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'The Passion' Stirs Controversy at the Vatican

Aired January 21, 2004 - 15:15   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Well, there's certainly no doubt about "The Passion." Mel Gibson's new movie about the last hours of Jesus has stirred a stunning depth of controversy. And it hasn't even hit the screens just yet.
Some Jewish groups have expressed concern that the vivid depiction of the crucifixion will arouse new charges of Jewish guilt. Gibson himself is a fervent Catholic. And Catholics are among the film's most ardent supporters.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There was not an anti-Semitic word. In fact, it was a story about anti-Semitism. Clearly is clearly Jewish. Mary is very clearly a Yiddish imoma (ph). She is very clearly a Jewish mother. And it's about the oppression of Jewish people.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As leaders, as pastors, it will be our responsibility to make sure nobody gets the wrong message in that they start thinking that all the Jews are responsible.


O'BRIEN: Now, even the pope has been ensnared in this controversy, amid reports that he has screened the movie and deemed it accurate. Of course, that was the initial report, because later, a Vatican spokesman -- actually higher than that, the pope's personal secretary -- denied the reports, saying the pope had expressed no opinion of the film, whose full title, once again, "The Passion of the Christ."

Joining us now from Rome to talk a little bit about this and what's on the record, what's not, and who looks good, if anybody, through all this is Vatican analyst John Allen, who is a correspondent for "The National Catholic Reporter."

John, good to have you with us.


O'BRIEN: All right, walk us through the story, what we know on the record, what we know to be true, sort of chronologically, anyway.


Well, I think the bottom line up top is that we at this stage really have no idea what the pope actually said or didn't say. It worked like this. In mid-December, December 17, to be specific, a senior Vatican official told my newspaper that the pope had seen the film and had said it is as it was, meaning, as you indicated, that the pope found it to be historically accurate based on the Gospels.

At the same time, Peggy Noonan in "The Wall Street Journal" published a column quoting the same statement, which she got through the movie's producers. Those statements sort of hung on the record for several days, until late December, when another news agency, the Catholic News Service, ran a piece quoting Vatican officials, anonymously, saying the pope hadn't seen it.

So this opened up a can of worms about what actually was said and wasn't said. And this sort of uncertainty hung in the air until it was amplified on Monday, when, as you indicated up top, the pope's private secretary, Stanislaw Dziwisz, issued an on-the-record statement, saying the pope had made no declaration about the film.

Now, at the same time, we have other Vatican officials, on background, who are continuing to insist the pope did say this. And we have yet other sources on the record who are saying they heard Dziwisz on other occasions say the pope did say it. So, as you can see, it's kind of a mess.

O'BRIEN: And the latest news to share with people is that the production company, Mel Gibson being the person who financed this film and directed it, is out with a statement saying, it has some documentation proving that they were at least told by the pope's secretary that he did, in fact, give a thumbs-up to this movie.


The Gibson people, we say, they feel a little bit hung out to dry on this, because they believe that they were given authorization to communicate the pope's reaction. And they assert that they have communications, both oral and written, from the pope's spokesperson confirming that. However, it has to be said that, to date, they have not released that communication and, as of today anyway, are saying they're not going to have any further comment.

O'BRIEN: Well, what's your gut tell you on this, John? Is it possible the Vatican did not want to be in the position of the pope becoming a reviewer of a piece of art, for better or worse?

ALLEN: Yes, well, unfortunately, my gut is relatively mute on the question of what the pope actually said. To tell you the God's honest truth, I don't know.

What I do know is that I think that the point you just made is right, that, once this thing got out, I think there was a real sense in the Vatican that this was not a good thing, No. 1, because they didn't want the pope to be involved in a debate over anti-Semitism. As you know, the pope has a track record of great sensitivity to Jews and to Judaism and I don't think wanted to be dragged into this.

I think, secondly, the pope, just in general, does not issue commercial endorsements. It's considered unseemly. (CROSSTALK)

ALLEN: And, third, this was seen as an invasion of the pope's privacy.

O'BRIEN: You can almost imagine the blurb in the newspaper ad. "It is as it was" -- John Paul II. And I'm sure that upset the Vatican.

Having said all of this, it's good for business for the movie, regardless, right?


Well, at the end of the day, I think you have to say, whether this was the product of design or chance, the one thing all this controversy has done is put the eyes of at least the English-speaking world on the release date of this movie, which is February 25. Six months ago, people were saying this thing was going to bomb. The idea of going to see a movie that was shot in Aramaic and Latin and appealing to a mass audience seemed incredible.

But I think now, after all of the controversy and all of the attention and all of the free publicity this thing has generated, I think they're anticipating they're going to have a very big opening weekend. It's opening on 2,000 screens.

O'BRIEN: All right, let's just end with one fact that is not really denied by anybody. The pope actually saw this movie. And the fact that this movie was in the pope's VCR says something, doesn't it?

ALLEN: Yes, that's right.

The pope does not see a lot of movies. It's not like he runs out every weekend to see whatever is opening up. Over the course of his pontificate, we could tick off on one hand perhaps the number of full- length feature films he's sat through, movies like "Gandhi" and "Schindler's List" and "Life is Beautiful."

So you're quite right. The mere fact that he took this seriously enough to sit down and watch it is in itself a kind of positive statement about what he thought was there.

O'BRIEN: OK. So we'll leave it at that for now. And we'll wait to see if there's any evidence of any of this e-mail traffic. And maybe we'll have you back then.

John Allen, from the Vatican, thanks very much.


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