Controversy follows Passion to Europe as film breaks box-office records

rome | The current issue of the Italian movie magazine Ciak uses two vivid, full-page images to encapsulate the uproar over “The Passion of the Christ,” Mel Gibson’s controversial crucifixion epic that opened across Europe ahead of Easter.

The front cover features an inspirational close-up of actor Jim Caviezel in the role of Jesus. Bloody, battered and wearing a crown of thorns, he appears lost in pain and prayer as he embraces the cross.

But Ciak’s last page is something very different. A bitter drawing by political cartoonist Stefano Disegni shows a vast crowd of emaciated prisoners massed behind the barbed wire fence of a Nazi death camp. Their heads are shaven and they wear the yellow Star of David, and behind them a huge chimney belches smoke.

“Thank you, Mel,” they say in big letters.

Prominent among the prisoners stands Jesus himself, wearing a loin cloth and a crown of thorns.

“I am here,” he says. “Beware of vulgar imitations.”

Heralded by months of unrelenting publicity, “The Passion” opened in Europe to a volatile mix of praise, condemnation and controversy that in many ways mirrors that in North America, where the film opened Feb. 25.

Boosted by the media buzz, “The Passion” broke box-office records across the continent and sparked high-profile debate in local magazines, newspapers, Web sites and talk shows.

In Italy, “The Passion” opened on nearly 700 screens Thursday, April 7, just two days before Good Friday — the day on which Christians believe Jesus was crucified. Unlike in the United States and some other countries, there was no age restriction for viewers.

Tickets sold out at many cinemas, and the film posted a record opening-day take of about $1.5 million — more than 60 percent of the total take for all movies shown around Italy that day.

In Croatia, where the movie opened earlier this month, it also set an all-time record for opening weekend attendance. In Britain it took in more than $3 million on its opening weekend, setting a record for a subtitled film.

Despite the packed theaters, response to the film from critics, clergy and the public was mixed.

“The Passion,” wrote “Ciak,” illustrates how faith can be both “a blockbuster and a lethal weapon.”

Critics, including some clergy, blasted the movie’s graphic violence as well as its potential anti-Jewish impact.

“The Passion” is a sadistic, pornographic, blasphemous horror show and “the most anti-Semitic film in the history of the cinema,” fumed Furio Colombo, editor of the Italian leftist daily L’Unita.

Gibson and others involved in the film deny any anti-Semitic intent.

Many Catholic clergy, including some senior Vatican officials, gave “The Passion” a rapturous response and encouraged the faithful to see the film. They praised it for its hard-hitting depiction of Jesus’ torment, saying the violence could be redemptive.

The weekly newspaper the Irish Catholic called it “a great movie … bloody and beautiful at the same time.”

Ruth Ellen Gruber

Ruth Ellen Gruber is a writer for JTA.