This article is reprinted with permission of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Visit www.jta.org.
ROME, April 11 (JTA) -- 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--and not unexpected--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 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."
Jewish leaders slammed the movie as anti-Semitic and warned that Gibson's unflattering portrayal of ancient Jews could reignite traditional anti-Semitism at a time of international tension that already has seen a spike of anti-Jewish violence in Europe.
In Naples, in fact, posters bearing an anti-Semitic message and a picture of Caviezel as Jesus appeared on walls after the movie opened. They were signed by previously unknown organizations that police said appeared linked to the extreme right.
"The posters don't surprise us," a spokesman for the Italy-Israel Association told reporters. "It was a given that this film, with its morbid and insistent representation of violence, would have rekindled sentiments of prejudice and hatred."
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.
Spain's ABC newspaper also compared it to pornography.
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. "I personally did not find anything anti-Semitic," Monsignor John Foley, president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Social Communications, told reporters ahead of the film's official opening.
"I found the film very impressive, very moving," he said. "Even with its terrible violence, I thought to myself, 'This is the price of our sinfulness . . . I am to blame for the death of Christ, not any particular group.'"
The Vatican has not issued a formal comment on the movie, but Caviezel, a devout Catholic, had an audience last month with Pope John Paul II, who had seen the film earlier.
Many Catholic believers said they were deeply inspired by Gibson's depiction of a story so fundamental to Christian belief.
The weekly newspaper the Irish Catholic called it "a great movie . . . bloody and beautiful at the same time."
Protestant clergy and laypeople, however, were much less touched.
"It's downright gruesome. It made me want to throw up," Gunnar Staalsett, the Lutheran bishop of Oslo, said on Norwegian television.
In Germany, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish leaders issued a joint statement warning that the film could fan anti-Semitism.
In France, Roman Catholic bishops took the unusual step of officially denouncing The Passion as a distortion of Christian teaching that "could be used to support anti-Semitic opinions."
The movie's opening in France coincided with the release in Strasbourg of a European Union report detailing a sharp rise in anti-Semitic violence in Europe.
In a rare statement, the French Bishops Conference said that "the face of Christ shows through less than the obsessions of our times--the dread of evil, fascination with violence and the search for the guilty."
The movie's violence, the statement said, overwhelms the spectator and "ends up blotting out the meaning of the Passion and the essence of Christ's person and message--love carried to its perfection by the voluntary giving of one's self."
The bishops also noted that although the film opened in 500 cinemas around France, it was banned for children under 12.
"Isn't it paradoxical that a film about Jesus cannot be shown to children?" they asked.
French reviewers gave the movie a thumbs-down as bad cinema.
There was concern, too, about the film's potential impact among Europe's millions of Muslims. The film already has opened to full houses in several Arab countries, at a time when anti-Semitism is surging throughout the Arab world.
After Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat saw the film, a spokesman compared the suffering of Jesus to that of the Palestinians.
"The Palestinians are still daily being exposed to the kind of pain Jesus was exposed to during his crucifixion," Nabil Abu Rudeineh said in a statement.
The Passion set box office records in the United States, grossing more than $260 million in its first three weeks.
Shot in Italy, it has provided an unexpected boon for the southern town of Matera, whose famous cave-like "Sassi" dwellings served as a set for ancient Jerusalem.
Since the movie opened, local authorities say, there has been a burst of interest in Matera as an off-the-beaten-track tourist destination.
"It's not yet a boom, but business is picking up,"' tourism official Maria Laura Isola told The Associated Press.