'For some it will be an evangelistic experience, for others the film will simply be a violent story'

As 'The Passion of The Christ' opens in Britain, 'The Independent' asked a selection of film-goers if Mel Gibson's vivid account deserves its notoriety
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The Independent Online

As 'The Passion of The Christ' opens in Britain, 'The Independent' asked a selection of film-goers if Mel Gibson's vivid account deserves its notoriety

The Rev David Butterfield, vicar of St Michael's and St John's, Shropshire

"It's clear that Mel Gibson intends to shock and stun cinema-goers with brutality and violence. The film's version of the scourging is so brutal and unrelenting that I reckon it would have killed Jesus outright.

"However, there was another aspect of the film. For the last three hours that Jesus hung on the cross a strange darkness covered the land. Then when he died, Matthew tells us that there was an earthquake and the rocks split and that graves broke open and many of God's people were raised from death and many people saw them.

"In the film, this earthquake is very dramatic. It results in the Jewish leaders and the Romans appearing to have second thoughts about what they had done.

"I think the portrayal of this incident raises the question: was this just the death of an obscure Galilean peasant? Or was it an event of cosmic consequences?

"If we believe The Passion is the story of the death of a well-meaning Galilean teacher, we'd better rename Good Friday as Bad Friday! But if we believe this story really is about the death of the Son of God, who through his sufferingrescues us from our sins, then it really is Good Friday."

Bishop Crispian Hollis, Catholic Bishop of Portsmouth.

"The film is a vivid and sometimes horrific portrayal of the sufferings and death of Jesus Christ. It is important to keep in mind that it is a film and that its screenplay is no more than a version of the Gospels that lays no claim to be the Gospel. This film is one person's view of the Passion of Christ, albeit more or less faithfully abstracted from the Gospels, and it reflects that person's devotional experience ...

"It represents an incomplete theological picture because it portrays little of the events that led to Jesus's arrest and condemnation and only deals with his resurrection in a few passing moments.

"It draws on the four Gospel accounts of the Passion as well as adding some of the legendary and apocryphal stories which have been enshrined in the Stations of the Cross, a particularly Catholic and traditional devotion.

"The charge that the film is anti-Semitic is not sustainable. It is, however, true that the film portrays the final moments of the lethal conflict that undoubtedly developed - and which is recorded in the Gospels - between Jesus and the religious leaders of the Jewish people.

"This film does not speak in the name of the Christian Church any more than Pasolini's The Gospel According to Matthew does.

"For some, the film will represent an evangelistic opportunity and experience while, for others, it will simply be a vivid and violent story."

Rabbi Dr Albert Friedlander, Dean, Leo Baeck College-CJE

"I came to the preview with my friend, a Jesuit priest scholar who knows his Aramaic, Greek and Latin. He assured me that the Aramaic was abominable, the 'Italian' Latin bearable, and that the film was a historical fiction which obscured the authenticity of the Gospel texts.

Nevertheless, I felt that the film had been a powerful experience for the Christians around me. Some embraced and wept.

I was shattered by the film. It had some beauty, intensity, and power, even though 90 per cent of it was total sadism. I found it anti-Jewish rather than anti-Semitic, but it tore the story out of biblical time, bleaching out the Jewishness of Jesus and his disciples. It turned the torturer Pontius Pilate into a gentle, good man, set against the vile High Priest, and Barabas was a gibbering madman no one would want to release.

I respect the Christian Passion, and also see God suffering in the death of all his children. But isn't the message of Christianity the ultimate hope expressed in the resurrection? For Gibson, this means the last moment in the tomb, as Jesus opens an eye as the film ends. It's not enough."

Roshan Samarasinghe, 18, chemistry student at Imperial College London. Brought up a Buddhist, but not practising.

"This is a very provocative film and definitely worth seeing, but I wouldn't say it's unreservedly good as I'm not sure about the motives for making it. I'm not sure it's anti-Semitic, as you can't really change what's in the Bible. But it's still extremely provocative and if you believe in this stuff, it's going to have an impact - but whether that manifests itself in anti-Semitism, I wouldn't know. But it's not entirely responsible to make a film as powerful as this when there are people who take these things very seriously.

"For people of religious belief, it's an important film. But religious belief comes in many different guises and I could see some people seeing this as a bit voyeuristic. I myself don't believe in Christianity, I don't believe in the Bible, so I'm watching it purely from an entertainment point of view and I thought it's a beautifully shot and well-made film.

"I thought it was quite similar to Gladiator in many respects and in that sense it wasn't very challenging. It's art, but you don't really have to think too much. The violence wasn't overdone; I'm part of the MTV generation, after all."

Neville Nagler, director general of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

"It would have been better if this film had never been made. The glorification of violence and the reinforcement of medieval stereotyping of the Jewish people are extremely dangerous.

"The violence was shocking, far too extreme. I was also very worried by the absence of any attempt to explain what Jesus's teachings were all about and how he related to the Jewish communities at that time. Nor did the film address the question of why some people saw him as the Messiah, while others saw him as a heretic.

"At a time when we are trying to develop co-operation and dialogue within our diverse society, this film overturns the recent teachings of the Church and is unhelpful in fostering closer Jewish-Christian relations.

"This is not so much a problem in Britain, but in other parts of the world there could be misunderstandings or worse."

Daniel Roberts, 23, anthropology PhD student at London School of Economics. Not religious.

"It was really enjoyable, but I kept thinking to myself I wish I had a better knowledge of the Scriptures as the narrative isn't strong.

"One of the most redeeming features of the film is its attempt at authenticity. I realise it's obviously an interpretation and Mel Gibson's particular branch of Catholicism is quite obsessed with the physical sacrifices of Christ, but I didn't think the violence was gratuitous.

"It seemed to be more of a moral message, rather than trying to repulse. It seemed to try and convey, then as now, that violence was the lowest common language of man and that's what came across more than just the thrashing of Christ's body. The violence didn't seem to get in the way. More than anything else, the director conveys a moral message of humanity and perhaps that might convince people to look more closely at the Scriptures."

Interviews by James Burleigh