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On an Italian hilltop where he was staging the Sermon on the Mount, Mel Gibson watched as lightning struck the man playing Jesus in The Passion of the Christ. A pink light engulfed actor Jim Caviezel's body, but miraculously, he was unharmed. Ever since, Gibson has told the story, with a wink, as evidence of a major VIP visitor to the set.

Does Gibson have God on his side? For some, The Passion—Gibson's long-awaited account of Jesus' excruciating final 12 hours, which opened on 4,600 screens on Ash Wednesday—is a miracle: a Hollywood movie reverent enough to bring legions into the flock. Others find it shockingly violent; some see anti-Semitism. To critics, it's a "sickening death trip" (The New Yorker) or "a very great film" (Roger Ebert).

To Gibson, it's as personal as a movie gets. At the height of his stardom, he has said, he was drowning in fame, wealth, drink and despair—until he fell to his knees, asked God's help and returned to the rigid Catholicism of his youth. A dozen years later Gibson aims to share the healing in a film he has claimed was helmed by the Holy Ghost: "I was just directing traffic."

Late in shooting Gibson declared, "You can't please everybody, but then again, that's not my goal." What is? And why has this film ignited so many people's passion?

Who is Jesus, to Mel Gibson?
To understand Gibson's take, it helps to know that the 48-year-old director credits Jesus—and in particular Jesus' suffering—with literally saving his life. In the grip of a near-suicidal depression in his mid-30s, "I had to use the passion of Christ and wounds to heal my wounds," he told The New Yorker last year. Gibson joined Alcoholics Anonymous in 1991 and turned to the religion he was raised in. As a Catholic "traditionalist," Gibson belongs to a conservative movement (with an estimated 100,000 U.S. adherents) that rejects many of the modernizing reforms of Vatican II made by the Roman Catholic Church in the '60s. His wife of 23 years, Robyn—who's Episcopalian—and their seven kids, ages 4 to 23, attend a traditionalist church, Holy Family Chapel, that Gibson had built last year near their Malibu, Calif., home. Family life chez Gibson? Simpler—and stricter—than much of Hollywood. The kids grew up with Dad driving carpool, doling out occasional spankings and shielding them from his R-rated films.

Gibson's youngest, Thomas, 4, won't be seeing the R-rated Passion (but next oldest sibling Milo, 14, will). In just over two hours the film spares no graphic detail in depicting Jesus' torture and crucifixion. Gibson has said that, onscreen, Jesus is "usually fairly effete." Not here. "This is a Jesus who can take the pain," says Christianity Today film critic Peter Chattaway. "Mel Gibson has reinvented Jesus in his own image."

Should kids see it?
Due to the violence (see box), probably not. "You have to have some spiritual maturity to understand it," says Jennifer Giroux, 42, a Cincinnati mom of nine (ages 3 to 19) who started a pro-Passion Web site. She is keeping her under-14s home. But permission slips will be at many box offices for parents to sign when dropping off their kids. The Christian Coalition is encouraging teens to go. "They see so much violence [already]," says spokeswoman Michele Ammons. "I don't think they would take this like seeing a Schwarzenegger movie. They would think it was like seeing a docudrama."

Subtitles. Extreme violence. No stars. How did Mel Gibson sell this movie?
For months the Oscar-winning director (1995's Braveheart), who spent about $25 million of his own money to make the movie, put in at least a dozen appearances before preview audiences of thousands of Christian evangelical church and media leaders. Smart move. "They have their own radio networks, TV stations, bookstores—there's no better organized subgroup in America," says Josh Baran, a film marketing exec. "They sold 60 million Left Behind books. They can get the message to tens of millions of followers." With religious Web sites calling the movie "the best outreach opportunity in 2,000 years," churches bought out 800 theaters for advance screenings and many gave away tickets—some on the condition that you bring a nonbeliever as your date. By opening night at least $10 million in tickets had been presold. Big-name endorsements also helped: Rev. Billy Graham called the film equal to "a lifetime of sermons."

