The passion of the censors

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Mel Gibson is gathering a rabid following lately, but it's not composed of fawning females over 40 anymore. Gibson's new movie, "The Passion of the Christ," has provoked wild cries of anger from foam-mouthed fanatics and timid wrist wringing from critics for its gory portrayal of Jesus' crucifixion. The film will not be released until Feb. 25 - Ash Wednesday - but it has already generated enough controversy to warrant a special ABC News "Primetime" interview (to be aired tonight at 10 p.m.) with co-writer and director Gibson.

Many religious leaders - Jewish and Christian - and others are worried about the possibility of anti-Semitic backlash from the film, but from everything that has been written about the film so far, those fears appear to be groundless. Gibson has been careful to deny any anti-Semitism in his film, and the interview tonight should dispel many misconceptions about his film. "It's not about pointing the fingers," Gibson said in the ABC interview, portions of which have been released from ABC News.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, stated in the interview that he does not believe the film and Gibson are anti-Semitic. Foxman may not have the word of God, but running the Anti-Defamation League comes with a lot of credibility. The film is supposed to closely follow the Bible, and if it runs reasonably true to the events recorded in that book, there should be no cause for concern, unless people are worried about the anti-Semitic effects of the Bible.

Yet the point of the movie is to follow the last days of Christ, not to subtly spur hatred toward Jews. Viewers will have to decide for themselves if this is true when the movie comes out, but very few critics and people who have seen the film argue that it is clearly anti-Semitic. This is not a film that screams, 'The Jews killed Jesus!' Crucifixion was not a Jewish punishment, and most people are aware that Jesus was persecuted under Roman law. No anti-Catholic riots erupted after "Dogma" came out, and although negative sentiment toward Jews is more widespread than toward Christians, the movie should not pose any threat to Jewish livelihood.

Even if the film was anti-Semitic, it should not be censored - many would hope that it would be panned by the critics and denounced by religious and national leaders, but another victory for the censor-Nazis would hurt everyone. People can find offensive material in almost every film produced, but that doesn't mean Hollywood directors should be blacklisted. If "The Passion of the Christ" succeeds in sparking religious debate, it will be a greater contribution to the annals of film than a vanilla, crowd-pleasing movie at which audience members can feel safe about leaving their minds at home.

Gibson has also received flak about the prolific violence of the film. Yet scolding a director for showing the bloody crucifixion of Jesus is akin to criticizing a director for showing Nazi atrocities during the Holocaust. 'Oh no,' the critics say, 'let's not show the audience those disturbing images; nobody wants to think about that!' No one complains when fictional movies are violent or gory, but when a film is based on historical events many people duck their heads and complain.

The reason for this is better left to psychologists, but perhaps it has something to do with differing versions of history. At any rate, Gibson doesn't seem too worried about the issue. "It's very violent and if you don't like it, don't go, you know?" Gibson said in the ABC interview.

Taking away the pain and violence of the crucifixion would kill the effectiveness of the movie, which seeks to depict the suffering Jesus endured and the positive changes that can result from painful experiences. Instead of hiding from controversial and painful issues that people don't want to think about, the public should be examining those issues and working them out - and this is what Gibson is trying to do with his movie.

Ironically, the leaders and critics who are worried about how the public will react to Gibson's film have probably piqued the curiosity of thousands of people who might not have been interested in the film before its controversy - and Gibson may end up with a new group of fans.

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