America - Andrew Stephen finds Mel Gibson in trouble

Mel Gibson's film about the Crucifixion has already created bitter divisions and led to allegations

I watched the trailer for a new film this week, although neither the movie nor the trailer has yet been released to cinemas. The trailer showed a man being tied to a post and scourged, with one eye shut and his body reddened all over with blood; then it showed close-ups of nails being hammered into one of the man's hands, and then a foot. Grim music accompanied the scenes and there were no words in English, only in the vernacular Hebrew language of Aramaic, with subtitles.

The man being crucified in such agony in Technicolor, with no detail of his suffering spared, was Jesus. And the movie, called The Passion and the work of the Australian-American actor Mel Gibson, is already reopening old wounds in American society. Christian is pitted against Christian, Catholic against Catholic. Above all, the Jewish Anti-Defamation League (founded in 1913) says the film "could fuel hatred, bigotry and anti-Semitism", and has told Gibson that he has "a great responsibility in the message ultimately promoted by the film". In turn, Gibson, who has sunk $25m of his own money into a film that may now not even get major distribution, describes criticism of his yet-to-be-completed movie as "vicious" and says there is "vehement anti-Christian sentiment out there".

For Gibson, the film marks the completion of a 12-year journey started when he was in the depths of suicidal depression. He was brought up a devout Catholic, and in the midst of his depression rediscovered his religion. But his Catholicism is not the kind practised by the vast majority of the world's Catholics; he is a traditionalist who observes only the Tridentine Mass, believing that the Second Vatican Council's modernising in the 1960s was heresy. He is so devout that he has built his own church on 16 acres of land in Agoura Hills, California, near Los Angeles, and carries with him a cloth that is part of the habit of a 19th-century nun who is due to be beatified.

The trouble with previous movies about Christ's life, Gibson felt, is that they were far too Hollywoodised: "I mean, have you seen any of the others? They are either inaccurate in their history, or they suffer from bad music or bad hair." He decided he wanted to re-create the 12 hours of Jesus's life leading to His crucifixion - he would not only fund but also produce, direct and co-write the film - and for his script he would use the four Gospels of the New Testament.

That has proved the first stumbling block. Christian academics are now divided on whether the Gospels should be seen as indisputable historical fact or merely symbolic guidelines to Jesus's life. But Gibson's traditionalism is such that he sees the Gospels as the unwavering truth. He has shown rough cuts of his film to a selection of the evangelical Christians who are such a major component of American life, especially in the south. They have been hugely enthusiastic, thus producing an unlikely coalition between polemical evangelical Christians and traditionalist Catholics. Left in between are the ecumenical Christians, who believe Gibson's film is going too far in its literalism.

However, there was one major pronouncement of the Second Vatican Council in 1965 that many traditionalist Catholics - and, by extension, many evangelical Christians - still do not accept, or accept only reluctantly. That was the declaration known as the Nostra Aetate, which called for reconciliation between Christians and Jews and condemned the notion, previously upheld by the Church, that the Jews are "cursed by God". Jewish organisations such as the Anti-Defamation League believe that the old teachings permeate Gibson's movie. It begins with a pronouncement from Isaiah in the Old Testament: "He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities. By His stripes we are healed."

This is unacceptable to bodies such as the Anti-Defamation League, implying as it does that the movie is about the Messiah. They also believe that Gibson's depiction of a Jewish mob baying for the blood of Jesus is historically inaccurate and an incitement to anti-Semitism. In particular, they object to the use of Matthew 27:25, which has the Jewish mob saying of the Crucifixion: "Then answered all the people, and said: 'His blood be on us, and on our children'." Gibson has already backtracked on this, showing Caiaphas - the Jewish high priest - saying it instead of the crowd. But Jewish lobbyists insist that the Jews had no part whatsoever in the execution of Jesus and that it was all the work of the Romans then occupying and ruling the Holy Land.

Here the Gospels differ from each other, but only slightly. In both Matthew and Mark, Jesus's fate is decided by the Sanhedrin - a body of Jewish scribes, rabbis, Pharisees, priests and Sadducees that had its own police force and was allowed a degree of autonomy under Roman rule. The Gospels thus show Jesus being delivered by the Sanhedrin to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, with demands that He be executed for blasphemy; Pilate attempts to save Jesus but in the end gives way to the wishes of the crowd, symbolically (in Matthew) washing his hands of the matter. Thus Jesus is executed on the orders of the Sanhedrin, reluctantly rubber-stamped by the Romans.

The Anti-Defamation League, which has now also seen rough cuts of the film, says that the role of the Jews in the killing of Jesus has been exaggerated - while Gibson says it reflects the truth as depicted in the Gospels. But the League is saying that any re-creation of the Passion is likely to be anti-Semitic and inflame relations between Jews and Christians: "Throughout history," it said in a statement about the Gibson movie, "Christian dramatisations of the Passion . . . have fomented anti-Semitic attitudes and violence against the Jewish people." And in a letter to Gibson, the League said: "Passion plays have an infamous history of leading to hatred, violence and even death of Jews." Of Passion plays in general - and the Oberammergau play in particular - it says that they are "sources of theological anti-Judaism and do not help to improve the relationship of Christians and Jews".

Thus we have come to an impasse over Gibson's movie. 20th Century Fox has already said it will have nothing to do with the distribution of the film; Gibson hopes it will be released some time around the next Holy Week in 2004. Christian ecumenists, including Catholics, have teamed up with the Anti-Defamation League to press for the role of the Jews in the Crucifixion to be played down in the movie - which Gibson says would require a virtual remaking of his film rather than mere tinkering. He is resistant to that, anyway, as the film has already been shot in Rome. As the definitive theological work on the Crucifixion, many of his supporters cite a 1,608-page book entitled The Death of the Messiah, published in 1994 by the Reverend Raymond Brown (who taught at a Protestant seminary). While Brown did not accept the Gospels as the complete and literal truth, he concluded that Jewish leaders and other Jews played the major part in seeking Jesus's death.

Gibson, meanwhile, does not intend to make any more concessions. As a film star and director, he sometimes seems out of his depth in such big theological storms and strong currents. But he knows the fissures that have opened up as a result of the film he is completing: in Los Angeles alone, he has been warned he is no longer welcome at the Grand Havana Room, a Beverly Hills club, and that he will be spat upon if he tries to enter. This is what happens to somebody trying to make a serious religious film in Hollywood in 2003.