‘Passion’-ate critic

Jewish org leader views, slams Gibson pic

The most vocal critic of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” has finally managed to screen the pic and emerged to say it confirms his fears that it could stir up anti-Semitism.

Meanwhile, the spokesman for the Vatican made his first official comment denying the pope had ever endorsed “Passion.” Gibson’s camp replied that it still plans to use the pontiff’s purported blurb, “It is as it was,” in connection with the pic.

“Passion” was screened at the Global Pastors Network: Beyond All Limits 2 conference in Orlando, Fla., on Wednesday. Gibson attended and took questions from the aud.

Working with churches

As Gibson’s Icon Prods. and distrib Newmarket Films prepare to unspool the pic on Feb. 25, Ash Wednesday, the companies have been working closely with evangelical Christian churches to promote the pic, encouraging congregations to raise money to buy blocks of tickets.

In recent weeks, “Passion” was screened for more than 3,000 pastors in Orange County and more than 4,000 pastors in Chicago.

Both events were by invitation only, but since the Orlando screening was open to all conference attendees, Anti-Defamation League head Abraham Foxman paid the $295 registration fee and attended with another ADL staff member.

After viewing “Passion,” Foxman said his reaction was “a combination of sadness, shock and pain. I was saddened because I believed it when Mel Gibson had said he was softening it.”

Idea of collective guilt

Foxman’s primary concern is that Gibson’s film will give new currency to the notion that Jews bear collective guilt for the death of Christ, a belief that historically has been used as justification for anti-Semitism.

Foxman felt the film specifically blamed Jews for the crucifixion.

“He didn’t miss an opportunity to ensure that Jews are shown as bloodthirsty and vengeful,” he said.

Foxman pointed to one scene, drawn from an account in the Gospel of Matthew, that Gibson previously said had been cut from the film. Right after Roman governor Pilate condemns Jesus, a crowd of Jews calls out, “His blood be on us, and on our children.” The scene was in the version of “Passion” screened in Orlando, Foxman said.

In the New Yorker last September, Gibson said, “Man, if I included that in there, they’d be coming after me at my house, they’d come kill me.”

‘Freedom of expression’

A spokesman for Icon Prods. replied to the ADL head by saying, “I respect his freedom of expression and I expect the same in return for these filmmakers.”

By criticizing “Passion,” Foxman was technically breaking the rules for the screening. Confidentiality agreements that all attendees were required to sign barred them from talking about the film afterward unless they were going to praise it.

According to the agreement, members of the aud were not allowed to discuss the film or reveal its plot points. But the agreement also said, “Pastors and church leaders are free to speak out in support of the movie.”

Foxman said he did not sign an agreement and refused to say exactly how he got into the screening.

It is common for filmmakers and publicists to ask that auds at early screenings, especially of rough cuts, refrain from discussing the pic. Also, news orgs typically agree to respect embargo dates set by studios so that reviews do not appear too far ahead of a film’s release. But it’s rare that all screening attendees are required to sign confidentiality agreements.

Vatican statement

At the Vatican on Thursday, the spokesman for Pope John Paul II said the pontiff had not commented on “Passion” after viewing it in December.

“It is not the Holy Father’s habit to express public judgments on artistic works,” Joaquin Navarro-Valls said in a brief and peculiarly worded communique. “Judgments are always open to different valuations of an aesthetic nature.”

The pope’s press secretary did not take questions after releasing the statement, which — although it certainly does so by implication — does not amount to a flat denial of reports in recent weeks that the pope said, “It is as it was,” upon seeing “Passion” on VHS in his private apartment.

Navarro-Valls also said he had consulted with the pope’s secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, before making the statement.

Dziwisz, a close adviser to the pope, gave an interview Sunday to the Catholic News Service denying the pope had told anyone his opinion of Gibson’s film.

An Icon spokesman said the statement did not match Navarro-Valls’ recent conversations with “Passion” producer Steve McEveety.

‘Friendly communication’

“We have had and continue to have friendly and open communication with the Vatican. Both Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz and Joaquin Navarro-Valls have been very supportive of this project,” the spokesman said, adding that Icon had received written permission to use the pope’s quote to publicize the film. “Unless we receive an official indication to the contrary, we will continue to stand by the (pope’s) statement.”

Wall Street Journal online columnist Peggy Noonan, one of the first to report the supposed papal reaction to the film, quoted an email from Navarro-Valls to McEveety in which the Vatican spokesman urged the “Passion” producers to use the pope’s quote “again and again and again.”

When it was first reported, Pope John Paul II’s powerfully worded praise of “Passion” cooled controversy over the pic’s potentially anti-Semitic tone because of the pope’s relentless efforts and accomplishments in soothing Catholic-Jewish relations.

It is possible that the pope did indeed praise the pic but the Vatican subsequently had second thoughts because of fears the pic will strain these relations.

Gibson is a member of an ultraconservative Catholic movement that does not recognize the pope’s authority over the Roman Catholic Church or the Second Vatican Council, which has been the cornerstone of the pope’s efforts to improve relations with Jews.

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