The gospel according to Gibson
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. (Jesus was, however, struck by the guards who held him overnight, according to the Gospels.) [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly stated that none of the Gospels recorded any harm done to Jesus by the guards who were taking him from Gethsemane to the high priests.]
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. The only good Jews were those that were about to become Christians."
Imam Yassir Fazaga, a Muslim leader in Mission Viejo, Calif., went to the movie to "learn more about the values that Jesus taught and the principles he lived by," he told the Orange County Register. While Mr. Fazaga appreciated Jesus' suffering, "I do not think it has added any more knowledge to me about the character of Jesus, except his commitment to his beliefs," he said. "I really do not get the point of why the violence was the focal point."
Some see the movie very much as the director's vision. "This is not by any stretch of the imagination an historical film - it's a very personal and passionate artistic statement," says Chet Manchester of Boston.
"In my view, it's Jesus' transcendent love and self-sacrifice that equipped him to overcome the cross that is the main point of his life," he adds, "but because blood and suffering scream so loudly, I fear the transcendence is lost in sensationalism."
Indeed, when asked which scenes affected them the most, people tended to opt for the quiet moments. "The scene where Jesus was carrying the cross, and his mother, Mary, gets to him - that was a great picture of motherhood and reminded me of my own mother praying for me, " says Eddie Park, a seminary student from Edgewater, N.J., who saw the movie in Danvers, Mass.
It is clear that the movie has gotten people thinking and talking. Carol Lee Hayon, who grew up as a Christian but has converted to Judaism, worries about "how we don't accept people in terms of their views." She believes that people of all religious backgrounds should see it.
While disturbed by the portrayals of Jews, Mr. Jacobsen says he's reassured by "a lot of leadership within different denominations in the Christian community that can counteract that with education." The US Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Council of Churches have released discussion guides. Across the country, various Christian and Jewish groups are planning to get together to discuss the film.
Evangelicals have seen the movie principally as a great vehicle for reaching the unchurched. In addition to buying out theaters and inviting people to attend, they've developed other outreach projects.
Spencer Burke, an evangelical pastor in California with an Internet ministry, questions that effort. While he enjoyed the film, "if I was interested in striking up a conversation with someone in my community tonight by purchasing a ticket to a movie, inviting them to dinner and a spiritual conversation, my money would be on 'In America', " he says.
Both films deal with the same themes, he says, but he thinks "In America" speaks more "to the soul of the average person who wonders about the struggles of everyday life and whether God is good or bad.
"The passion is only one part of the story, he adds. "My thought is that the passion wasn't about the cross. Jesus didn't really look at the cross; he looked at me."
• Elizabeth Armstrong contributed to this article.