Why are Protestant evangelicals embracing this very Catholic vision of Jesus?
Grateful for any serious film about Jesus, evangelicals are overlooking the emphasis on Jesus' bloodied body and other elements that don't jibe with their theology. "We have for 30 years been praying that someone would use film to tell the Christian story in a way that would be interesting to the general public," says Rev. Rob Schenck, head of the National Clergy Council. "It's impossible to say, 'Well, he's not the answer to our prayers because he's Catholic.' God surprised us."

Is the film true to the Bible?
Depends whom you ask. The Christian Coalition's Ammons calls it "actual-factual." Sister Mary Boys, a professor at New York's Union Theological Seminary, sees many inventions. Nearly all the dialogue can be found in one or more of the four Gospels, all of which relate that Jesus was flayed and crucified. But none, Boys points out, goes into the lengthy sinewy detail that The Passion does. Another departure: Gibson has made a major player of Satan, who appears only once in the Gospels' accounts of the Passion but appears several times in the movie as a shadowy hooded figure.

Is it historically accurate?
Experts quibble with some of the details: For instance, Greek, not Latin, was the prevalent tongue in the eastern parts of the Roman Empire at the time. A bigger problem for historians: While little of Jesus' life is in the historical record, we do know a lot about the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate. "Not nice," says John Dominic Crossan, a former priest and author of Who Killed Jesus? Gibson's Pilate is a thoughtful, even compassionate leader who orders Jesus' death only under pressure from the Jewish high priests. But history shows the Jews were wholly subordinate to Pilate, a sadist who routinely crucified people without trial. In The Passion, says Crossan, "the Roman authority comes off smelling like a rose." Gibson differs. "I don't think there is a better history than [the Gospels]," he says. "To suddenly find some other revisionist story is an insult, quite frankly. To me, these are rock solid."

Why do some people fear this film may inflame anti-Semitism?
While some critics feel Gibson uses movie clichés (eye patches, gnarly teeth) and cultural stereotypes (clanking coins) to negatively depict the Jews, what many find more worrisome is his implication that Jews bear responsibility for Jesus' death. "We don't feel the film, or Mr. Gibson, is anti-Semitic," says Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League. "But for almost 2,000 years, four words—'the Jews killed Christ'—have fueled anti-Semitism. There's been an explosion of anti-Semitism in Europe—I worry what impact this film will have." Father Michael O'Connell, rector of Minneapolis's Basilica of Saint Mary, feels the film provides a teaching moment. Noting the centuries-long history of violence against Jews during the Easter season, he says, "Good Friday [which recalls the Crucifixion] is a day that Jews feared—it was a day of pogroms." His church is pairing with a local synagogue to discuss The Passion. "I hope we can put to bed," he says, "the mistaken notion that the Jews were responsible for the death of Christ."

Has the controversy affected the film?
While maintaining that to see anti-Semitism is to misread his work, Gibson did make some concessions in the editing room. He deleted a subtitle that showed a Jewish mob crying out, "His blood be on us and our children." (The spoken line remains.) He also added a flashback in which Jesus instructs his disciples, "It's been said that you should hate your enemies, but I'm telling you, you have to love everybody, even those who've hurt you." Despite some lingering discomfort, leading national Jewish groups are not calling for a boycott. Says the American Jewish Committee's Rabbi James Rudin: "I respect Mr. Gibson and his faith, and his right to make this film."

Why isn't Gibson in the movie?
He is, but briefly. It's the director's left hand nailing Jesus to the cross. The cameo is more than a Hitchcockian gimmick. Gibson feels his telling of the Passion holds all humanity responsible for the death of Jesus. And, he has said, "I'm first on line for culpability. I did it."

Playing Mary

Like Mary, she's a mother—and Jewish. Actress Maia Morgenstern tells why she took on The Passion

During her performance as The Passion's Mary, Maia Morgenstern had a secret under her robes. Even Jesus was in the dark. "They took me down from the cross and placed me on her stomach," says Jim Caviezel, who plays Christ. "I got a jolt: Her stomach was like a hard ball. I looked up at her. She got tears in her eyes and said, 'I have baby.'"

