Ash Wednesday debut for Mel Gibson's 'Passion of Christ'

Thursday, October 23rd 2003, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Mel Gibson's passion-stirring Biblical epic ``The Passion of Christ'' will open in the United States on Feb. 25 _ Ash Wednesday on the Roman Catholic calendar.

The Oscar-winning ``Braveheart'' director and Newmarket Films announced a deal Thursday to distribute Gibson's embattled film about the last hours of Jesus Christ's life.

The film has drawn complaints from some Jewish leaders, who say it suggests Jews were responsible for Christ's death. Conservative Catholics who have seen the film have called it a powerful rendering of Christ's crucifixion.

Gibson spent a reported $30 million to produce the movie, which he has defended as faithful to the Gospels. In response to worries by Jewish groups, he has said the film is intended ``to inspire, not offend.''

In 1965, the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church formally rejected Jewish culpability in Christ's death. But Gibson belongs to an ultraconservative Catholic movement that rejects the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and the legitimacy of the current Vatican leadership.

``The Passion of Christ'' stars Jim Caviezel as Christ and Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene. The dialogue is in Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic with English subtitles.

While seeking a distributor, Gibson's Icon Productions company screened the film for many faith-based groups, like church leaders, scholars and religious charities among others, in a grass-roots efforts to promote the film.

That effort will now join with Newmarket, an independent distribution company that specializes in publicizing and securing theaters for such art-house films as ``Memento,'' ``Real Women Have Curves'' and ``Whale Rider.''

Gibson will distribute the film himself through Icon in the United Kingdom and Australia.

The film's Ash Wednesday debut places it in Lent, the 40-day religious period preceding Easter observed by Christians as a season of fasting and penitence.

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