Once again, The Passion of The Christtopped the box office, bringing its 12-day total to $212 million dollars.

This success continued to astound and bewilder mainstream critics of the film, many of whom continued launching uncharacteristically reactionary and angry protests.

"I can't recall a movie that has depicted torture in such lavish, fetishistic and excruciating detail as … The Passion," says Brian D. Johnson (Maclean's). "What's most astonishing about [the movie] is that it's so luridly secular. Gibson has made a movie about flesh, not spirit—flesh that's kicked, beaten, flayed, punctured and lacerated for what seems like an eternity. I'm not sure Jews ought to feel offended … but Christians should. Anyone stepping into this movie from another planet, knowing nothing about Christianity, would assume it's a barbaric cult of blood sacrifice."

(Note: Brian D. Johnson is the same critic who described David Cronenberg's Crash, an explicit and shocking film about people who like to have sex in the midst of car crashes, as "exquisitely composed but emotionally impenetrable … brilliant and severely beautiful. It works on the mind and the eye, leaving the viewer shocked, haunted and bewildered—wondering what on earth to feel, which is perhaps the whole point of the exercise." When offended by The Passion, his put-down is to call it "luridly secular"?)

Similarly, Jonathan Rosenbaum (Chicago Reader) writes, "Gibson stresses only cruelty and suffering, complete with slow motion and masochistic point-of-view shots. The charges of anti-Semitism and homophobia being hurled at the movie seem too narrow; its general disgust for humanity is so unrelenting that the military-sounding drums at the end seem to be welcoming the apocalypse. If I were a Christian, I'd be appalled to have this primitive and pornographic bloodbath presume to speak for me."

In The Washington Post, Tom Shales refers to anti-Semitism as "the Big Lie." Indeed, using Christ's death as an excuse to be hateful and violent toward the Jews is indeed a grievous sin. But Shales then accuses Gibson of "recycling" the Lie and making money off of it. (Since when has making a profit from your work become a sin?) Shales concludes with his most presumptuous and revealing remark yet: "Surely [Gibson's] parking space in Hell has already been reserved."

It seems to me that with each passing day, more and more film critics are publishing opinions on the film that will, eventually, show them up as reactionaries when it comes to religious art. They are so troubled by the intensity and focus of this work that they reveal a great deal of ignorance about Christianity and the way it has been represented in art throughout history. Many—perhaps even most—are showing themselves far more guilty of discrimination and prejudice than the filmmaker they seek to condemn. If they are so willing to assume that Gibson is anti-Semitic, in spite of his claims to the contrary, in spite of the way in which Gibson's film incriminates those who despise Jews, then why have they remained silent, or even praised other films that exhibit obvious, undeniable prejudice against Catholics and Christians? Their two-faced behavior is almost laughable.

Strangely enough, The Passion has found a staunch defender in the notorious Web rebel, champion film geek, and reigning king of unedited and unspellchecked reviews—Harry Knowles at Ain't It Cool News. He writes,

When I saw the film all the comments about the film being a 'Jew bashing' spectacle went away for me, because the message I saw being conveyed could not have been further from the mark. To me, The Passion … is an astonishingly powerful work of cinema that's overwhelming purpose is to show the lengths of personal hell one could endure without losing one's purpose or love for one's fellow human beings. It wasn't for exploitation or out of [Gibson's] own perverse sense of bloodlust. To me, that violence was to illustrate in excruciating detail the lengths one could go through and suffer through without raising a hand to defend ones' self, to not cry for revenge, to not curse those that torment you. That in your dying moments you pray for those that would see you dead, not hurl a curse upon them. I find the film an amazing tribute to pacifism.
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Some fought back against those who condemn the film. Francis J. Beckwith (American Spectator) argues that the critical backlash is prompted by the fact that the film is about Christianity, not because of any real issues with prejudice or violence. He proposes that, if the movie were replaced by something morally reprehensible, "its producer and writer would likely have received a sizable grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. And those condemning this film would be labeled by liberal pundits, the New York Times editorial board, and NPR commentators as intolerant, narrow-minded censors, and bigots who can't see past their religious prejudices and ingrained homophobia."

