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In the heat of Passion: Film is gory, but anti-Semitic? Unapologetic Gibson says no

Published: Saturday, Feb. 21 2004 12:00 a.m. MST

Roman guards, blood-splattered and laughing, flog Jesus Christ before his crucifixion. Director Mel Gibson said the graphic depiction of Christ's crucifixion in the film was meant to make viewers realize the extent of Christ's sacrifice. Pastors across the country are praising the film.

Phillippe Antonello

For millions of moviegoers — Christian and otherwise — who hold either romanticized or arms-length mental images of Jesus Christ's suffering and crucifixion, filmmaker Mel Gibson has set out to change not only minds but hearts.

And while the result reportedly isn't pretty, neither will it be easily forgotten, according to those who have seen "The Passion of the Christ." Which is precisely what the Hollywood-actor-turned-filmmaking-evangelist wanted.

Scheduled for release on Feb. 25 — Ash Wednesday to the Christian world — Gibson's self-funded, $25 million dramatization is "an effort to be a testament to the infinite love of Jesus the Christ, which has saved, and continues to save, many the world over." That from the foreword Gibson wrote for a new book featuring still photos from the film set.

"There is a classical Greek word which best defines what 'truth' guided my work," Gibson writes, "and that of everyone else involved in the project: aletheia. It simply means 'unforgetting.' It has unfortunately become part of the ritual of our modern secular existence to forget."

Gibson says the film is "contemplative in the sense that one is compelled to remember in a spiritual way which cannot be articulated, only experienced."

Several media reports on reaction from preopening screenings across the country have chronicled the you-could-hear-a-pin-drop silence that follows the closing scene, with comments that participants didn't watch the film, they experienced it. Some have left the screening in tears, others in stunned silence.

The graphic violence Gibson strove to portray earned the film a well-deserved R-rating, according to Pastor Scott McKinney of Christ Evangelical Church in Orem, who saw it in Chicago last month. Though Gibson has, in recent years, nurtured his reputation as a devout, traditional Catholic family man, he has never apologized for the film's brutality.

"I think it pushes one over the edge so that they see the enormity, the enormity of that sacrifice. . . . It's very violent and if you don't like it, don't go, you know?" Gibson said in an interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC's PrimeTime, which aired Monday. "If you want to leave halfway through, go ahead."

In fact, many leading evangelicals are praising the film's ability to shake people into a realization of Christ's suffering and say Gibson has done Christianity a service by portraying the last 12 hours of his life in a way that leaves some speechless.

"It's hard to describe it," Pastor McKinney said. "People have asked if I enjoyed it. I don't know how you would enjoy it. It's graphic and brutal. I think it's R for real," he said, echoing a comment made by James Caviezel, the 35-year-old actor Gibson hand-picked to play Jesus Christ. (Moviegoers will recognize Caviezel, before he is beaten and bloodied, as the lead character in the film "The Count of Monte Cristo.")

As he viewed the film, including a lengthy segment where Jesus is flogged mercilessly by laughing Roman guards with blood-spattered faces, Pastor McKinney said he initially wondered whether the violence was overplayed. On the plane back home, however, he reread the gospel accounts of the Passion "and came away thinking, no, it wasn't. . . . I don't think it takes away from the message," that Jesus "purposefully went to the cross. It was no accident, but something he intended to do."

Pastor Harry Berg of Draper Friends Christian Church said he had heard many of his fellow evangelicals say the movie was "rated R, but Jesus didn't die a PG-13 death."

"We see it as something where maybe you could sit in church for a year and listen, but it would not have the same impact. We see it as a tool, really," to help explain the "message of the cross."

That message — that Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world — is what Gibson said inspired him to embark on a 12-year quest to make a movie he has acknowledged could be a "career-breaker."

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