In this final pre-Passion Film Forum, you will find a few links to coverage of Mel Gibson's zero-hour defense of his film and his faith.
But first, take note: Reviews of The Passion of the Christ from religious press film critics (as opposed to church leaders) are finally popping up online. After the hype over the blood, concerns over alleged anti-Semitism, speculation about the film's potential as an evangelistic tool, paranoia over its lack of historical accuracy, and misinformation over its distribution … at last we have some articles that examine the film.
(Actually, such reviews are officially breaking an embargo Gibson's production company has put on official reviews, which is a pretty standard practice in the film industry. In any case, come visit Film Forum next Thursday, and you'll find links to a parade of critical responses.)
In an article appearing soon at Steve Lansingh's The Film Forum, film critic Stef Loy says, "The Passion of the Christ is a visceral, cinematic pulse enabler, raw and bloody, ready to bite into your heart and cause your eyes to well up with tears. Never before has the language of cinema had the potential to challenge the church at large to wake up to the reality of film. It is here to speak and move, to challenge our preconceived notions about life, to affect us in ways that no other medium will ever aspire to."
He acknowledges the film's profound effect on Christian audiences. But what of those unchurched masses who will begin to see the film next week? Loy says, "Perhaps it is too strong. Perhaps the liberties that are taken are too harsh. Perhaps it is exactly what a culture looking for substance will relate to."
"This is definitely not a date movie; it is a think flick," says Steve Beard (Good News). "Church folks should be warned, this is not a family-friendly 'Christian' movie such as Chariots of Fire or The Ten Commandments. The Passion is the most brutal movie you will probably ever see. People will be sobbing in the theaters or running out to get sick in the lobby."
He echoes one of the prevalent questions: "Is there too much gore and violence in The Passion? Probably. It made me turn my head. I just kept whispering, 'Dear Jesus,' to myself throughout many of the scenes. It is the most sadistic and simultaneously holy thing I have seen."
In the email newsletter sent to Movieguide readers, a critic offered the typical Movieguide cautions regarding such volatile issues as violence and upper male nudity (!). But he also called it "an artistic masterpiece. The pacing and style have a foreign feel, and the violence is intense. Those who watch it will understand, perhaps for the first time, the price that Jesus paid to forgive us our sins." The review declares it "a must-see movie, beautifully directed, powerfully acted, with terrific sound."
Posting one of the first mainstream Internet reviews of the film, Online Film Critic Society member Jeff Huston (Mixed Reviews) writes, "The weight of The Passion … is like a physical force. This burden is felt—quite literally—and only grows heavier in the soul as this unforgiving testament unfolds. Yet while it weighs heavy, its burden is also unique in that it leads to such humbling inspiration. This Man's passion moves you."
He adds, "Anybody can stage violence. What Gibson brings to this retelling that none of his predecessors have is the spiritual dimension."
And regarding that anti-Semitism controversy, Huston responds, "Anyone who uses [the movie] as vindication for hatred and bigotry (anti-Semitic or otherwise) is as inexplicably—or willfully—obtuse to the film's message as its critics seem to be."
Mel Gibson takes the stand on the 'PrimeTime' of The Christ
On Monday night's edition of ABC's television news program PrimeTime Live, Diane Sawyer blinked in what seemed like astonishment as Mel Gibson assured viewers that, yes, he really does believe Jesus is the Son of God, the savior of the world.
Gibson also responded to those who call him anti-Semitic. "To be anti-Semitic is a sin," Gibson stated emphatically. "To be anti-Semitic is to be not Christian."
He revealed that the controversial line spoken by Jews in the film—"His blood be on us and on our children" (Matthew 27:25)—would not appear in subtitles, so as not to provoke misunderstandings of how that line should be interpreted. Those words can be heard, however, by viewers who do not require subtitles.
Gibson also assured us that he would not add a printed message at the end of the film dissuading viewers from behaving hatefully toward the Jewish people. "That assumes that there is something wrong with my film for me to do that, and I don't think there is."