New York Times columnist David Brooks argues that, "While religious dogmatism is always a danger, it is less of a problem for us today than the soft-core spirituality that is its opposite. As any tour around the TV dial will make abundantly clear, we do not live in Mel Gibson's fire-and-brimstone universe. Instead, we live in a psychobabble nation. We've got more to fear from the easygoing narcissism that is so much part of the atmosphere nobody even thinks to protest or get angry about it."

Just as some Christians eagerly interpreted The Lord of the Rings as an allegory about the United States versus threats in the Middle East, actor Michael Moriarty at Enter Stage Right similarly interprets The Passion as Mel Gibson's response to the September 11 terrorist attacks on America. "Gibson … has struck more forcefully at the heart of al-Qaida's spiritual armory than the American ground troops who drove Saddam Hussein into a rathole," he writes. "Could there be a non-violent response to our enemy's ultimate goal? There is now. The fallout from this metaphysical bomb will be endless."

Ted Baehr (Movieguide) points to The Passion's box office success and declares those dollar amounts as proof positive of God's blessing. "These facts demonstrate, once again, that God rewards those in our culture who follow Him. By making more movies with strong Christian content … the entertainment industry can reap significant benefits."

So if a film wins a huge success at the box office, God is blessing the filmmakers? If so, God must have been overjoyed with Bad Boys 2 on its opening weekend, and he must have thought The Matrix Reloaded was a sanctified event. No, the day we start equating box office success with God's blessing is a dark day indeed.

Better to see what kind of influence it has on our own hearts instead of others' bank accounts. Better to focus on the film's imagery and discuss it as art instead of as a commodity or as an evangelical "tool."

Russell Hittinger and Elizabeth Lev (First Things) do just that. In treating the film as a work of art, they conclude that it is "worthy to be mentioned with … classics of Christian culture." They proceed to vigorously explore the connections between the film's imagery and traditions in cross-centered art. "Gibson says that he set out to 'transcend language with the message through an image.' Chances are that even the film industry, skeptical and skittish about the project, will have to recognize his artistic triumph. How its millions of viewers will reckon with the movie is another story. We think that it will induce humility rather than triumphalism."

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Viewers would be wise to compare and contrast this Passion with other treatments of Christ's life. To further explore how Jesus has been illustrated by filmmakers, check out Mike Hertenstein's Epic Survey of Jesus Movies at Flickerings.

Michael Leary (The Matthews House Project) points out that "there are a number of films that ask much different questions about Jesus than Gibson does. The Life of Brian, Jesus Christ Superstar, and The Last Temptation of Christ just to name an important few. But there is also the rare film like Jesus of Montreal that does such a great job of describing Christ's odd social significance that has mostly flown under the radar of the mainstream Christian audience over the decades. Not only are there other good Jesus films out there, but at the risk of sounding heretical, there may even be a few that are better than the one Gibson has offered us. … To be absolutely blunt, The Passion of The Christ is not the best film I will see this year."

'True story' Hidalgois actually a big fat lie

Crowds continued to gather this week to watch Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn fight orcs in the Oscar-winning epic The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. At the same time, longer lines formed for Mortensen's new starring role in a different adventure film. Hidalgo, the new film from director Joe Johnston (Jumanji, Jurassic Park III), chronicles the "true story" of Frank T. Hopkins, a Native American who championed a mustang named Hidalgo as a racehorse and entered him in a 3,000-mile race across the Arabian desert.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls Hidalgo a "sand-sational, fact-based crowd-pleaser. Part old-fashioned boys' action-adventure yarn, part redemption parable … Johnston's movie weds a strong narrative and sweeping visuals to craft a winning tale of friendship, forgiveness, fate and the indomitable spirit of man."

