Much of the advance criticism of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ has assumed that it will stir up anti-Semitism just like medieval passion plays did. The advance reviews by critics who actually saw it are now beginning to come in. And it looks like whether they like it or not depends on whether they think of it as a medieval passion play. Rueters hates it:
This, then, is a medieval Passion Play with much better effects. Flesh is flayed in grotesque detail. Body fluids spurt in exquisite patterns. Slow motion captures any action or glance Gibson deems significant.
But Ebert and Roeper give it two thumbs up:
‘This is the most powerful, important and by far the most graphic interpretation of Christ’s final hours ever put on film,’ said Roeper, a Sun-Times columnist. ‘Mel Gibson is a masterful storyteller, and this is the work of his lifetime. You have to admire not just Gibson for his vision and his directing abilities, but Jim Caviezel [as Christ] and the rest of the cast.’
As for the controversy over whether the movie promotes anti-Semitism, Ebert said, ‘I hope people will see this movie for themselves and then judge. I don’t think the movie is anti-Semitic. Christ was born as a Jew, his disciples were Jewish. Yes, [in the movie] some Jewish priests call for his death. [But] they’re threatened by his assault on their establishment. Institutions protect their power structures. [Besides] most of the Jews in this movie are horrified by what they see.’
‘This movie does not blame all Jews past and present for the death of Jesus,’ Roeper said. ‘And no matter what your faith, it should not be shaken or threatened by a movie, even one as intense and personal as this one.’
Both Ebert and Roeper emphasized the movie’s message of redemption.
‘It focuses relentlessly on the price that Christ paid for redemption,’ Ebert said. ‘And it emphasizes that Jesus wanted this to happen. His death was the instrument of his purpose, and we should be grateful to him instead of critical of those who were the instruments of his will.’
Added Roeper, ‘And this film does all of that in such a powerful and effective way.’
In Australia, an Anglican bishop likes it:
“What is particularly striking is the visualisation of the effect of Jesus upon others. Have you ever thought how Malchus reacted to Jesus’ healing of his ear, after Peter’s overzealous removal of it? The look on Malchus’ face, while not described by Luke, must have been priceless. Consider the reaction of Barabbas upon hearing of his release, or the response of Simon of Cyrene in being conscripted to carry Jesus’ cross”
But the Consultant to the Executive Council of Australian Jewry hates it:
At the end of the day, Gibson has made a piece of entertainment, the source of which is the Gospels of the New Testament, but the authority of which is nil.
I found the film to be violent and horrific. I was surprised that there was so little time devoted to Jesus’ resurrection. I cannot see why it is important to make a movie about a group of people torturing and killing a man unless there is both hope and triumph at the end, or a trouble-making ulterior motive.
The point of The Passion, which many of the movie’s critics seem to miss, is to focus on the suffering Christ. It’s Christ’s suffering that’s central to His message of Redemption. Without it, His story loses all of its punch. Here was God made man, suffering at the hands of man, and yet instead of smoting his tormentors, He forgave them. There’s been many a time when my own burdened heart has been lifted by thinking of Christ’s suffering – a meditation that is helped, I must confess, by contemplating an image of that suffering – be it a crucifix or a Caravaggio painting at the art museum. And, in fact, Gibson’s explicit goal was to make movie that would be to us what a Caravaggio painting was to distant generations. It sounds like he has succeeded.
As to those who are unable to approach the movie as anything other than a medieval European passion play, I would urge them to remember that modern anti-Semitism is succeeding quite well without relying on Christianity. The Nazis were adept at demonizing the Jews in strictly secular terms. And modern European and Middle Eastern anti-Semitism pits Islam (or Palestinians), not Christianity, against the Jews.
I would also urge them, when watching the movie, to remember the words of an old African-American spiritual, Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?. The answer was yes, we all were. And that’s why it causes us to tremble.