While preview audiences are leaving theaters deeply moved by Mel Gibson’s controversial new film “The Passion of the Christ,” some critics are slamming it for graphic violence and others have labeled it anti-Semitic.
An advance screening for church groups in Harlem Tuesday held the audience in rapt attention. Only the sound of sobs during the relentless beating of Jesus, and gasps during the explicit crucifixion broke through the church-like quiet.
When Jesus was resurrected at the end a woman shouted ”Hallelujah,” and the audience burst into applause.
Many critics have been less enthralled.
With the film opening in 2,800 theaters 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.
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 II.”
Bernard called it “sickening” and “brutal” and though she conceded the film was undeniably powerful, she said it “feels like a propaganda tool rather than entertainment for a general audience.” She said “Jews are vilified, in ways both little and big, pretty much nonstop for two hours, seven minutes.”
Moviegoer Rose Mercado, who works for the Latino Pastoral Action Center, said, “It was so moving, I’m still shaking,” and added she thought the Jews were simply portrayed “playing politics.”
Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan had a different view, saying the portrait of the Hebrew power elite of Jesus’ time was “likely to give, I feel sure unintentionally, comfort to anti-Semites.”
Turan noted that Gibson and others involved in the film have denied the movie blames Jews for Jesus’ death but he adds, “‘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.”
The violence upset many in the Harlem audience.
Teen Mayelin Guzman, attending with a group from the Church of the Incarnation, said the bloody torturing of Jesus was “a little crazy,” but added she thought the movie would “change a lot of people’s minds about the church” in a positive way.
Turan said what was “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.”
Indeed. Rosemary Henderson, who provides home care for the elderly, said “some people’s lives will be changed by this movie.”
“I feel Mel Gibson is right on time with this movie. Hats off to him and God bless him. I don’t care what the press or any of the critics say.”
Other preview audiences, usually made up of church groups generally predisposed to the movie’s message, have left theaters feeling inspired.
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.