Wow, you don’t often see reviews this passionately disparate and disparately passionate, and the line – I guess predictably – seems to be drawn between believers and nonbelievers:
- “One of the cruelest movies in the history of cinema,” says the New Yorker’s David Denby in a negative review that also calls the film “a sickening death trip, a grimly unilluminated procession of treachery, beatings, blood and agony.”
Critic Denby adds, ‘For two hours … we watch, stupefied as a handsome, strapping, at times half-naked young man is slowly tortured to death. Gibson is thoroughly fixated on the scourging and crushing of Christ and is so meagerly involved in the spiritual meanings of the final hours, that he falls in danger of altering Jesus’s message of love into one of hate.”
As for whether the film is anti-Semitic, Denby said it “confirms the old justifications for persecuting the Jews.”
Daily Variety’s reviewer Todd McCarthy was more positive about the film, saying, “If an age produces the renditions of classic stories that reflect those times, then ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ which is violent, contentious, emotional, extreme and highly proficient, must be the Jesus movie for this era.
“It is also gravely intense and the work of a man as deeply committed to his subject as one could hope for or, for that matter, want…. (The picture’s) notoriety might soon be mitigated for mainstream audiences by word of mouth centered on the prolonged suffering and very vivid gore; at the same time, many true believers … will be deeply moved. …”
McCarthy rejected the idea that the film was anti-Semitic and added, “The passion according to Mel is potent stuff, but rather like a full course of bitter herbs without as much as a taste of honey.”
The Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper called “The Passion of the Christ” a “great film” and gave it a “Two Thumbs Up” in their weekly syndicated series “Ebert & Roeper.”
“It’s the only religious movie I’ve seen, with the exception of ‘The Gospel According to St. Matthew’ by Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, that really seems to deal with what actually happened,” said Ebert.
“This is the most powerful, important and by far the most graphic interpretation of Christ’s final hours ever put on film,” said Roeper, adding, “Mel Gibson is a masterful storyteller, and this is the work of his lifetime.”
Newsweek’s David Ansen said, “Relentlessly savage, ‘The Passion’ plays like the Gospel according to the Marquis de Sade. The film that has been getting rapturous advance raves from evangelical Christians turns out to be an R-rated inspirational movie no child can, or should, see. To these secular eyes at least, Gibson’s movie is more likely to inspire nightmares than devotion.”
He added, “It’s the sadism, not the alleged anti-Semitism, that is most striking. (For the record, I don’t think Gibson is anti-Semitic; but those inclined toward bigotry could easily find fuel for their fire here.)”
Time Magazine’s Richard Corliss, in a review headlined “The Goriest Story Ever Told,” said the audience for this film is fairly narrow: True believers with cast-iron stomachs; people who can stand to be grossed out as they are edified. And a few movie critics who can’t help admiring Mad Mel for the spiritual compulsion that drove him to invent a new genre — the religious splatter art film — and bring it to searing life, death and resurrection. [Reuters]
I understand Mel’s point about emphasizing the REALITY of Jesus’s physical suffering as a means to conveying the extent of his sacrifice:
- I think anybody that is in the know about Jesus as God, and they believe in that, realize that he was brutalized, and that – I’m exploring it this way, I think, to show the extent of the sacrifice willingly taken. But I don’t think people – I think it’s going to be hard to take, but I don’t necessarily know that people are going to be upset by it.
Jan. 14, 2003 (“The O’Reilly Factor”)
Understanding what he Jesus went through, even on a human level, makes me feel not only compassion, but also a debt: I want to repay him for the enormity of his sacrifice.
March 6, 2003 (Zenit)
I want the full savagery of it to sort of like, you know, jump out of the screen at you. And at the same time, this is the trick, it’s to be moved by it, not just repelled by it.
Jan. 26, 2004 (NBC’s “Today”) [NY Times]
What’s fascinating about this is that believers will see the sacrifice leading to their own personal salvation (yay!), while nonbelievers will see the brutality not as a means to a sublime end, but simply as brutality.
I am a believer, but I am not sure I want to subject myself to that level of brutality, regardless of the outcome.
Another element of this is how profoundly Catholic is Gibson’s vision. I am Lutheran but I have been in many Catholic churches and there is often an emphasis on, for lack of a better word, gore: there are lurid pictures and sculptures with lots of dripping blood, whereas Protestant treatment of crucifixion themes tend to be much more symbolic. I am imagine this is my psychological preference as well.