Special projects require special tactics. And there can be few films requiring such an approach as Mel Gibson's $25m religious tract The Passion.

Gibson's company Icon Entertainment and ICM, the Catholic activist superstar's agent, are carefully selecting distributors for what it already knows is inflammatory and difficult material.

On the eve of the Venice film festival a private screening was held in Rome, home of the Roman Catholic church, for a hand-picked group of leading European distributors. These included several from the predominantly Catholic Italy, two or three from Germany, a couple from Benelux and one each from Scandinavia and Switzerland.

All the distributors were required to sign a confidentiality agreement concerning the contents of the film before entering the screening room.

Icon and ICM do not appear to be asking for money upfront in the form of minimum guarantees, but are instead asking to hear details of the distributors' marketing plans and p&a commitments.

Although one of those present at the screening described it as a " beauty contest", the real question for distributors is whether they want to be associated with the film. Although it is not likely to be released until Easter next year, The Passion has already stirred up a storm of controversy. This has included front-page stories in the New York Times and protests from Jewish lobby groups, who fear the film is anti-Semitic. It has even been criticised by some Catholic theologians.

One of the distributors who saw the Rome version said: "it establishes differences between the different religions more than it is anti-Jewish."

The other problem for potential distributors is the film's commercial potential. Quite apart from the poor box office track record of religious films, is The Passion's language. The film was shot in ancient languages Latin and Aramaic which are no longer in everyday spoken use. When the self-financed picture was announced Gibson, who directs and produces, was adamant that it would be released without sub-titles or dubbed versions. The Rome screening is understood to have used a video projector and partial English sub-titles.

But Gibson, who has screened earlier versions of the film for political and religious leaders in the US and showed four-minutes of edited highlights to distributors at last month's Australian Movie Convention, has already compromised at least once. He told The New Yorker magazine that as proof of his desire to avoid religious confrontation he has cut a scene where Caiaphus curses Pontius Pilate and his ancestors. Distributors said they the version they saw was not at the stage of "picture lock".

Icon CEO Nick Hill and head of sales Simon Crowe were both in Toronto and did not return Screen International's calls for comment.