Mel Gibson's camp had been dismissing criticism of his Crucifixion film ''The Passion'' as having the potential to stir anti-Semitism, arguing that such criticism was based on a stolen, outdated draft of the screenplay, not the finished film. Now, however, an official from the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish group that has been the project's most consistent critic, has seen the completed movie, and he says the picture has confirmed his fears that ''The Passion'' will fuel bigotry by depicting Jews as bearing primary blame for the execution of Jesus Christ.
Gibson has been staging private screenings of the movie (which he directed, cowrote, and financed) for Protestant and Catholic leaders and conservative pundits. Though he'd made a point of not inviting anyone from the ADL, Rabbi Eugene Korn, ADL's Director of Interfaith Affairs, saw the movie at a screening last week in Houston. ''Sadly, the film contains many of the dangerous teachings that Christians and Jews have worked for so many years to counter,'' Rabbi Korn said in a statement. He added, ''This is not a disagreement between the Jews and Mr. Gibson. Many theologically informed Catholics and Protestants have expressed the same concerns regarding anti-Semitism, and that this film may undermine Christian-Jewish dialogue and could turn back the clock on decades of positive progress in interfaith relations.''
''We hope that Mr. Gibson and Icon Productions [Gibson's production company] will consider modifying 'The Passion,' so that the film will be one that is historically accurate, theologically sound and free of any anti-Semitic message,'' ADL National Director Abraham Foxman said in a statement.
Gibson's spokesman, Alan Nierob, denied any anti-Semitic intent on Gibson's part. ''Neither he nor his film are inspired by anti-Semitism, and he will continue to do whatever he can to combat hatred and bigotry,'' Nierob said in a statement. ''Mel Gibson, for his whole life and career, has been vehemently opposed to anti-Semitism and hatred of others.''
Though Gibson has reportedly asked audience members to sign confidentiality agreements (he doesn't plan to release the film to the public until Ash Wednesday 2004), many viewers have gone on record praising the film as a work of intense devotion, spirituality, and fidelity to the Gospels. They have also noted the gory violence in scenes of the scourging and crucifixion of Jesus (Jim Caviezel).