The Gospel According to Gibson

Article excerpt

Mel Gibson's aim with "The Passion of the Christ" was "to have a profound effect on people, to change them." For many crowding into theaters in the early days of his film's release, he succeeded, at least in the first part of that goal. In some theaters, audiences sat in stunned silence after the film; in others, people sobbed and applauded.

"I found it very sad, very moving - a great film. It makes you think a lot," said an enthusiastic Michael Julia, a Roman Catholic, as he left a Boston theater.

While some critics have panned the movie for excessive brutality and a narrow message, an eager public - spurred by months of controversy and millions spent by evangelical churches to purchase blocks of tickets - has packed the cineplexes. They gave the superstar an immediate return of his $30 million personal investment, and by the end of the weekend, the box office was expected to have hit about $100 million.

For many Christian moviegoers, it was a welcome affirmation of their faith, and they seemed to take the exceptional violence in stride.

"I don't think it's much more than most Hollywood products involved in violence," says Sean McDonough, who teaches the New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass. "I thought it was wonderful."

For John Pressey, minister for the elderly of First Congregational Church in Boxford, Mass., it was so shocking that "the beatings even overwhelmed the cross." But he says fellow churchgoers didn't complain; they "just thought it was something authentic."

Abe Cho, who's pursuing a divinity degree, "was a little put off by it," he acknowledges. "But what kept echoing in my head was that historically there's a good chance it was at least this bloody."

Indeed, many filmgoers interviewed took the production as historical truth, not just the star's artistic vision. This is exactly what has worried Jews and other Christians who warn of the passion play's historical role in encouraging anti-Semitism.

Mr. Gibson has touted his film as presenting Jesus' last hours before death as the Gospels depict them. Yet it goes well outside the Gospel presentations (drawing heavily on the visions of a 19th- century Catholic nun), including its depiction of the role of Jewish leaders. For instance, none of the Gospels says Jesus was harmed by the guards who brought him from Gethsemane to the Jewish high priests. Yet in the movie, he is so severely beaten that one eye is closed by the time they question him.

Annie Modesitt, a Christian from South Orange, N.J., whose husband is Jewish, found the movie "very troubling, because unless they were Jews supporting Jesus or helping further his mission, it was like they were right out of central casting from some 1930s movie about Jews. The movie has a lot of passion," she says in a phone interview, "but it doesn't have a lot of love."

Ken Jacobsen of the Anti-Defamation League in New York - the Jewish group that most actively sought changes in the film - says, "What struck me was that the Romans were basically seen as stupid and the Jews as evil, and there is a big difference because, as you saw in the end, the Romans began to wake up to Jesus. …