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Phillippe Antonello
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.

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."

His work had its genesis more than a decade ago "during a time in which I found myself trapped with feelings of terrible, isolated emptiness," Gibson wrote. "Because I was brought up to be a good Christian and a good Catholic, the only effective resource for me was prayer. I asked God for his help."

He said it was through prayer and meditation that the idea began to take shape, and he searched out images of the Passion in great works of art by Caravaggio, Mantegna, Masaccio and Piero della Francesca. The four New Testament gospels and "accepted visions of the Passion," including a book by an obscure 19th-century nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich, who was later beatified by the Vatican, were the basis for the film.

Emmerich's accounts of her visions, including purgatory and the Passion, are collected in the book "The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ." An Augustinian nun who lived in Germany between 1774 and 1824, she was conversant with spiritual phenomena, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. The faithful believe that while confined to her bed in 1813 she experienced external "stigmata" or marks reminiscent of Christ's wounds, on her hands, feet and head, and died only after insults, suspicion and investigation by church leaders failed to prove her a fraud.

Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, has said he believes Emmerich was anti-Semitic, and her book "distorts New Testament interpretation by selectively citing passages to weave a narrative that oversimplifies history, and is hostile to Jews and Judaism."

Gibson was roundly criticized last year by Foxman and other leading religious and political Jewish leaders. They say the film recasts centuries-old blame upon the Jews for Jesus' death, noting Gibson is a traditionalist Catholic who has rejected many reforms from Vatican II, a meeting of worldwide leaders in which the Catholic Church formally rejected historical claims that the Jews were guilty of "deicide."

But Jewish suspicion of Gibson's motives seems to have mellowed slightly in recent weeks since Gibson reportedly removed a phrase from the movie's English subtitles (the dialogue is in Aramaic and Latin) spoken by the Jewish high priest, Caiaphas, regarding culpability for Christ's impending crucifixion: "His blood be on us and on our children."

The phrase was apparently one of the subjects repeatedly raised by Jewish leaders with Gibson since he invited them, along with large groups of religious leaders, to view early versions of the film and offer feedback at more than a dozen prescreenings nationwide.

Gibson has countered charges of anti-Semitism with his belief that Christ died for the sins of the whole world.

"We're all culpable," he told the Global Catholic Network in January. To illustrate Christ's suffering for individual sin including his own, Gibson said his only on-screen appearance in the film is his hand, which holds the spike that is driven into Christ's hand on the cross.

Gibson told Sawyer earlier this week the film was about "faith, hope, love and forgiveness."

"To be anti-Semitic is a sin," he said. "It's been condemned by one Papal Council after another. To be anti-Semitic is to be un-Christian, and I'm not."

This week, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein cautioned Jews against overreacting to the film's potential to inflame anti-Semitism and urged them to "refrain from seeing it as a Christian battle cry against the Jews." Eckstein, an Orthodox rabbi who heads the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, serves as an unofficial adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, according to a press release issued Tuesday.

While it is "essential that the world Jewish community not forget, and be ever vigilant against, the resurgence of past forms of anti-Semitism," he said, "it is more critical that we not fight the battles of the past but realistically focus on current anti-Semitic threats. . . . I am less concerned that Christians exposed to this movie will relapse" into old hatreds.

"I am, however, deeply concerned that this film could be used by those seeking yet another reason to hate and attack Jews," he said, expressing concern about the "forces of radical Islam who already hate Jews, who I fear can latch on to this film to legitimize and substantiate their hatred."

Despite such concerns, Pastor McKinney and Pastor Sieg Krueger, of Mountain View Christian Assembly in Sandy, agree the film makes clear that Christ "willingly died for all our sins," and not because he was a victim of Jewish hatred.

Pastor Krueger, who saw the film in Orlando, Fla., with some 5,000 other pastors, said Gibson's address to the group "was out of his comfort zone."

"He was almost timid, in a sense, describing that this was something he felt he needed to do, no matter what the consequences are."

Both clergymen said they were personally moved by the film, as were their fellow church leaders. "The response in our showing was different than you would get in a lot of theaters," Pastor Krueger said. "For us it was a victory cry."

He described the opening scene featuring Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, agonizing and then submitting to God's will. Satan is also portrayed there taunting Christ, as is a snake representing evil. "At one point Christ crushed the head of that snake. In our auditorium there was just a jubilant cry and applause. It was very moving and stirring for us."

While both are urging their congregations to see the film — Pastor Krueger bought out the entire theater for one showing — they agree it requires spiritual and emotional maturity to handle the graphic images.

"I think people have their own convictions about R-rated films, and I ask people to be very discerning about what they see. My congregation knows me as a man that probably wouldn't recommend an R-rated film normally," Pastor Krueger said. "But I have gone on record" urging congregation members to not only see the film but to take a friend.

Gibson has tried "to give an honest portrayal of what really happened, and the realism is really there. I would caution parents and make individual decisions concerning whether children" see it.

Both pastors believe that locally and nationally the film will serve as a springboard for public discussion, particularly during the upcoming Lenten season, Pastor McKinney said. "It will raise a conversation about the Christian faith in our society like nothing has in a long time."

Contributing: The Associated Press.

E-mail: carrie@desnews.com