Pic secures Gaul distrib amid domestic controversy

PARIS — Mel Gibson’s “Passion” is stirring up differing emotions in France and in Italy.

The French are already hot and bothered about the alleged anti-Semitism, while the Italians seem quite prepared to embrace the pic’s religious message.

Paris-based film producer and media dealmaker Tarak Ben Ammar went on French primetime news Monday night to announce he will distribute Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” in France.

His surprise TV announcement follows deepening controversy in Gaul over an alleged boycott of the film by distributors because of its supposed anti-Semitic overtones.

“It is my duty to enable French people to see the film and make up their minds about it themselves,” Ben Ammar said on leading French web TF1, adding the pic would come out at Easter. “It is not anti-Semitic. It is about love and forgiveness,” he added.

The Tunisian-born businessman, whose producer credits range from Brian de Palma’s “Femme Fatale” to Franco Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth,” gave no indication of how much he paid for rights to the pic, which has notched up record sums at the U.S. box office in its first week.

Meanwhile, Marin Karmitz, head of mini-major MK2 and prexy of the Gallic distributors’ federation, has angrily dismissed rumors of a boycott as “a deliberate tactic on the part of Icon Prods. to pass themselves off as martyrs.”

“I know they refused offers,” Karmitz told a French Sunday paper. “Who is behind this manipulation? Why weren’t we invited to see the film?”

As industryites tried to distinguish fact from fiction, it emerged that Eurozoom, a small distributor, had been unsuccessfully courting Gibson’s Icon for months. Then, Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp set its sights on “The Passion” last month, after Besson traveled to London to see it.

However, Besson is reported as saying that he doubted the film’s commercial potential in France.

Other potential distributors gave a Gallic shrug Monday when asked if they had considered taking it on.

“We weren’t approached,” said a spokesman for Pathe.

Eurozoom’s Amel Lacombe fumed over the affair. “For me it has been a huge disappointment financially and on a human level,” she told Daily Variety. “Mel Gibson said this film wasn’t about money, but when it boils down to it, that’s what counted.”

As for the rumored boycott, Lacombe said bigger Gallic distributors were probably “squeamish” about being associated with the film in France’s racially sensitive climate.

Anti-Semitic violence has been on the increase, fueling recent outrage over an anti-Israeli sketch by popular black comedian Dieudonne, while Muslims in France feel attacked by government plans to ban the veil and other religious symbols in schools.

Meanwhile, indications are “La Passione di Cristo” is preparing to make a pretty big splash in Italy where it rolls out April 7. That’s Holy Wednesday, the final day of pre-Easter station-of-the-cross processions across the peninsula.

“Passion” will go out via Eagle Pictures, the first company in the world to pick up Gibson’s pic. Current plan is for a relatively small 150-screen bow, but that may change.

The Vatican is definitely behind “Passion,” with priests now talking about the pic during mass.

A media blitz is already under way with Jim Caviezel’s bloodied face on the cover of this week’s L’Espresso and pro and con commentary in the dailies, based on preview screenings set up directly by Icon.

The anti-Semitism issue isn’t very hot at the moment, and there are no evangelical grassroots movements to mobilize, though the Vatican makes for quite a massive marketing machine.

(Nick Vivarelli in Rome contributed to this report.)

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