09/01/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
There was a time when Mel Gibson's biggest problem with The Passion of the Christ—his personally financed, $25 million film about the crucifixion of Jesus—was whether to use subtitles. But translating the film's Latin and Aramaic dialogue has paled in comparison to the fight over what some critics claim is the film's unspoken message—that Jews were responsible for the death of Christ almost 2,000 years ago. Though only a few political and religious leaders have seen the unfinished film, The Passion's brutally violent portrayal of Christ's torture and execution (some viewers said they have found the violence almost unwatchable) has prompted accusations of anti-Semitism. Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, fears that the depiction of Jews as "Christ killers" could incite "hatred and bigotry." Union Theological Seminary professor Sister Mary C. Boys noted that The Passion could cause "one of the great crises in Christian-Jewish relations."
Gibson has declined to weigh in directly on the furor, but friends and colleagues are defending him and the movie. Script consultant Father William Fulco, a Jesuit priest who is close to Gibson, wonders of critics, "Is it that you think Mel Gibson is turning out anti-Semitic films, or is it that the whole Christian phenomenon, manifested in this film, is historically an uncomfortable thing?" In The Passion, which Gibson has said is based on the Gospels, members of the Sanhedrin (high-ranking Jews such as the priest Caiaphas) are instrumental in convincing Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, to order the crucifixion of Jesus (played by Jim Caviezel). Foxman's main concern is that The Passion indicts not just Jewish leaders but a Jewish mob, he says, "reinforcing the centuries-old notion of collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus." Producer Dean Devlin (Independence Day) disagrees. As a Jewish friend of Gibson's, "I went to the film figuring I'd be able to tell Mel what to take out. I found nothing offensive," he says. "He has one [Jewish] priest screaming, 'Why is this being done in the middle of the night? Where is the rest of the council? They would never approve.'"
Gibson, according to his publicist Alan Nierob, is "really upset" by charges of anti-Semitism. Says Fulco: "Sometimes Mel and I will talk on the phone. He'll say, 'What psalms do you suggest I pray?' to address the hurt." Gibson is a member of the "traditionalist" Catholic movement which rejects Vatican II, the sweeping 1960s reforms that included a renunciation of the church position that Jews were responsible for Jesus's death. Gibson, who recently contributed $2.8 million to build a traditionalist church near his home in Malibu, told TIME he believes Vatican II "corrupted" the church, leading to "dwindling numbers and pedophilia." When The Passion hits theaters—possibly later this year—it will spark even more debate among scholars; like most Biblical films, it takes artistic license with history (see box). But Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in L.A., fears that scholarly debate on the role of Jews and Romans will be lost in Gibson's graphic depiction of the crucifixion. What will happen, he wonders, when "the audiences ask, 'Who is responsible for all this suffering?' The Romans are all gone." Nierob acknowledges that the controversy only increases interest in the film, but his boss isn't joining in the fray. "He's knee deep in editing," says Nierob. "He's got to get music, sound. And he's got to figure out the subtitles."
Karen S. Schneider
John Hannah in Los Angeles and Bob Meadows in New York City