Gibson answers critics of ‘Passion’

Thesp/helmer sez 'movie meant to inspire not offend'

Rebutting criticism that his film “The Passion” is anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic, Mel Gibson has for the first time spoken out about the controversial movie depicting the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus Christ.

“To be certain, neither I nor my film is anti-Semitic,” Gibson said in a statement released exclusively Thursday to Daily Variety.

Gibson’s statement comes as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which had been critical of “The Passion,” apologized for criticizing a film that has yet to be finished and agreed to return all unauthorized copies of the script obtained by its members.

Gibson’s production company, Icon, is in talks with the Anti-Defamation League, which also criticized the film, for a similar resolution.

” ‘The Passion’ is a movie meant to inspire not offend,” Gibson said in his statement. “My intention in bringing it to the screen is to create a lasting work of art and engender serious thought among audiences of diverse faith backgrounds (or none) who have varying familiarity with this story.”

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The controversy over “The Passion” was sparked in March by a profile of Gibson’s father, Hutton Gibson, in the New York Times Magazine. The profile explored the traditionalist — and controversial — Catholic beliefs of the actor’s father, which are not condoned by the Roman Catholic Church. The story also quoted Gibson pere as denying the Holocaust ever took place.

Jumping to the conclusion that “The Passion” would attempt to spread the beliefs of Gibson’s father, Jewish and Catholic scholars publicly decried the film.

The Conference of Catholic Bishops sent a letter to Icon demanding to review the script before the film’s release; Icon did not reply.

ADL prexy Abraham Foxman also wrote Gibson a letter expressing serious concerns about the film. Foxman cited particular concerns about the possibility that the film would charge Jews with, in his words, “deicide’ and hence be anti-Semitic,

In his statement Thursday, Gibson said, “If the intense scrutiny during my 25 years in public life revealed I had ever persecuted or discriminated against anyone based on race or creed, I would be all too willing to make amends. But there is no such record.

Doesn’t ‘hate anybody’

“Nor do I hate anybody — certainly not the Jews,” Gibson continued.

“They are my friends and associates, both in my work and social life. Thankfully, treasured friendships forged over decades are not easily shaken by nasty innuendo. Anti-Semitism is not only contrary to my personal beliefs, it is also contrary to the core message of my movie.”

According to Thursday’s statement, an ad hoc group of Jewish and Catholic scholars that advise the Conference of Catholic Bishops and the ADL distributed an earlier draft of the script obtained from what they called a “Deep Throat.”

“We regret that this situation has occurred and offer our apologies,” said Mark Chopko, general counsel for the Conference of Catholic Bishops, in the statement. “I have further advised the scholars group that this draft screenplay is not considered to be representative of the film and should not be the subject of further public comment. When the film is released, the USCCB will review it at that time.”

According to the statement, which was released by Icon and reviewed by the Conference of Catholic Bishops, “The group of scholars convened via email and the Internet had intended to read the confidential script in order to request revisions of the film that conform to their ideas of history and theology.”

Not heretical

In the statement, Gibson dismissed claims that his film would be heretical in the eyes of the Vatican.

“For those concerned about the content of this film, know that it conforms to the narratives of Christ’s passion and death found in the four Gospels of the New Testament,” he said.

Added Gibson, “This is a movie about faith, hope, love and forgiveness — something sorely needed in these turbulent times.”

The Gibson camp also cautioned against judging an unfinished film that no one outside the production team has even seen.

“While we respect everyone’s right to their opinion about the film,” said the film’s producer Steve McEveety, “no one has a right to publicly critique a film that has not even been completed, let alone base their critique on an outdated version of the script which has been illegally obtained.”

Spring ’04 release planned

Gibson directed and co-wrote “The Passion,” which wrapped filming in Italy in April. Icon is aiming for a spring 2004 release for the $25 million production. The film, which will feature dialogue only in Latin and Aramaic with no English subtitles, has not yet found a distributor.

The project has been dear to Gibson’s heart. At a news conference last September, he said, “Obviously, no one wants to touch something filmed in two dead languages. Hopefully I’ll be able to transcend language barriers with visual storytelling.”