Responding to statements like those made by Anti-Defamation League's Abraham Foxman, who said he believes the film "has the potential to fuel anti-Semitism, Gibson asked us to consider other films that could be accused of the same thing. Is Schindler's List anti-German? Has that film turned viewers against the German people? He qualifies that the Romans and the Sanhedrin were responsible insofar as they were "the material agents of [Christ's] demise." And he reminded us that there were no Norwegians present at Christ's death.
In an attempt to make it clear that he considers himself—and all of humankind—responsible for Christ's death, Gibson revealed that the left hand we see holding the nail in place as it is pounded through Christ's flesh is, indeed, the director's own left hand.
Six more days until The Passion's release, and the debates continue
In an article at The Matthews House Project (appearing late this week), Michael Leary makes his case for why The Passion is unique not only as a film, but specifically as a "Jesus film."
Leary writes, "This is another installment in a classic genre of film, but in this case the story of Jesus is being told in the language spoken most fluently by contemporary culture: the image. If anything, The Passion of the Christ will be a great test case for the possibility of rendering of truly Christian language in the medium of conversation that most people these days are comfortable with."
Meanwhile, the uniquely intense protests against the film continued to lead some hysterical journalists into extreme and outrageous behavior that, in one case, was a far more damaging blow to credibility of the writer than it was to its intended target.
Roger Friedman published a story at FoxNews claiming that Mel Gibson was deliberately trying to prevent the movie from showing in neighborhoods with heavy Jewish populations. Soon after the story appeared, his poor research and sensationalism were hit hard by other Internet journalists.
"Sometimes, a journalist makes a mistake," says David Poland at Movie City News. "And sometimes, a journalist makes a mistake that is so heinous and easily remedied by any fact checking that the person's publisher deserves to be threatened with litigation and the person in question deserves to lose their job. … This is, in entertainment journalism, as serious a breech of professional ethics as any I can ever recall."
"To say that Gibson is intentionally keeping the film away from Jews and the rich is not only flatly wrong, it smacks of malice," says William Donohue, president of the Catholic League. "We look for Fox to correct itself."
Barbara Nicolosi (Church of the Masses) says, "For his punishment, I would sentence Friedman to 24 hours of continuous viewing of those self-righteous [public service announcements] NBC is always running with TV stars telling him earnestly, 'Hate is not a family value' and 'When you say something negative about someone else, you are teaching your children to hate.'"
Here's a point worth noting: Terry Mattingly quotes David Klinghoffer, an Orthodox Jewish writer, who argues that medieval Jewish accounts of the crucifixion are as deserving of "anti-Semitism" criticisms as Gibson's film.
"The Talmudic text seems clear," Mattingly explains. "Jesus clashed with Jewish leaders, debating them on the meaning of their laws. They hated him. Many wanted him dead. It is possible, said Klinghoffer, to interpret these documents as saying that Jesus' fate rested entirely with the Jewish court."
"To put it another way," says Klinghoffer. "I don't think it's very wise for a few Jewish leaders to try to tell millions of Christians what they are supposed to believe. Would we want some Christians to try to edit our scriptures and to tell us what we should believe?"
At The New Pantagruel, Patton Dodd reports from one of the screenings where Mel Gibson spoke with pastors about his film. Regarding the claims of anti-Semitism, Dodd writes, "Discounting the issue as some have done is either insensitive or lazy; likewise, stressing the issue as the overwhelming concern of the film is a blatant misreading. The question of whether The Passion of Christ is anti-Semitic is largely one that a viewing of the movie cannot fully answer—nothing persuades like a presupposition. But even those inclined to find prejudice will, if they pay attention to what happens on screen, have to admit that the movie attempts to paint a more complex portrait."
