Vatican anger over crucifixion film claim

The Vatican has always been scrupulous in preventing the Pope's name from being linked to commercial products. But after a private viewing of Mel Gibson's forthcoming film about the Crucifixion, Pope John Paul II reportedly commented: "It is as it was." For five weeks that pithy, invaluable endorsement of the film Gibson has made with his own money, about the final 12 hours in the life of Jesus, was allowed to stand.

Senior Vatican officials anonymously told reporters for Catholic news agencies that the remark had been correctly attributed. Others added their own, rapturous praise for the film. Steve McEveety, the film's producer, who visited Rome last month, had got himself one of the biggest sponsorship coups of all time. And all for the price of a plane ticket.

Yet, this week, in a development that had seasoned Vatican watchers scratching their heads, there was a sudden volte-face. Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, the Pope's secretary and closest aide, told the Catholic News Service, in what may have been his first on-record remark: "The Holy Father told no one his opinion of the film." The belated about-turn, producing more useful controversy for the movie, is an indication of the deep emotions which the Hollywood star's extraordinary pet project has already stirred, one month away from its American launch, scheduled for Ash Wednesday.

The film, which Gibson bankrolled to the tune of $25m (£13.7m), is the first to deal with the passion of Jesus in the gruesomely realistic manner of films like Saving Private Ryan. When Jesus is flayed, strips of flesh fly. When the nails are driven into his hands and feet, nothing is left to the imagination. So convincing are its special effects that it is expected to get an R rating in the US, to prevent children seeing it without an adult. Gibson said last year: "My intention in bringing it to the screen is to create a lasting work of art and engender serious thought among audiences of diverse faith background (or none) who have varying familiarity with this story." For a film entitled The Passion, Gibson's comment sounds very dispassionate; unbelievably so, in fact. Gibson would not have spent $25m on a film, with dialogue only in Aramaic and Latin, unless it was very important to him. Jewish groups, notably the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in the United States, worry that the film's very fidelity to the Bible texts is going to make it anti-Semitic; a depiction of Jews as Christ-killers. The ADL said: "[It] "could fuel hatred, bigotry and anti-Semitism. [Gibson] has a great responsibility in the message ultimately promoted by the film." The group fears that the film will be the latest in a long line of dramatisations of the Crucifixion. "Throughout history," the ADL said, "Christian dramatisations of the Passion ... have fomented anti-Semitic attitudes and violence against the Jewish people ... Passion plays have an infamous history of leading to hatred, violence and even death of Jews."

Gibson is unfazed. He said: "It may [upset Jews]. It's not meant to. I think it's meant to just tell the truth. I want to be as truthful as possible." Gibson has been notably coy in spelling out his own beliefs, but he is what is known as a "traditionalist Catholic", who regards the popes since Pope John XXIII as illegitimate "anti-popes", and who demand a return to Latin rites and literal belief in the Bible. His father, Hutton Gibson, is a much more uninhibited exponent of such ideas, far to the right even of the hardline traditionalists who hold sway in Pope John Paul II's Vatican. But Mel himself, who has built his own church in Malibu, is on the record as saying: "Somebody has to lift the scab ... the festering scab that is the Vatican."

The Vatican has found itself with strange bedfellows, especially odd after the Pope's persistent efforts to make peace with Judaism. This week, very belatedly, they are having second thoughts aboutThe Passion. One Vatican watcher said: "They are trying to put the genie back in the bottle."

CONDEMNED: DEPICTIONS OF JESUS

The Last Temptation of Christ:

Martin Scorsese's 1988 filmin which Jesus appears as a tormented young man confused by sex. Virtually every Christian denomination condemned it.

Monty Python's Life of Brian:

Three days before filming, EMI read the script and withdrew funding. On its release in 1979, outraged religious leaders described it as blasphemous.

Jesus Christ Superstar:

While the 1971 original caused uproar, nuns nowadays are more likely to sing along.

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