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The Critics Speak

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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.

ADDENDUM: Read more about other Jesus movies here, and about the Mel Gibson controversy here.

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About sssmith

  • The folks over at Ain’t It Cool News have been posting reviews for the past few weeks. Now remember, AICN is juvenile, profane, contemptuous, obnoxious and dismissive. But the vast bulk of reviews have been at the least positive, and some have been glowing. These are folks who couldn’t care less about the religious message (or even consider that a liability) and approach it almost purely as cinema. And largely, they like it, though many are surprised at the film’s sustained brutality. Seems a good predictor of the film’s success, to me. This one will do close to $40 million its opening weekend, easily.

  • Thanks for pointing out another source of reviews by people who have seen the movie. Here’s a link to one of those reviews at Ain’t It Cool News.

  • Eric Olsen

    Thanks Dr. Syd, your perspective is powerful and clearly we shouldn’t judge the movie itself without seeing it.

    I also admit I have a real thing about anyone with even a whiff of Holocaust denial about them.

  • Did anyone see Andy Rooney’s commentary on The Passion last night? I found it amusing…

    He ends the segment with:

    My question to Mel Gibson is: “How many million dollars does it look as if you’re going to make off the crucifixion of Christ?”

    And i do believe there is something wrong with mentioning Caravaggio and Mel Gibson in the same breath.

  • My question to Andy Rooney is: “How many million dollars have you made off that I’m-just-an-ordinary-guy schtick that wore out its welcome 20 years ago?”

  • Shark

    Just a few asides:

    * While he was arguably the greatest painter in history, Caravaggio was also (allegedly) a homosexual and a murderer.

    Which gets back to the old argument of the validity of the art vs the reputation of the artist. —Which might also apply to Mel.

    * This movie should be banned for no other reason than that it allows people like Roger Ebert to preach on TV. Just what we need: more TV evangelists with “faith-based initiatives”.

    Carry on.

  • Kinda like that old argument about the validity of the comment vs the silliness of the blogger.