The pending arrival fit right in with the Romanian actress's approach to portraying Christianity's Mother of God. "We focused on the symbols of being a mother, a mother losing her child," says Morgenstern, 41, who gave birth to her third child, Isadora, a month after filming ended. "I never called her Virgin Mary. I think Mary is very human."

That is in part because Morgenstern was not raised to believe in Mary's holiness. Morgenstern is Jewish; her father is a Holocaust labor camp survivor, and her grandfather and several other relatives died in Nazi death camps. Maia grew up in Bucharest going to synagogue—and hearing occasional anti-Jewish slurs in school. "I wouldn't have accepted the role if I felt [the film] was anti-Semitic," she says. In the movie, she says, "the Jewish people aren't blamed. It's the political, religious leaders who are awful. It's easy to manipulate a poor people." A working actress since age 18, Morgenstern learned that firsthand growing up under Romania's totalitarian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. "Ceausescu was mad," she says. "Who's guilty because we were starving? [People said,] 'The Gypsies!' So we have to be very careful, and the film speaks very clearly for me about manipulation."

Did Gibson cast a Jewish actress to help deflect criticism? "I have asked him publicly," says Morgenstern, who lives in Bucharest with husband Dumitru Baltatanu, a brain surgeon. "He said absolutely not." The director did see an upside to her heritage. "She was able to bring her life experience to the film, which was phenomenal," says Gibson, who first saw Morgenstern in The Seventh Room, the true story of a Jew who became a nun, was killed in Auschwitz and later canonized. "I looked at it and went, 'Holy mackerel, who's that?'" he says. "She's so completely soulful, generous and loving." Morgenstern suggested Mary's first words in the film, from the Passover seder—"Why is this night different from every other night?"—and picked up Aramaic well enough to improvise a line: She tells Jesus to wash up before eating. Says the actress: "Any mother would have."

MOVIE REVIEW

All the hype and controversy aside, how is The Passion of the Christ as a movie? Problematic and unsettling. Director-cowriter Mel Gibson has made a highly personal, narrowly focused film that will polarize viewers, with many—including myself—put off by its unrelenting violence and you-better-already-know-the-backstory-because-there's-going-to-be-no-explaining-here approach to this recounting of Jesus' last 12 hours of life. It is, of course, Gibson's right to make exactly the film he wants, but his is an exclusionary rather than an inclusionary vision.

The violence is ceaseless and graphic. In a movie about compassion, Gibson shows little for his audience. It's not just that we see Jesus (Jim Caviezel) being whipped by Roman guards, but that the flaying drags on and on, with loving close-ups of the scourge marks oozing crimson. During the Crucifixion blood spurts geyserlike, and the soundtrack reverberates with the crunch of bones as Christ's hands and feet are nailed to the cross.

What's lacking in Passion, a movie of compelling visuals and economical, often wordless storytelling, is any sense of context or character development. Jesus suffers mightily, but the greatest journey his character actually makes is the physical one up the hill to Golgotha. Although the film is sprinkled with flashbacks of Christ's life (including one showing off his innovative table-making skills), it's often unclear who's who and what's what unless you know your Gospels. Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) seems simply an attractive woman who's devoted to Jesus and his mother. And The Passion is fuzzy on what Christ has actually done to so anger the Jewish high priests calling for his death. Will the film encourage anti-Semitism? Possibly; the high priests are depicted as a snarling, bloodthirsty lot, but then again, the Roman guards are appallingly nasty too.

The acting, with a large, international cast speaking Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew, is generally solid. There's little of the grandstanding familiar from earlier biblical epics and even fewer bad wigs. Caviezel makes for a manly, one-note Jesus, a willing martyr who knows he's headed to a better place.

Allison Adato. Tom Cunneff and Amy Longsdorf in Los Angeles, Kathy Ehrich and Daniel S. Levy in New York City, Pam Grout in Chicago, Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C., Margaret Nelson in Minneapolis and Praxilla Trabattoni in Rome

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Cunneff,
  • Amy Longsdorf,
  • Kathy Ehrich,
  • Daniel S. Levy,
  • Pam Grout,
  • Macon Morehouse,
  • Margaret Nelson,
  • Praxilla Trabattoni,
  • Leah Rozen.