But there's a problem. The film is the farthest thing from "fact-based." At Christianity Today Movies, Russ Breimeier explores how the story has been "fictionalized beyond belief." Meanwhile, the Council on American-Islamic Relations has declared that Hidalgo portrays Arabs and Muslims in a demeaning fashion, and that John Fusco's script is fiction from beginning to end. In the Los Angeles Times, Bobbie Lieberman reports that this "counterfeit cowboy" actually worked as a subway tunnel digger, harbor diver and circus horse handler.

Other religious press critics, while also put off by false claims of historicity, find some things worth praising.

Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) says, "Mortensen represents the quintessential cinema westerner, a seeker of justice [who is] opposed to bigotry. He's sickened by the brutality of the frontiersmen toward man and beast alike. And he does not suffer fools. He's not a flag-waving patriot. He's an individualist." But Boatwright faults the film for being "unnecessarily violent" and for trying to "exorcise the white man's guilt by infusing a political correctness."

"The desert is beautiful, the sandstorm is powerful, the comic relief is funny, and horse race is competitive," says Jimmy Akin (Decent Films). "So while Hidalgo may not be 'an incredible true story' or even a powerful story of redemption, it still ends up being an entertaining one."

Brett Willis (Christian Spotlight) says, "Other than The Passion, this is the first film I've seen this year that I'd actually recommend."

"Johnston keeps a strong hand upon the production and allows the story to unfold slowly but securely," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "It starts a bit tentatively but gains momentum after the first 30 minutes and literally sails to a strong and rewarding finish."

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Ted Baehr (Movieguide) says the film has "strong moral elements. Frank is a good guy who rebuffs the advances of the women. He helps his enemy. He keeps his own counsel. His only flaw is his drunkenness." But he faults the film on two counts: "One is the violence, and the other is touting the American Indians as better than the Muslims and the Christians."

Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) calls it "an enjoyable period adventure that gives viewers an incorruptible protagonist to root for. Whether or not he wins the race, his greater struggle is preserving his decency and humanity in the face of malicious abuse and discrimination. We root—rightfully—for him to succeed. The lack of sex and profanity is also refreshing." But he cautions families about episodes of "Indiana Jones-style violence too intense for young viewers" and "the sheer volume of Indian and Muslim spirituality woven into the story."

I found the film amusing and entertaining, and Mortensen is perfectly cast for the heroic nonchalance of this fictional hero. But when the hero's ordeal comes to its crisis point, we are shown a resolution that credits some vague Native American spirituality, as if calling out to our ancestors is our best source of hope when we're in a time of testing. (The film's central villain is clearly singled out as a Christian.) So go see it if you want to see some impressive, panoramic desert scenery, some breathtaking footage of horses at a full gallop, and for some Indiana Jones-style fun. Don't go expecting spiritual insight or a history lesson. My full review is at Looking Closer.

Meanwhile, mainstream critics are divided, some calling it a worthwhile adventure while others think Johnston's epic is too ambitious and too confused about what it wants to say and be.

A few weeks ago, I talked with Mortensen about his inclination to play heroes who endure ordeals. You can read his thoughts at CT Movies.

God-fearing dark-ages detective asks 'Whodunit?'

Opening in a limited release, The Reckoning follows the flight of Nicholas, an adulterous priest played by Paul Bettany (A Beautiful Mind, Master and Commander). Nicholas goes into hiding by joining a team of traveling actors as they look for a new place to set up their stage. When they arrive in a troubled town where the sinister Lord De Guise (Vincent Cassel) looks down with contempt on the villagers, they discover that the residents are not interested in common Bible story dramas. So, in a shrewd business decision, the leader of the company (Willem Dafoe) decides to stage a dramatization of a recent murder. In doing so, he and Nicholas provoke questions about whether or not an accused and imprisoned woman is actually guilty.

The Reckoning distinguishes itself from other recent mysteries that implicate a corrupt Christianity. Some of its religious characters prove themselves capable of malevolent deeds, but Nicholas makes it clear that faith itself is not to be faulted—only those who commit evil within the church walls.

