`Passion' No. 1 at box office

Fears about film supported in poll

April 12, 2004|By Tim Rutten | Tim Rutten,LOS ANGELES TIMES

In the long centuries since the Christian liturgical cycle began, it's unlikely that as many people ever shared a single vision of Jesus' execution as have during this Lent, now drawing to a close.

The images they shared, however, came not from the scriptural canon, but from the gospel according to Mel.

And, as many expected, people's interest in sharing that vision helped The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson's bloody retelling of Christ's final hours, regain its No. 1 position as the top box-office draw, with an Easter weekend take estimated at $17.1 million.

Since it opened on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 25, Passion has earned $354.8 million domestically, passing The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers for the No. 8 spot on the all-time domestic charts, just behind Jurassic Park.

Overseas, the two-hour-plus film has pulled in huge crowds throughout Latin America, and has opened at No. 1 over the past week in Italy, Croatia, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Philippines.

Its international gross has topped $100 million, and part of that is its success in the Holy Land where it has become an underground sensation.

Bootleg DVDs and videocassettes of Passion are selling briskly -- from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank and even in Israel, where the Aramaic dialogue comes complete with Hebrew subtitles, although some members of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, have been vocal in their opposition to the film.

A pirated copy recently was screened for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who promptly pronounced the movie "historic and impressive." In a statement hotly contested by Jewish critics, Arafat's close aide Nabil Abu Rudeinah likened Jesus' agony to "the kind of pain" Palestinians are still daily exposed to" in their conflict with Israel.

A hotel in largely Arab East Jerusalem just finished a week of invitation-only, $5-a-head screenings for about 200 people; proceeds were donated to Christian charities for the elderly and orphans.

Black marketeers, who sell the film for $5 to $22 depending on format, say demand is high, particularly in the Palestinian territories, where 99 percent of the population is Muslim and prepared, after decades of conflict, to think ill of Jews.

Shapira Films, which reportedly has first crack at Israeli distribution, has yet to exercise its option. The company simply "decided this was not the appropriate time to screen it," spokeswoman Orly Ben Eliyahu told the Associated Press last week.

Ever since Gibson began work on this film, scholars and writers familiar with the interrelationship between passion narratives and anti-Semitism have expressed apprehension about its effect. The filmmaker, after all, adheres to a schismatic form of Catholicism that rejects the Second Vatican Council's repudiation of any notion of collective Jewish responsibility for Christ's death. Gibson's passion narrative is a pastiche of scriptural literalism, the mystical visions of an anti-Semitic 19th-century Bavarian nun and various obsessions that preoccupy the so-called traditionalist, pseudo-Catholic fringe.

So, are anxieties justified? In a national survey released last week and conducted since the film began screening, the Pew Research Center reported that "a growing minority of Americans believe that Jews were responsible for Christ's death. Roughly a quarter of the public (26 percent) now expresses that view."

To the Pew researchers, that figure represents a "statistically significant increase in the number holding this opinion when compared with a 1997 survey by ABC News which found 19 percent feeling this way."

The survey found that, "The shift in opinion among young people and African-Americans over [the seven years since the ABC poll] has been striking. Currently, 34 percent of those below age 30 and 42 percent of blacks say they feel Jews were responsible for Christ's death, up substantially from 1997 (10 percent and 21 percent, respectively). By contrast, there has been far less movement among older Americans and among whites in general. The text of the relevant question was: `'Were the Jews responsible for Christ's death?"

This latest poll was conducted for the Pew Center by Princeton Research Associates among a nationwide sample of 1,703 adults. The margin of error is plus or minus three percentage points

In an interview this week, Andrew Kohut, who directs the Pew Research Center, said, `'I don't think anybody could describe this finding as positive. Personally, I wish we had had the resources to extend this poll and to look at the consequences of this belief. In other words, to look at whether there is a concurrent rise in negative attitudes toward Jews.

"Our initial finding is that the belief that the Jews were responsible for the death of Christ is more prevalent than it was and that the growth may be related to the film. We do an annual survey on religious attitudes and we plan to use it to look more broadly at this question."

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