‘Passion’-bashing minimal

Auds turn out for epic as critics worldwide decry violence

Fears that “The Passion of the Christ” would inflame passions worldwide turned out to be overblown.

The U.S. release created the most controversy by far, with criticism in other countries mostly limited to the press. Overseas filmgoers for the most part ignored complaints of the film’s violence and turned out for the pic in proportion to religious observance in the given territory.

While the biblical epic did ignite controversy in a few countries, fears of anti-Semitic outcry and demonstrations didn’t come to pass. And what controversy there was didn’t stop the pic from powering so far to a hefty $155 million gross outside the U.S. and Canada.

Piracy more than polemics dogged the pic abroad. Bootlegs were even distributed by church groups and booked for charity screenings in many countries.

Gibson’s epic seems destined to hit $250 million abroad, depending partly on how it plays next month in Japan, its final major market.

Italy’s religious fervor

In what is being hailed as its best bow outside the U.S., “The Passion” nabbed more than $13 million in its first week in release in Italy, per Eagle Pictures, the first distrib worldwide to pick up the epic.

“If the film were anti-Semitic, then the Gospels would be, too,” the pope’s spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Vals, said recently, responding to heated calls from Rome’s rabbi Riccardo Di Segni to take a stand against the pic’s alleged negative portrayal of Jewish leaders.

The anti-Semitism issue has not featured prominently on TV yakkers. Italos have instead been disputing the buckets of blood and the issue of whether “Passion” really recounts Christ’s final 12 hours.

Though “Passion” was shot in Italy with local talent in supporting roles, pic has largely been panned by local film critics, with La Repubblica calling it “a snuff movie” and Corriere Della Sera saying it is “totally devoid of spirituality.”

In the Vatican’s back yard, the pic has been rated for general admission — the only country besides Bolivia and Tobago where it has gone out unrestricted — though ticket sellers in cinemas have been warning parents with small children about its gory visuals.

Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” has caused a bit of stir in Gaul, most notably among industryites and religious groups. Marin Karmitz, head of Gallic mini-major MK2, was one of the film’s harshest critics refused to play “The Passion” on his circuit.

Karmitz called the film anti-Semitic and “an instrument of fascist propaganda.”

Furthermore, producer Alain Goldman(“Crimson Rivers,”) announced this week that he had quit the French Union of Film Producers, which counts Luc Besson among its more than 100 members, after the union issued a press release in support of Tarak Ben Ammar, the distrib.

In Germany, Jewish, Catholic and Protestant leaders last month issued scathing indictments of the film and were widely published in the local press.

“The anti-Semites will only have their views on Jews confirmed,” said Salomon Korn, VP of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. The film is a “sadomasochist orgy of violence” laden with “kitsch,” Korn added.

Yet allegations of anti-Semitism — often an explosive topic in Germany — generated little debate among the actual public.

According to local exhibs, it was the explicit violence that, in the end, turned away many moviegoers. Local critics have panned the pic for showcasing Jesus’ brutal death while ignoring his message and his life.

In the U.K., the Catholic Church has been cagey in its endorsement of Gibson’s pic. Said Bishop Crispian Hollis of Portsmouth: “This is one person’s view of the Passion of Christ. Some will have their faith enhanced, but others will remain unmoved.”

The director of worship at St. Luke’s Church in Kent added, “If people are talking about Jesus rather than gay bishops, then that’s got to be a good thing.”

Controversy in Russia was muted, although first-weekend box office was robust.

Russia’s Orthodox patriarchy has neither endorsed nor condemned the work — in contrast to Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” which aroused huge controversy in the late 1990s around its scheduled TV broadcast.

Heart attack in Oz

In Australia, Icon secured the support of all major religious groups except the Jews. Rabbi John Levi, president of the Australian Union for Progressive Judaism, slammed the pic as anti-Semitic, declaring, “I shudder to think of the effect the film will have on the uninitiated. Practically every piece of Jewish history was violated as the story was told.”

But Levi was virtually a lone voice as the film was praised by the leaders of the Catholic and Anglican churches and most other denominations.

Exhibs report frequent instances of folks sobbing during screenings and in more extreme cases people crying out in anguish, and one person was reported to have had a heart attack while watching the film.

Observant Latin America

“The Passion” drew record attendance in Argentina with 1.7 million admissions in its first 18 days (March 25-April 18), outshining by a smidgen the previous champ, “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.”

Catholic Church leaders, many of whom saw a prescreening, encouraged Argentine Catholics, who make up 85% of the 36 million population, to see the film.

Yet there are rumblings from Argentina’s Jewish community about the impact the film might have. Gilbert Lewi, head of the Delegation of Israeli-Argentinian Assns., says, “You see images and stereotypes that we thought would never exist again after the Nazi era.”

More worrying, he says is that some Christian groups are giving out free pirate copies of “The Passion” and screening it in churches as an evangelizing and teaching tool.

Twentieth Century Fox Argentina says it has bought illegal copies to take them off the market and taken legal action against groups holding screenings with pirated copies.

In Peru, “The Passion” made a controversial debut, but not because viewers found the film violent or anti-Semitic.

It was the pirated DVD copies swamping the streets nearly a month before the film’s opening that caused the uproar, prompting distributors to rush the movie into theaters early.

Mexico has fervently embraced “The Passion of the Christ,” leading to the highest B.O. totals in all of Latin America, $17 million and counting as of April 11. What it hasn’t done, though, is to create the kind of public debate needed to make it the top movie in Mexico.

One major reason for pic’s poor lasting power is the fact that Mexico’s film ratings board gave it a restrictive rating that prohibits people under 18 from seeing it, a big blow to distrib Fox, considering the young demos of Mexico.

Mexico’s 50,000-strong Jewish community, nearly all of which is concentrated in Mexico City, has been all but mum about the film; neither it nor any other groups has staged any kind of protest, sought court action or even written a letter to the editor complaining about pic’s alleged anti-Semitic content.

Mexican auds, which are generally driven by what their children want to see, quickly got in line for “Scooby-Doo 2” and “50 First Dates.”

Indian censors have passed “The Passion” uncut — a surprise move since the country is pretty squeamish about violence.

“It’s most unusual, given the graphic violence. The panel, which comprises mainly Hindus, have taken the film on face value as a historical account,” the film’s local distrib Deepak Nayar tells Variety. He’s releasing the movie in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

But not so good news is the fact that “The Passion” is already widely pirated in India. Indeed, there were screenings in some Mumbai churches of the pirated DVD on Good Friday and Easter Sunday, which local newspapers report were hugely well attended.

Deepak is targeting the Christian community in the south of the country — he’s opening in the south on 60 prints, not bothering with the north. “Only 8% of the Indian population is Christian, which doesn’t sound like much, but it’s actually 80 million people, and that’s more than the entire population of most countries,” Nayar notes.

In the Holy Land — where no distributor has picked it up for theatrical release — pirate copies are selling briskly throughout Palestine and even in Israel, where the Aramaic dialogue comes complete with Hebrew subtitles.

Several Arab countries, including Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, have already given the film the greenlight. In Kuwait, the fate of the film is up in the air as the state national cinema company awaits a decision from the information ministry.

Ed Meza, Don Groves, Archie Thomas, Charles Newbury, Ken Bensinger, Nick Vivarelli and Tom Birchenough contributed to this story.

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