The film takes seriously its spiritual subject matter. In fact, it takes on too much: How could a benevolent God allow people to suffer, especially his own Son, so severely? If there is no God, is everything permissible? Is life really just a scramble for power? Who is stronger—the man who believes in a benevolent invisible God, or the man who does not? If these issues had been more integral to the entirety of the story instead of springing out at us at the end (I have a feeling it works better in the novel), the film might have reached a profound conclusion. As it is, philosophical dilemmas spread through the film like a plague until they finally claim its life. There are so many questions asked—spiritual and rational—that the film finally cannot decide which mystery to solve. (My full review is at Christianity Today Movies.)

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David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says the movie is "an engaging medieval whodunit. Like the medieval mystery dramas it depicts, the film uses narrative storytelling to discuss abstract theological concepts like good and evil, faith and doubt, fate and free will. In addition to posing profound philosophical questions, the film explores the power of popular entertainment … to influence an audience and the idea of art as a conduit for truth."

In the mainstream press, opinions come in all shapes and sizes, but Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper both gave it "thumbs up" on their show.

Starsky and Hutch draw laughs, groans

In a spoof of the popular '70s cop show Starsky and Hutch, Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson are making audiences laugh just as they did in the fashion industry spoof Zoolander. Todd Phillips, who directed both films, has another hit on his hands.

But critics are at odds over the result. Some are laughing, some aren't, and some think that those who do laugh should feel guilty about it.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "relentlessly unfunny … vacillating awkwardly between outright parody and homage."

Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) says, "There are some laughs, but it's not smart enough to be considered satire. Most of the humor is devoid of subtlety, each gag hammered home, usually by crudity."

J. Robert Parks (Looking Closer) says, "The show really belongs to Stiller and Wilson. Though the gags aren't always funny, I usually had a smile on my face. Their camaraderie rings true, and their riffs on police-show cliché s are fantastic."

Steven Isaac (Plugged In) calls it "a comedic spoof that feels more like Beverly Hills Cop IV than classic TV. [Stiller and Wilson] … infuse their characters with energy and edgy personality, things their decades-old inspirations sorely lacked. But it's most certainly a downer when it comes to content. Families will be exposed to things on the big screen they would never see in TV land."

Eddie Turner (Movieguide) lists problems of "foul language, some brief nudity, a sexually-charged scene, and another scene full of innuendo to cover up its boring stretches. It seems as if the filmmakers could not decide if they wanted it to be a spoof of a cop movie or an actual cop movie, so what's left is a lukewarm action movie with a handful of laughs."

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says, "Somebody please put me out of my misery. Despite the laughs, there are just too many scenes … where a depraved mind is assumed for enjoying this film."

Mainstream critics also disagree over whether the laughs are worth the ticket price.

'Revolting' Club Dreadis 'boring and offensive'

Club Dread is apparently so dreadful that most religious film critics avoided it entirely. The movie follows the amoral adventures of inebriated partygoers when dead bodies start showing up and interrupting their reckless indulgence at an island resort.

Eddie Turner (Movieguide) says, "The movie isn't funny, and it doesn't even try to be. What's worse is that its attitudes toward sex and violence are absolutely revolting and would be off-putting to almost any audience member unlucky enough to stumble across it. Everything about the movie is boring and offensive."

"This sex-and-slasher film has no virtues whatsoever," says Alan Boyer (Preview).

Mainstream critics seem incredulous that such a thing would attract any moviegoers at all.

Judging Judas: TV Movie Offers 'Trippy' Jesus

The Bible does not say much about Judas. We know he was the treasurer for Jesus and his disciples, a job that was notably not given to the former tax collector Matthew. We know that he took money from that collection for his own use. And, of course, the love of money eventually overpowered his love of Jesus, and he sold his master for thirty pieces of silver. Overcome with shame, he hung himself soon after that.

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But why did he betray Jesus? Why was he the one at the table willing to make such a decisive act against the one he had followed? Monday night's ABC-TV movie Judas explored what might have been the case.

