Christians, Critics Sound off on Gibson's Passion

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
February 27, 2004

After months of controversy and media hype, Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ arrived Wednesday—and became an instant box office success.

Opening in more than 3,000 theaters in North America—remarkable for a religious film in Latin and Aramaic with English subtitles—it collected a massive 23.6 million dollars (U.S.) in its first day.

Much of the prerelease debate focused on charges of anti-Semitism. For almost a year, some Jewish organizations expressed concern that the movie could resurrect the age-old charge that Jews killed Jesus Christ.

But few had actually seen the movie. Pre-screenings of the film were closed to critics and attended almost exclusively by pastors, ministers, and other Christian leaders.

When they finally saw it, many major critics gave the film a thumbs down. But not because they thought it was anti-Semitic. Instead, many complained about the movie's extreme violence. By focusing on the Crucifixion, they said, the film fails to communicate the inspirational message of Jesus Christ.

Many Christians, on the other hand, have praised the film as an accurate and powerful interpretation of the story of Christ. Criticizing the movie's violence and narrow focus, they contend, is to miss the point, because the Crucifixion is at the heart of the Christian message.

"The great emphasis of the New Testament writers is geared toward the Crucifixion as the central, focal part of history and the watershed for humankind," said Rev. Alan J. Meenan of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood in California.

Jesus in Hollywood

The relationship between Hollywood and the Christian community has long been strained. The last major Hollywood film about Jesus, Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, came out in 1988. Many Christians considered that movie blasphemous, due to a dream sequence showing Jesus having sex with Mary Magdalene. The movie flopped at the box office.

A movie that portrays Jesus in a wholly positive light may not sound like a great gamble. There are, after all, over a billion Christians around the world. But when Mel Gibson announced his plans to make The Passion, no Hollywood studio agreed to back him. Gibson had to spend a reported U.S. $25 million of his own money to make the film.

While the response from most moviegoers has been overwhelmingly positive, many reviews have been negative, criticizing the film's brutality. The movie graphically depicts in lingering detail the brutal beating of Christ by Roman soldiers with cats-of-nine-tails and by an angry mob as he carries the cross to his own crucifixion.

David Denby of The New Yorker magazine likened it to a "sickening death trip" that "falls in danger of altering Jesus' message of love into one of hate." A. O. Scott of the New York Times said the film was half "horror movie" and half "slasher film."

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