Gibson Film Stirs Passions in Europe, Middle East

It angers Protestants in Northern Ireland, Catholics in France and Jews in all of Europe and Israel. But the Italians, the Poles and the Arabs love it.

Mel Gibson's film The Passion of The Christ, a box office phenomenon in the United States, has opened across Europe and the Middle East just in time for this week's Good Friday anniversary of Jesus Christ's death.

The film, which depicts Christ's scourging and crucifixion in blood-dripping detail, profited from massive pre-launch publicity in extensive media reports from across the Atlantic.

Now that it is playing in cinemas across two regions long scarred by religious wars, non-American critics, clergy and cinema buffs have reacted in ways that may say as much about their own countries as about the film itself.

The brooding weight of history is unmistakable. In Germany, where Catholics and Protestants fought each other long before they joined up against the Jews, leaders of all three made a rare joint statement to warn the film could fan anti-Semitism.

In Switzerland, the Christian churches agreed the film "should be quickly forgotten once the extravagant media publicity dies down."

Steeped in Gibson's own traditionalist Catholicism, The Passion has taken historical Church strongholds like Italy, Poland and the Irish Republic by storm.

Boosted by positive comments from the Vatican, Catholic priests in those countries have recommended it enthusiastically and some block-booked showings for their congregations.

"Without question, a great movie...bloody and beautiful at the same time," said the influential weekly Irish Catholic.

Portuguese cinemas have been packed.

In Spain, still shocked by the 191 deaths in last month's train bombings in Madrid, the conservative daily ABC ran an opinion piece titled "Mel Gibson and pornography" describing the reaction of a monk who called the film degrading.

In strongly secular France, the Catholic Church rapped the film as potentially anti-Semitic and a distortion of Vatican teaching. Movie critics panned it as simply bad cinema.


Mixed reviews came in areas with more Protestants, who shun the graphic Catholic images of a suffering Christ as idolatry.

In Northern Ireland, the Free Presbyterian Church of the firebrand Reverend Ian Paisley complained the film was being "aggressively marketed by the Church of Rome" to win converts.

The Evangelical Church in Germany regretted Gibson's "piety of pain focused on the external side of Christ's suffering."

"It's straight out gruesome. It made me want to throw up," said Gunnar Staalsett, the Lutheran bishop of Oslo.

The Passion enjoyed a week at the top of British box office charts. Four Anglican churches in Kent gave away 20,000 pounds ($37,000) of tickets hoping to attract people back to Christ.

"We are competing for people's attention with things like the 9/11 disaster and Kylie Minogue's rear end, so we are not going to get people in by running a jumble sale," said Russ Hughes, director of worship at one of the four churches.

Jewish leaders across Europe expressed concern that the film's unflattering depiction of Biblical-era Jews could boost an anti-Semitism they see rebounding here.

"It would have been better if this film had never been made," said Neville Nagler, director general of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. France's CRIF umbrella group of Jewish organizations called Gibson "a tortured soul."

No distributor has come forward to show the movie in Israel, leaving the curious to download pirate copies from the Internet.

But the anti-Semitism controversy has helped it break box office records in many Arab countries. Only a few states like Bahrain and Kuwait have opted not to show it.

"Anything Jews say is bad becomes interesting in this part of the world," Dubai-based film director Alfred Mutua said.