A serious filmmaker would normally feel gratified if his cinematic work inspired impassioned debate, intense emotional response, detailed analysis, even raging controversy. Well in advance of his picture's release, Mel Gibson has already produced that sort of reaction with The Passion of the Christ, his brutal, graphic, and lyrical account of the last 12 hours in the life of Christ. But Gibson insists he neither expected nor wanted the bitter arguments over the allegedly anti-Semitic content of the film.
The vitriolic denunciations of his artistic integrity, and even his personal religiosity, have proven especially painful to Gibson--who directs The Passion (his first such effort since Braveheart) but does not act in it. One critic who acknowledged that she had not yet seen any version of the film, Paula Fredriksen of Boston University, went so far as to declare that her reading of the script left no doubt that the movie will provoke anti-Jewish violence when it is shown outside the United States."When violence breaks out," she wrote in The New Republic," Mel Gibson will have a much higher authority than professors and bishops to answer to."
Such hysterical pronouncements, all too typical of the current storm over The Passion, emerged out of a poisonous combination of mistakes, misunderstandings, and sheer malice.
The viciousness first appeared in a March article in the New York Times Magazine that went to press before Gibson had even finished filming his epic in Italy. Writer Christopher Noxon acknowledged a family feud with Gibson--his father had played a prominent role in trying to block construction of the traditionalist Catholic church in Malibu that Gibson founded with several million dollars in donations. Noxon's article represented a continuation of that localizcd quarrel. Unable to speak to Gibson himself, the reporter interviewed the star's 84-year-old father, Hutton Gibson, and highlighted the elderly man's unconventional, occasionally outrageous views--including the belief that the fatal planes of 9/11 had been "remote controlled," and the notion that the figure of 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust had been exaggerated.
Inevitably, this article led to horrified press reports that Gibson's father was a "holocaust denier" (a charge that both Mel and his father emphatically reject) and gave rise to suspicions that his unfinished film about Jesus expressed some anti-Semitic agenda. After all, the few facts known about the project prior to its completion made it sound weird, eccentric, and excessive. The star invested nearly $25 million of his own money to make the film. At one time he suggested that the dialogue, almost entirely in Aramaic with a smattering of Latin, would appear without subtitles. Reports from the set suggested that leading man Jim Caviezel (The Thin Red Line, The Count of Monte Cristo), another devout Catholic, had become so immersed in the role that he suffered significant injury while filming the violent torture of Christ. The rumors about the movie reached such an intense pitch that Paula Fredriksen's bruising attack on a film she had never seen appeared under the sneering headline, "Mad Mel."
Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League, the world's most prominent watchdog group combating anti-Semitism, had received an early, unauthorized copy of Gibson's script (presumably before its translation into Aramaic) and assembled a group of Catholic and Jewish scholars to evaluate it. Gibson and colleagues were furious that this stolen script, which they insist has been changed in many of its essential elements, was subject to such analysis. Predictably, the scholars "unanimously agreed that the screenplay reviewed was replete with objectionable elements that would promote anti-Semitism." In a blistering June 24 press release, the ADL expressed very public concerns that The Passion would "portray Jews as bloodthirsty, sadistic, and money-hungry enemies of Jesus. …