In The Seattle Times, Eugene E. Lemcio, Ph.D., professor of New Testament studies at Seattle Pacific University, wrote with concern about the hubbub over the film's emotional impact on its audience. "I am disturbed by some of the reported comments by those who have [seen the film]— those that go along these lines: 'There was not a dry eye in the house,' and 'People sobbed throughout.' Is this what makes a film successful and important—that we can all have a good cry? My hope is that viewers will (re)read the Gospels to discover how restrained they are in depicting Jesus' suffering and death. They do not exploit these obviously emotional events. Unless we ask what the suffering and death were about, unless there is an attempt to see how the end of Jesus' life is related to the beginning and middle (and how physical suffering solves a spiritual problem), we will have denied him (and ourselves) justice."
The Passion's most formidable box office challenger? 50 First Dates!
As The Passion looms on the horizon, a romantic comedy called 50 First Dates—starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore—ruled the box office. The movie, about a woman with short-term memory problems and a man who must win her heart over and over again, enjoyed its first week at the box office by grossing $41 million—the second-most-successful February opening for a film ever. (Alas, the record is held by Ridley Scott 2001 film, Hannibal.)
Mainstream critics argued after their dates with Sandler and Barrymore. Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) says Sandler "reveals the warm side of his personality, and leaves behind the hostility, anger, and gross-out humor." A.O. Scott (New York Times) calls it "a surprisingly graceful and, in the end, impressively daring romantic comedy." But Mark Caro (Chicago Tribune) says, "Sandler's movies always have combined juvenile humor with sentimentality, but the two rarely have seemed so out of synch."
Religious press critics were similarly divided.
Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) calls 50 First Dates "a stale cupcake of tasteless Sandler-movie clichés heavily iced with sweet sentiment. What could've been a funny Valentine upholding noble romanticism and sacrificial love turns out to be a crass, run-of-the-mill comedy aimed at 14-year-old boys fascinated by the noises they can make with their armpits."
Eddie Turner (Movieguide) praises "a wonderfully adept, sensitive performance from Adam Sandler. Audiences expecting just another crude, sophomoric comedy will get something with more substance. This movie's message of transformative love is not unlike that of Punch-drunk Love."
But Turner is displeased with the film's "destructively casual attitudes toward premarital sex and male-female relationships."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says the film is based on "a silly concept which is at times awkwardly handled. [Sandler and Barrymore] recapture the magic in a bottle that was uncorked during The Wedding Singer. But that magic alone isn't enough to salvage a weak script with poorly realized supporting characters."
He does, however, praise Sean Astin in his first big screen role since becoming famous as Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings. "His portrayal is broad, comical, and very funny. Other actors do not fare as well."
Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) is outraged. "It is hard to convey how awful this film is without sounding like my dog just mangled my favorite sweater ('Bad! Bad! Bad!'). The dialogue … is littered with sex talk, crass jokes and lewd gestures. 50 First Dates is filled with the kind of bawdy humor that gives frat boys a bad name."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "occasionally entertaining. Despite the on-screen chemistry of its star-crossed leads, the amusing premise is weighed down by crass dialogue and situations, making director Peter Segal's mnemonic melodrama hardly worth remembering. The film also promotes a casual attitude toward sex."
Last call for a Peter Pan audience
At Catholic.net, Barbara Nicolosi makes a late plea for viewers to give Peter Pan a chance.
Nicolosi writes that this adaptation of the famous fairy tale "would surely make J.M. Barrie proud. For older children and adults, Peter Pan offers a metaphorical level of enjoyment that is truly rare in the movies but which defines great works of art. [This] is a wonderful family film of the kind for which Christian parents are always clamoring."
As for those who say the film is "too sexy" for children, she says they have been "sullied" by "living in a perverse moment of history," and they "can no longer recognize innocence."
Next week: Film Forum offers a world of links to professional reviews of The Passion of the Christ, while hype- and speculation-mongers collapse in exhaustion, and those who predicted a worldwide wave of anti-Semitic violence look about in bewilderment as their prophecies fail to come true.
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