people, although Jewish elders are portrayed in the film as demanding that Roman Governor Pontius Pilate use his occupying army to persecute the man that many see as the savior.
“This is not a divisive film,” Gibson maintained. “This is not a blame game.
“I have shown my movie to 20,000 Christians and not a single person has expressed that kind of an emotion. Not even a hint. No one comes out of this movie hating the Jews. Of course, there always have been, and always will be, demented bigots amongst us. They’re always there, but we can’t let these morons dictate to us how we live, how we believe or how we express our art.
“If anything, I expect Christians to come out of this movie in an introspective mood. It is among the tenets of my faith that Jesus died for the sins of mankind. When you talk of culpability, I look at myself first, and I expect most Christians do the same. This is not about blaming anyone else.”
Gibson, 48, put up his own money to finance the $25 million biblical saga, which will open Ash Wednesday (Feb. 25) on about 2,000 screens.
Tracking by industry insiders suggest a large opening (perhaps as high as $30 million), although one does not need tracking surveys to predict a strong first week in theaters. There have been reports that movie theaters have been reserved by Christian groups, and that the film has received an intense marketing push, initiated by Gibson, among Christian organizations.
Just a year ago, Gibson couldn’t even find a distributor for his movie. The frustrated filmmaker complained at a 2002 news conference that “no one wants to touch something in two dead languages.”
In fact, “The Passion of the Christ,” which stars actor Jim Caviezel in the title role and features a European Jewish actress as the Virgin Mary, is shown with subtitles because all the dialogue is spoken in Hebrew, Latin and Aramaic. The R-rated movie also is unflinchingly graphic in its depiction of the Roman soldiers’ savage whipping of Jesus and the subsequent crucifixion.
Gibson, who financially supports a traditionalist Roman Catholic sect that does not accept the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (one of those reforms cleared the Jewish people of any wrongdoing in the killing of Jesus), said he knew his movie would be controversial, but felt compelled to make it as a Christian and a filmmaker.
“It (the persecution and crucifixion of Jesus) is an expression of my belief,” he explained. “And it is central to civilization as we know it. A lot of art, governments and social mores have come through that. It’s something that has affected everybody since it happened, and continues to do so. It has affected everything in my life as well.
“I needed to express this. I think a lot of people have this story inside them. I have seen so many versions of the story and they all seem so far away. Those other movies were like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. They seemed like a fairy tale. I watched them all and suffered from 1950s biblical epic disease.”
Even before the movie was completed, Gibson embarked on an unusual, but innovative marketing campaign to make his movie known to its target audience, the Christian community.
He hired Christian marketing companies to help get the word out, and showed his unfinished film to various Christian groups, which led to accusations that he was intentionally prohibiting Jewish leaders from seeing the movie. Many members of the media also accused Gibson of trying to hide his film from potential critics.
But the original script eventually got out and was circulated, and a few Jewish leaders did manage to see a version of the film. In response to some of the criticism that resulted from those early screenings, Gibson said he has deleted a scene that has been interpreted by some to imply that a blood curse was placed on the Jews for their part in the crucifixion.
Gibson heatedly denied that the offending scene was intended to be interpreted that way, but said he removed it in an attempt to “quell the fears.”
“I am not trying to play a game of hate and fear,” he said, “so I took it out.”
But the Jewish elders in the film are shown to be conspiratorial, and even bloodthirsty, toward the threat they see in Jesus. The filmmaker said that had nothing to do with their religion.
“Yes, what those elders did was a political move,” Gibson said. “But at that time in Jerusalem, there were different regimes coming into power all the time. These happened to be the people in power at the time, and I was just trying to show that every institution is capable of corruption.
“Look at the institutions all around us right now, including governments and churches. They are all capable of corruption because, unfortunately, they are run by people whose fallibility is in the weakness of human beings.”