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How ironic that when a movie producer takes artistic license with historical events, he is lionized as artistic, creative and brilliant, but when another takes special care to be true to the real-life story, he is vilified.

Actor-producer Mel Gibson is discovering these truths the hard way as he is having difficulty finding a United States studio or distributor for his upcoming film, “The Passion,” which depicts the last 12 hours of the life of Jesus Christ. Gibson co-wrote the script and financed, directed and produced the movie.

For the script, he and his co-author relied on the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as well as the diaries of St. Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824) and Mary of Agreda’s “The City of God.”

Gibson doesn’t want this to be like other “sterilized religious epic[s]. I’m trying to access the story on a very personal level and trying to be very real about it.” So committed to realistically portraying what many would consider the most important half-day in the history of the universe, Gibson even shot the film in the Aramaic language of the period. In response to objections that viewers will not be able to understand that language, Gibson said, “Hopefully, I’ll be able to transcend the language barriers with my visual storytelling; if I fail, I fail, but at least it’ll be a monumental failure.”

To further ensure the accuracy of the work, Gibson has enlisted the counsel of pastors and theologians, and has received rave reviews. Don Hodel, president of Focus on the Family, said, “I was very impressed. The movie is historically and theologically accurate.” Ted Haggard, pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colo., and president of the National Evangelical Association, glowed: “It conveys, more accurately than any other film, who Jesus was.”

During the filming, Gibson, a devout Catholic, attended Mass every morning because “we had to be squeaky clean just working on this.” From Gibson’s perspective, this movie is not about Mel Gibson. It’s bigger than he is.

“I’m not a preacher, and I’m not a pastor,” he said. “But I really feel my career was leading me to make this. The Holy Ghost was working through me on this film, and I was just directing traffic. I hope the film has the power to evangelize.”

Even before the release of the movie, scheduled for March 2004, Gibson is getting his wish. “Everyone who worked on this movie was changed. There were agnostics and Muslims on set converting to Christianity… [and] people being healed of diseases.”

Gibson wants people to understand through the movie, if they don’t already, the incalculable influence Christ has had on the world. And he grasps that Christ is controversial precisely because of Who He is – God incarnate. “And that’s the point of my film really, to show all that turmoil around him politically and with religious leaders and the people, all because He is Who He is.”

Gibson is beginning to experience first hand just how controversial Christ is. Critics have not only speciously challenged the movie’s authenticity, but have charged that it is disparaging to Jews, which Gibson vehemently denies. “This is not a Christian vs. Jewish thing. ‘[Jesus] came into the world, and it knew him not.’ Looking at Christ’s crucifixion, I look first at my own culpability in that.”

Jesuit Father William J. Fulco, who translated the script into Aramaic and Latin, said he saw no hint of anti-Semitism in the movie. Fulco added, “I would be aghast at any suggestion that Mel is anti-Semitic.”

Nevertheless, certain groups and some in the mainstream press have been very critical of Gibson’s “Passion.” The New York Post’s Andrea Peyser chided him: “There is still time, Mel, to tell the truth.” Boston Globe columnist James Carroll denounced Gibson’s literal reading of the biblical accounts. “Even a faithful repetition of the Gospel stories of the death of Jesus can do damage exactly because those sacred texts themselves carry the virus of Jew hatred,” wrote Carroll. A group of Jewish and Christian academics has issued an 18-page report slamming all aspects of the film, including its undue emphasis on Christ’s passion rather than “a broader vision.” The report disapproves of the movie’s treatment of Christ’s passion as historical fact.

The moral is that if you want the popular culture to laud your work on Christ, make sure it either depicts Him as a homosexual or as an everyday sinner with no particular redeeming value (literally). In our anti-Christian culture, the blasphemous “The Last Temptation of Christ” is celebrated, and “The Passion” is condemned. But if this movie continues to affect people the way it is now, no amount of cultural opposition will suppress its force and its positive impact on lives everywhere. Mel Gibson is a model of faith and courage.

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