Vatican, Icon mum about Mel's movie screening

ROME — Pope John Paul II has been given a private sneak preview of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” — at least that’s the word at the Vatican.

The 83-year-old pontiff, a playwright and movie buff, is believed to have seen a rough cut that Icon Prods. and producer Stephen McEveety have been screening in Rome.

The ailing pope is said to have seen “The Passion” either on video in his apartment or on film in his private screening room in the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Social Communications. There was no comment on Monday from Icon CEO Nick Hill, which set up the Rome screenings, or from the Vatican.

Earlier this month Italian distributor Eagle Pictures canceled a screening scheduled during a Vatican confab on Christ after Icon claimed the film about the last 12 hours of Christ’s life was “not ready.”

Yet just two days later, McEveety screened “The Passion” in a basement arthouse cinema in Rome near the Vatican.

“I can see why they might have initially been reluctant,” Father Augustine Di Noia, an American theologian who is undersecretary of the Vatican’s Doctrinal Congregation, told Daily Variety. “They were embarrassed, in a way, because they felt the quality was poor.”

Di Noia — according to whom “Gibson’s film is going to be a success because of its intrinsic power, both religiously and artistically” — also said that the music was unfinished and that there were jump cuts in the editing.

Di Noia countered allegations that the film is anti-Semitic, saying that “Jews come out as ordinary human beings who thought that Jesus was dangerous. When you put them (the Jews) in the context of what the Roman soldiers do, it’s nothing,” he added.

While getting the nod from Vatican officials such as Di Noia — and also from higher-ranking American Archbishop John Foley, who heads the Vatican’s social communications office, and Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, considered a candidate to succeed the pope — is not an official Vatican endorsement, it can go a long way in marketing Gibson’s $25 million pic.

“Getting positive reviews from top Vatican officials is key to the film’s success not just in Italy, but in any other Catholic country,” said Eagle’s head of acquisitions Maria Grazia Vauro.

So far, Italy is the only territory to which Icon has sold “The Passion,” which will go out in the U.S. via Newmarket through a rent-a-system deal. Icon will release the pic in the U.K. and Australia.

“The Passion” is skedded for a Stateside release on Feb. 25, which is Ash Wednesday, while it will go out in Italy on April 11, Easter Sunday.

Gibson shot the pic in Italy and — besides the lead role played by James Caviezel — cast Italian actors in most supporting roles, including Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene and Sergio Rubini as Dismas the Good Thief.

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