The movie has been sitting on the shelf since 2001, and suddenly ABC programmers have decided that this is the right time to broadcast it. Why now? Hmmm … could it be … The Passion of The Christ? Yes, director Charles Carner told Christianity Today Movies. As Mel Gibson's blockbuster Jesus film continues to earn a place in box office history, people continue to talk about what they like and what they dislike about the film. So ABC cleverly delivered the film right in the heat of Jesus fever.

The movie starred Johnathon Schaech (That Thing You Do) as the "great betrayer," Jonathan Scarfe as Jesus, Tim Matheson (Animal House) as Pontius Pilate, and Bob Gunton (The Shawshank Redemption) as Caiaphas. Written by Tom Fontana (Oz, Homicide: Life on the Street), the movie represents the last production of the late Father Ellwood "Bud" Kieser, C.S.P., founder of the Humanitas Prize and Paulist Productions.

For the record, the TV movie was passed over by most viewers, who gave the highest ratings for the evening to reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond, Two and a Half Men, and C.S.I. Miami.

You might think religious press critics would be overjoyed to see another Jesus film on television at the same time a Jesus film is on top at the multiplex. But Judas (originally titled Jesus and Judas) tells the story in a way that discomforts some.

Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) is a bit skeptical of the "dramatic liberties" taken by the storytellers, and he adds, "Had Jesus been portrayed with a bit more authority and a little less like an overly friendly weatherman, the proceedings may have had more of an impact."

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) comments on the performance more forgivingly: "Scarfe brings a lively, disarmingly playful presence to the role, if one rather lacking in authority and gravitas." He also disputes a rewritten quote that has Jesus saying to Peter, "Peter, your faith is like a rock, and on this rock I will build much church." "Today even Protestant scholars admit that the rock is Peter himself, not his faith," says Greydanus. "Why would a Catholic production water down this passage?" He concludes that the movie is "a well-intentioned film that may well convey something of Jesus' message to curious and receptive viewers."

"Scarfe plays Jesus a bit too wimpishly for my tastes," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "The script has him apologizing for losing his temper when overturning the tables of the moneychangers in the temple. We should remember that Jesus did have great love and compassion, but he also demonstrated righteous anger that needs no apology."

Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight) protests this portrayal of Judas. "The movie accurately depicts Judas being put in charge of the moneybox the disciples used, but it neglects showing how he used to pilfer money out of it. Another key element that is excluded is the fact that Satan entered Judas before he betrayed Jesus to the high priests. Judas' betrayal of Jesus is very certain in the biblical account. Judas entreats the high priests, asking what price they would give him if he hands Jesus over to them. He knew what he was doing. In this film, he is more a victim of circumstance."

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Steve Beard (Thunderstruck) stands up for the movie: "Everyone will be comparing Judas … to The Passion. There is simply no comparison to the artistry and the casting. TV simply cannot compete with a Mel Gibson production. The two projects deserve to be judged on their individual merit—but that is not going to occur. Nevertheless, while The Passion focuses solely on the final 12 hours of Christ's life, Judas attempts to fill in the gaps about why Jesus was considered such a divisive, controversial, and polemical personality."

But he too has trouble with Scarfe as Jesus. "The Jesus character … comes across more as a hippy-trippy 1970s peacenik as he talks about his regret for disrupting the moneychangers in the temple."

Only Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) praises this portrayal of Jesus. "Jesus here is more human than other portrayals, but the approach works. The movie ticks right along, adequately showing the 'outlandishness' of Jesus' claims and why they would have created a firestorm leading to his execution. Judas is a conspiracy movie, and a highly engaging one at that."

In an interview by Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk), Schaech says, "We're hoping that people who don't go to see The Passion will go to see this, and that those who do go will want to see this, too."

Personally, I hope that The Passion of The Christ prompts people to read the Gospels or seek out greater manifestations of Jesus' life in art. My own misgivings about this television movie are posted at Looking Closer.

Next week: I have a few words with Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman, the director and writer of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.