Friday, March 5, 2004


Passionate about ‘Passion’

BEVERLY HILLS, CA. >> Somewhere in her cavernous hotel suite, Maia Morgenstern can be heard rummaging through clothes.

"So sorry," she yells towards the living room, "I will be very quick. I promise."

There are clothes stacked on a couch, draped over chairs, some dropped on the floor. Shoes are in two corners of the room, which has a panoramic view of black storm clouds and the Pacific Ocean several miles to the west. Then, like the thunderous rain a few minutes earlier, Morgenstern sweeps into the room, her dark eyes piercing and commanding.

"Very sorry to keep you waiting," the actress of "The Passion of the Christ" says, smiling with crimson lips. "My, it has been such a hectic few days. Now, please, sit, sit, sit. I want to talk."

Morgenstern seems genuinely excited about "dialoguing" about the film, "Mr. Gibson," her life in Romania, motherhood and her neurosurgeon husband "who looks just like Sean Penn."

"There is so much to say about this film, because it is not your typical film, now is it?" says the actress who plays Mary. "Of course, it was difficult emotionally and physically, but I am used to overcoming difficulties. I did tell you I am Romanian?"

Morgenstern, 42, seems to have a check list of topics regarding the film.

"I am Jewish, yes, and my parents were Holocaust survivors. 'Passion' is not anti-Semitic, as some have claimed," she says.

"Mel Gibson is an artist, a director. He never imposed his religious convictions on anyone.

"There are many messages in the film, but certainly I think the most important one is social-political. It's how people can be manipulated by their leaders."

Morgenstern's English is quite good but she still asks several times if she's pronouncing a word correctly or if her definition is correct. She sits on a tightly upholstered chair with her legs tucked underneath and gesticulates rapidly throughout the discussion.

"When people see the film, they will see a work of art," she insists. "Muslims, atheists, Christians and Jews all worked on the film, but race and religion were never an issue.

"It's a message of tolerance and love and speaks to our conscience. 'Passion,' like ancient theater, leads us to catharsis."

Being her home country's most renowned actress, she says she's experienced political manipulation first hand in Romania.

"I keep telling people this again and again and again," she says. "One definite political message the film offers is about the responsibility and impact political and military leaders can have in manipulating the masses and interfering in people's consciences, particularly at a moment of crisis, as it was then in the film.

"When there are poor, starving people oppressed by dictatorships or temple leaders, it is so easy to manipulate them, turning them into beasts.

"During Romania's revolution, we were so confused. There were slogans that led us to believe some things that just weren't true. I found myself shouting 'Yes, yes,' for people I didn't know anything about except from posters and pamphlets. I was so angry that I had just got caught up. I didn't think twice. I just wanted change."

Back to the film, Morgenstern said that the Roman occupation of Judea was "terrible and people were very poor."

"Pontius Pilate was very afraid that there could be a real revolution," she said, referring to the Roman governor of Judea who caved in to the pressures of a mob and allowed Jesus to be crucified. "The temple leaders convinced the Jewish community that Jesus was a blasphemer, because the leaders feared losing power."

Audiences need to understand that "Passion" is not a documentary but "art," she said.

"This film asks a lot of questions and challenges us to find our own answers, spiritually and otherwise. I believe in art, that art can change things for the better. Art is my faith. It makes us more human."

MORGENSTERN has starred in some 30 movies, the best known being "The Oak Tree," a Romanian-French production, and "Ulysses' Gaze," a Greek film. Her grandfather died in the Auschwitz death camp.

Born in Bucharest, she studied at the Film and Theatre Academy, then acted at the Piatra Neamt National Theatre between 1985-88, the State Jewish Theatre between 1988-90 and, since 1990, at the National Theatre in Bucharest. Morgenstern has received two major awards in her country for her stage work and appeared in Joe Chapelle's 2000 television special, "Dark Prince: The True Story of Dracula."

Morgenstern tries "to avoid this terrible disease I call suspicion."

"I try not to build ghettos in or outside of me and I'm never, ever defensive," she said.

Becoming an actress was "probably because I didn't have time enough to play" as a child.

"Romania was a very difficult place to live when I was growing up. My parents stressed very much the importance of education."

While her father, a mathematician, gave her leeway for grades in history, math and geography, he emphasized the importance of learning the Romanian language.

"I became the best in that, like a scholar ... ," she says.

At 18, Morgenstern told her parents she wanted to become an actress.

"I had been ashamed to say anything before, because I thought everyone would laugh at me," she said. "My father supported me fully but told me to read a lot, practice a lot and become cultivated."

Morgenstern is a mother of three, with a 20-year-old son and two daughters, 5 years old, and 9 months old, and said having children helped her relate to the character Mary.

"The beauty of the film is that it speaks vividly about a mother losing her child and not being able to do a thing when he is scourged, crucified," she says. "But she can be there with him through it all."

Gibson frequently used Morgenstern as a sounding board to ensure the film's action and trappings fit Judaic traditions.

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