Romanian actress Maia Morgenstern is Jewish, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and a resident of Bucharest, where she fields the occasional anti-Semitic remark. Which is why European reporters raised eyebrows when they learned the imposing actress was playing the Virgin Mary in Mel Gibson's controversial "The Passion," about Jesus' final hours.
Critics have denounced the hyperrealistic drama as a modern version of the medieval passion play, blaming Jews for the death of Jesus. But Morgenstern, 41, doesn't view the film as anti-Semitic.
Yes, the villain is the Jewish high priest, Caiaphas, she said from her Bucharest home; but he clearly represents the regime, not the Jewish people.
"Authorities throughout history have persecuted individuals with revolutionary ideas," she said.
Morgenstern feels "The Passion" opposes such oppression. "It is about letting people speak openly about what they think and believe," she said. "It denounces the madness of violence and cruelty, which if unchecked can spread like a disease."
Morgenstern's family experienced such violence during World War II. Her grandfather disappeared after being arrested in his native Transnistria; her father survived Nazi and Stalinist labor camps.
Morgenstern experienced her own share of anti-Semitism while growing up in Bucharest. When she was 9, a classmate called her "Jidan," a slur for "Jew": "But I was absolutely innocent, so I came home and asked my mother, "Who is a 'Jidan?'" she said.
After her mother complained to the school, her teacher sat her in front of the class and explained she was no different from other students.
"But that hurt me more, because I realized she had to assure them I was a person like everyone else," she said.
Even so, Morgenstern felt proudly Jewish. At home, her mathematician parents taught her Jewish history and philosophy; around age 15, she became curious about ritual and started frequenting the Bucharest synagogue.
"I fell in love with the sound of the Hebrew language," said Morgenstern, who will attend services on Yom Kippur.
In her late teens, she auditioned for the Jewish State Theatre and began performing plays in Yiddish; the following year, she entered the prestigious Bucharest Film and Theatre Academy and landed her first film roles.
Early in her career, she said, "There were suggestions, 'Maybe you should change your name, because 'Morgenstern' is not very Romanian, and maybe audiences will be unable to pronounce it." When she earned Europe's coveted Felix prize in 1993, anti-Semitic observers scoffed "of course she won, she's Jewish." The actress developed a technique for addressing such remarks: "When I see the irony is delicate, I give a delicate and a very spiritual answer. When it's not a question anymore of irony and not delicate at all, I give quickly a sharp answer."
Morgenstern eventually became a star of Bucharest's National Theatre and more than 30 Eastern European films; in Maria Meszaros' "The Seventh Room," she played Edith Stein, the Jew who died as a nun in Auschwitz and was canonized in 1998. Between scenes shot just outside the camp gates, Morgenstern -- who shaved her head for the role -- perused Nazi records and discovered her grandfather had died in the camp.
"That greatly affected my performance," she said. "It gave me a sort of motivation that I could somehow fight violence through the weapon of my art."
Apparently it was Morgenstern's performance as Stein that drew Gibson's attention; but she was so busy rehearsing a Gogol play that she initially ignored several voice mail messages from his casting director last year. She assumed the filmmaker was scouring Eastern Europe for an actress to play a minor role and didn't take the query seriously. Even after the casting director finally reached her, "I didn't think my chances were high,"she said.
She changed her mind when Gibson -- whose work she had admired -- promptly mailed her the script and flew her to Rome to meet with him.
"It was the day after my theater opening and I was exhausted but full of emotions," she recalled. "My heart was about to burst."
When she walked into his preproduction office at Rome's Cinecitta studios, her first impression was "of a man who was utterly enthusiastic and confident of his artistic vision." He didn't ask Morgenstern to read from the script, which was written in Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew, but rather chatted with her about her Gogol opening.
"We started a conversation like two actors, and we were talking and talking until the casting director interrupted and said, 'I have to know, what is your decision about Ms. Morgenstern?'" she said. "And Mel Gibson replied, 'Of course I'll take her -- now please keep telling me, Maia, how was your opening?'"
Afterward, the actress was whisked away to the wardrobe department, where she said, "Everyone was so disappointed with me at first. They said, 'Oh, she has short hair, what a pity.'"
Gibson, unperturbed, simply had them make her a wig.
When Morgenstern arrived for the shoot in November 2002, she found Gibson to be a director "who knows exactly what he wants. He makes no compromises with his art, and he respects actors very much."
Gibson agreed with her interpretation of her role as "essentially the question of a mother losing a child." He was gracious when she discovered she was pregnant with her third child in the middle of the four-month shoot.
Over the course of the production, Morgenstern emphasized, not a single scene struck her as anti-Semitic. Characters such as Mary and John are sympathetic Jews, and Gibson "allowed me to make suggestions based on my Jewish culture," she said. In the scene in which Mary learns Jesus has been arrested, it was Morgenstern's idea to whisper the Passover question, "Why is this night different from all other nights?"
When visiting reporters asked why a Jewish actress was portraying Jesus' mother, she replied, "I played Clytemnestra in 'Oresteia,' and it didn't mean I killed my husband. And as far as I know, Mary was a Jewish lady, so I think it is very normal."
In between takes, priests visited the set and the devout Gibson attended Mass, but the Catholic presence was "discreet," according to Morgenstern.
"We worked hard but it was a very relaxed environment. We were actors from all over the world, and the atmosphere was of sharing, like an exchange of cultures. And we had our jokes. Mel Gibson came once with a red clown nose and asked me, 'Would you please put this on for your close-up?'"
After Morgenstern returned home in 2003, she said she read a New York Times article about the "Passion" controversy, but remained relatively isolated from the conflict. She was unaware of charges that Gibson's father was a Holocaust denier, for example, or that Gibson told the New Yorker "modern secular Judaism wants to blame the Holocaust on the Catholic church."
The actress said she never heard him make such remarks; she is concerned that the media scourging amounts to a kind of "censorship" that will prevent the movie from finding a distributor. "I'm very worried about that, because I want this film to be seen by many, many people," she said. "Despite the blood and the violence, it's a beautiful film. I believe it brings an important message, a peace message."