WASHINGTON (ABP) — The reviews of the controversial film “The Passion of the Christ” are in — and while both Christian and secular observers offered praise for it, many of the same reviewers also took significant issue with the movie.
“[E]ven within what often looks like a self-indulgent exercise in humiliation, pain and gratuitous gore, there is no denying the moments of genuine and powerful feeling in 'The Passion of the Christ' — some of which, by the way, evoke Jesus' most profound teachings of Jewish principles,” wrote Ann Hornaday, in the Washington Post, summarizing her review.
Time magazine's Richard Corliss said the film's director, Mel Gibson, had produced an overall well-crafted product. “In dramatizing the torment of Jesus' last 12 hours, he has made a serious, handsome, excruciating film that radiates total commitment,” Corliss wrote. But, he added, “Gibson portrays Jesus' agony and death in acute and lavish detail. In the end, all that gore tends to blunt not only the story's natural power but even the sense of horror at what a god-man has to endure to save all men.”
Meanwhile, Dallas pastor Jim Denison offered unreserved praise. “If a movie is a film you watch on a screen, this is no movie,” Denison wrote on the website of his congregation, Park Cities Baptist Church. When you see the film, Denison said, “You have been to Calvary. You watched as Jesus was tortured and executed, for you. You will never again wonder if God loves you.”
The film has stirred significant controversy since its making was first announced in 2002, mainly for fears that its depiction of the death of Christ would stoke the kind of anti-Jewish sentiment that historically has often followed passion plays.
And, although New York Daily News reviewer Jami Bernard called it “the most virulently anti-Semitic movie made since the German propaganda films of World War II,” many other reviewers said such fears were overblown.
“Is the film anti-Jewish? Well, which Jews?” Corliss asked. Besides Jesus and his followers themselves being Jewish, Corliss noted, Gibson depicts many of Jerusalem's Jews as taking pity on the suffering Christ.
“Gibson also shows many Jews (and no Romans) treating Jesus with a kindness and charity one might call Christian,” Corliss wrote. “We acknowledge, then, that 'The Passion' is rabidly anti-Sanhedrin — opposed, as Jesus and other Jews were, to the establishment of the time. But to charge the film with being anti-Semitic is like saying those who oppose the Bush Administration's Iraq policy are anti-American.”
The Washington Post's Hornaday echoed many critics who said the film lacked historical context — both in portraying Pontius Pilate as something less than a brutal dictator and in ignoring the history of overt anti-Semitism depicted in other Passion narratives.
“Gibson has exhibited a startling lack of concern for historical context, both of the Passion's ritualized reenactment and of its story itself, which over the past several centuries has been used repeatedly to foment violence against Jewish communities.”
Several critics faulted Gibson for focusing obsessively on the gruesome end to Jesus' life without providing adequate explanation for the reasons — both historical and theological — behind his suffering and death.
“Gibson's lack of attention to other chapters in Christ's life does indeed pose challenges to viewers — especially those who do not know the gospel story,” wrote Christianity Today film critic Jeffrey Overstreet.
“In 'The Passion,' the path from the garden of Gethsemane to the cross is such a marathon of bloodshed — Jesus is beaten and bloodied even before he leaves the garden — that I found myself a bit dizzy from the violence only an hour into the film,” Overstreet continued. “It became harder and harder to focus on what the director was trying to reveal concerning Christ's teachings and his love.”
Another area of concern for many critics was the source material for Gibson's account of Christ's suffering. Although many conservative evangelical leaders have praised the film for its fidelity to the Gospels, other Christian and secular critics have noted that the story draws from several non-biblical sources.
“[A]side from its entertainment value, the movie ensures the advance of biblical illiteracy for years to come and the encroachment of flaky evangelism on those who need an authentic understanding of real faith,” wrote Baptist ethicist Robert Parham, in the webzine EthicsDaily.com.
Gibson, who co-wrote the screenplay, has said he took much of his inspiration for the torture and crucifixion depictions not only from the Gospel accounts, but from the writings of a 19th-century German Catholic nun. The film features much from Catholic tradition that is not based directly on Scripture — such as Jesus passing through the Stations of the Cross and his mother, Mary, being by his side much of the way.
Despite such criticisms, many Christians are embracing the movie, flocking to theaters in such numbers that Gibson nearly recouped his $30 million investment on the movie's first day. Many viewers attest to the movie's power, in spite or because of Jesus' violent death.
According to Dallas pastor Denison, at the end of the film, the central message is inescapable: “You know that the passion of the Christ is you.”