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Tears of Joy, Feelings of Anger: Viewers React to ‘the Passion’

March 2, 2004
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In parts of the United States, “The Passion of the Christ” is the biggest thing since the Beatles.

Churches are bringing enough congregants to sell out theaters and some movie-goers are weeping during Mel Gibson’s controversial film about the death of Jesus.

“It wasn’t sugarcoated at all,” said Jonathan Swiger, wiping away tears after seeing “The Passion” in Cincinnati. Gibson, he said, “did it perfect — and it’s about time somebody did it.”

Jennifer Tufaro had a similar experience in Los Angeles.

“The whole movie I was, like, shaking,” Tufaro said. “I’m still disturbed by it. I’m not very religious right now, but as a child growing up I was, so I learned all the stories. And seeing it was a whole different experience.”

Whether or not the two-hour, bloody portrayal of Jesus’ final days is accurate is in the eye of the beholder, but Gibson’s film certainly proved its financial clout in its first week at the box office: The movie took in $117.5 million through the weekend.

The amount was the second highest five-day total for a film that opened on a Wednesday.

“People spoke; they wanted it,” Bruce Davey, one of the film’s producer’s, told The New York Times.

The film made waves in unlikely places. In New York, the movie interrupted the sports chatter on radio station WFAN as afternoon hosts Mike Francesa and Chris Russo devoted time to the film on Feb. 26.

Around the country, some Jews and non-Jews alike found fault with Gibson’s work.

“I hated the movie,” said Tillie Tice, a member of Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C. “It frightened me to death.”

Many Jewish viewers were disgusted not only by the violence depicted but by the active role that Jews in the film play in Jesus’ crucifixion.

Jewish high priests are shown in “The Passion” as forcing an ambivalent Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, into nailing Jesus on the cross.

In one scene, Pilate offers Jews a choice between releasing Jesus and releasing convicted murderer Barrabas. The Jews choose freedom for Barrabas.

“It was worse than I expected,” said Marcia Kushner of Lincoln, Neb. “For those Christians who find this movie spiritually uplifting and inspiring and plan to use it as a teaching tool, I hope they feel obligated to also teach that hatred of Jews must not be a result of this depiction.”

“I fear it will do the Jews great harm, particularly in Europe and the Arab world,” she added.

For many Christian viewers, that reaction simply misses the point.

“If they’re going to sit here and point fingers at a movie for their behavior, I think that’s pretty sad, and that’s totally missing the message of the movie,” Cincinnati resident Jill Puryear said.

Olivia Gonzalez, who saw the film in a Tucson, Ariz., theater, agreed.

The Jews were “just the people there at the time. It could have been anyone,” she said.

The differences in the way the movie is being seen reflects differences in religious backgrounds — but it also may reflect changes among American Catholics since the 1965 Second Vatican Council absolved Jews of deicide, or responsibility for killing Jesus.

“Non-Jews genuinely don’t see the anti-Semitism,” said Rabbi Mark Levin of Congregation Beth Torah in Overland Park, Kan. “That means that the deicide charge really does not register with them, and perhaps it is not really a part of their culture. I think they are seeing how, in their view, they killed the Christ.”

Gibson is a member of a fundamentalist Christian sect that does not accept the Second Vatican Council’s decision.

“Mel Gibson is not an anti-Semite, but he is using the Jews as a club in inter-Christian debate. His opponents are liberal Protestants and, more so, post-Vatican II Roman Catholics,” said Rabbi Lewis Eron of southern New Jersey.

In the Dallas area, Arch Bonnema ,a businessman, bought out 20 screens and handed out 6,000 free tickets.

Bonnema, a member of Prestonwood Baptist church, spent the morning in the glow of television klieg lights explaining his motives to reporters from news outlets including CNN, The Associated Press and the major television networks.

“I had a chance to see this movie about two months ago,” he said. “When I came out of the movie, when I saw the sacrifice that Christ made for me, I thought I have to do something more significant with my life. I have to be a better person. A better father, better neighbor, better son, better husband. I thought: If it affected me that way, it’s going to affect other people that way.”

In Florida, church buses pulled up outside the Regal Cinemas in Winter Park, Fla.

“All non-believers should see this,” said Dorothy McRae of Winter Park. “It’s very true to Scriptures.”

Father Jon R. Donahue, a professor of New Testament studies at St. Mary’s Seminary and University, disagreed, as he told an interfaith group in Baltimore after seeing the film.

“I want to protest against the inaccurate historical portrayal given in the film,” said the scholar, whose doctoral research compared the four New Testament Gospels. The Gospels served as the basis for Gibson’s film.

“The portrayal of the Jewish high priests is a travesty, and I think the historical structure of the film is really a travesty and really portrays Jewish people of that time in a horrible light,” Donahue said. “It contains many things that are not in any gospel at all, and there’s nothing about Jesus’s concern for the poor, with the outcast in Palestine at that time. It’s simply, ‘I’m saved by the blood of Christ.’ “

In New York, activists with the Jewish group Amcha showed up outside a Manhattan theater, some clad in striped outfits meant to evoke concentration-camp uniforms.

Many have worried about the effects the film might have on interfaith relations, but some religious leaders saw the film as a way to bring members of different faiths together.

Such efforts appear to have had only mixed success.

In New Jersey, Eron said Jews and Christians who met afterwards to discuss the movie saw two different films.

In Charlotte, where more than 300 people went to Temple Beth El to discuss the movie, many embraced interfaith dialogue.

Sid Sussman, a local attorney, was appalled by the film’s violence, but said, “I want to thank Mel Gibson for bringing us together tonight.”

For her part, Sheila Ennis, the education minister of Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, said it was time to move on.

“I’m not even going to think about the movie again. I don’t want to give Mel Gibson any more of my energy,” she said. “My energy will now go to building bridges.”

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