While preview audiences are leaving theaters deeply moved by Mel Gibson’s controversial new film “The Passion of the Christ,” critics are slamming it for excessive violence, questioning its spiritual message and wondering aloud if it is anti-Semitic.
With the film opening in 2,800 theaters on Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times ran a rare front-page review warning that the movie was certain to divide people and the New York Daily News called it an anti-Semitic work with violence that was ”grotesque, savage and often fetishized” in slow motion.
New York Post critic Lou Lumenick calls the film “an impressive, ultra-violent -- and deeply troubling -- take on Jesus’ final hours” even as his paper ran a front-page story saying that audience reaction was extremely positive with viewers weeping and declaring they would never be the same.
Daily News critic Jami Bernard said: “No child should see this movie. Even adults are at risk. Mel Gibson’s ’The Passion of the Christ’ is the most virulently anti-Semitic movie since the German propaganda films of World War Two. It is sickening, much more brutal than any ’Lethal Weapon.”’
While calling the film undeniably powerful, she adds that it “feels like a propaganda tool rather than entertainment for a general audience.” Bernard also said that “Jews are vilified, in ways both little and big, pretty much nonstop for two hours, seven minutes. Gibson cuts from the hook nose of one bad Jewish character to the hook nose of another in the ensuing scene.”
'Almost sadistic violence'The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan said, “The film left me in the grip of a profound despair, and not for reasons I would have thought. It wasn’t simply because of ’The Passion’s’ overwhelming level of on-screen violence, a litany of tortures ending in a beyond-graphic crucifixion.
“And it wasn’t because of the treatment of the high priest Caiphas and the Hebrew power elite of Jesus’ time, a disturbing portrait likely to give, I feel sure unintentionally, comfort to anti-Semites. Instead, what is profoundly disheartening is that people of goodwill will see this film in completely different ways.
“Where I see almost sadistic violence, they will see transcendence; where I see blame, they will see truth.”
Turan added that Gibson’s “career-long interest in martyrdom” and his belief in the Gospels’ literal truth “have sideswiped this film. What is left is a film so narrowly focused as to be inaccessible for all but the devout. Those factors have made “The Passion” a film that will separate people rather than bring them together.”
Turan notes that Gibson and others involved in the film have denied that the film blames the Jews for Jesus’ death but adds, “It would be impossible for any disinterested viewer (if one could be found) to escape the fact that ’The Passion’ does not just mention in passing but is centered dramatically on the culpability of the Jews.
“This notion, sometimes called blood libel or blood guilt, has led to untold suffering and death over hundreds and hundreds of years, and should have given someone, even a believer, pause.”
But while the critics zero in on the film’s faults, many preview audiences are leaving theaters say they felt inspired by the film.
In Overland Park, Kansas, leaders of the First Family Church sold 3,500 seats to nine showings of the movie, offering Gospel sermons after the closing credits.
Leaders of the southern Baptist-based church were polling every attendee and asking those seeing the film to “commit themselves to Christ” and so far scores of movie-goers have, said First Family associate pastor Jeremy Johnston.
“It is overwhelming,” he said. “We’re going to see hundreds of (faith commitment) decisions by the end of the week. They’re inviting Christ into their lives.”