US critics condemn 'violence and gore' of Gibson's Passion

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The Independent US

Drenched in blood and mired in controversy, Mel Gibson's new film, The Passion of the Christ opened in America yesterday to sell-out shows and questioning reviews.

The film, which details the final 12 hours of Christ's life, concluding with his brutally portrayed crucifixion, has attracted controversy ever since Gibson announced his intention to produce it, fuelled by his own extremely conservative Roman Catholic beliefs.

In the US, reviews of the film, starring Jim Caviezel as Christ, suggest the controversy is not going to disappear. While many reviewers have admired aspects of the film, the majority agree that Gibson has indulged violence, gore and horror.

David Denby, a critic with the New Yorker magazine wrote: "The movie Gibson has made from his personal obsessions is a sickening death trip, a grimly unilluminating procession of treachery, beatings, blood and agony ... Gibson is so fixated on the scourging and crushing of Christ, and so meagrely involved in the spiritual meanings of the final hours, that he falls in danger of altering Jesus' message of love into one of hate."

The reviewer for the New York Times, O A Scott, said the director had focused "relentlessly" on the savagery of Christ's death. "It is disheartening to see a film made with evident and abundant religious conviction that, at the same time, is so utterly lacking in grace." The Washington Post's critic, Ann Hornaday, said that, while the film contained undoubtedly powerful moments, she doubted that it produced the message of "tolerance, love and forgiveness" that Gibson insists he was seeking.

From its inception, the controversy surrounding The Passion of the Christ has been about much more than the violence it contains. Some Jewish groups have criticised it for its caricatured portrayal of the Jewish high priests and crowd, and for what they say has been Gibson's tweaking of history.

They claim that while the film shows the priest Caiaphus and other senior Jews convicting Christ in a secret trial and directing his punishment, the vast majority of historians agree Pontius Pilate was in command and only the Romans had the power to order an execution. In the film, Pilate is portrayed as a sensitive if rather weak ruler, overtaken by events.

Last summer, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) urged Gibson to remove some of the most controversial scenes, saying: "The film unambiguously portrays Jewish authorities and the Jewish mob as the ones responsible for the decision to crucify Jesus. We are deeply concerned that the film, if released in its present form, will fuel the hatred, bigotry and anti-Semitism that many responsible churches have worked hard to repudiate." Some Christian groups who were given pre-release screenings have applauded the film and have been buying up blocks of seats before yesterday's national premiere. Reports suggest that many cinemas were sold out in advance of its openings, deliberately scheduled for Ash Wednesday.

Mr Gibson - an ultra-conservative Roman Catholic who does not acknowledge many of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and who does not eat meat on Fridays - insists that he wishes to offend no one. He has removed at least one controversial line, in which a Jewish character said of the execution of Christ: "His blood be on us and on our children." The director has said he wished to produce a film that was as realistic as possible. To that end, the entire film has characters speaking only in Aramaic and Latin. There are subtitles.

Yet there is no doubting this film is also a product of Hollywood. Fans of the film are encouraged to visit the website to buy merchandise.

For just $12.99 (£7) fans can buy themselves a 20-inch pewter crucifixion nail pendant. With its own leather cord, the pendant bears the words from Isaiah 53.5 "He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities."