Last weekend, the film took in $31.6 million, increasing the total box office to $264 million in lass than three weeks. It is expected to take in more than $300 million.
To date attitudes to the film within the Irish community ranged from admiration to alarm. With its focus on the Passion of Christ, which takes up an hour of screen time, many critics have described the film as disturbingly sadistic in its depiction of violence, contending that Gibson is clearly more interested in the Passion than he is in the Resurrection that follows it.
Father William Stetson, the acting director of the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C., was impressed and moved by the film. ?My expectations going into the film were to see a version of the passion and death of Jesus Christ ?- the Stations of the Cross that Catholics are quite familiar with,? he said. ?Those expectations were marvelously met. From an artistic point of view and from a piety point of view, it was extremely faithful to the gospel narrative and the tradition of the Church.?
Many medical experts have concurred that no human being could have lived through even the first scourging that is graphically depicted in the film, but Stetson does not see this as an issue. ?The film,? he said. ?presupposes that Jesus is the son of God and that being God and man he was able to endure punishment far beyond what any other human being would be able to endure. I think that Christians find the film a marvelous confirmation of what they already believe in.?
However, Father Paul Surlis, the former professor of Catholic Social Teaching and Theology at St. John?s University, expresses real reservations about Gibson?s intentions.
?Gibson comes from a branch or sect of Catholicism that is even more to the right than traditionalist Catholic?s,? he said. ?Both he and his father completely reject Vatican II, and they does not see the present pope as a valid pontiff -? they accuse him of ?liberalism? ?- they believe he is not a part of the true line of succession.?
By focusing almost exclusively on the Passion, critics contend, the social factors that led to Jesus being viewed as a dangerous subversive are muted in Gibson?s film. Said Surlis: ?You get a hint of a warning when you see how eagerly evangelicals are going to the movie and promoting it. It?s redemption through blood. There is a social dimension to that. Gibson is being political in a very individualistic way by giving you a salvation through suffering, through blood. But for Catholics it is the Resurrection, not the Passion, that is the foundation of our faith.?
Surlis continued: ?In 1965 the Vatican Council repudiated almost two millennia of teaching about the responsibility of the Jews for the death of Christ. When Gibson was asked about this he denied that he was anti-Semitic. And I don?t believe at the front of his mind he is. But he has also rejected the Second Vatican Council, which includes this enormously important statement about the relationship of the Jews for the death of Jesus. His father is also a Holocaust denier. Denying that the Holocaust occurred and then making a film about the death of Jesus ought to set off alarm bells.?
Dr. Eileen P. Flynn, theology professor at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, is also concerned about the response the film will provoke in the audiences worldwide. She believes anti-Semitism is the worst kind of hatred that there is.
?The basis for anti-Semitic bias runs much deeper than historical or cultural differences,? she said. ?It’s a much more significant kind of a bias. It’s based on deicide. You’re connecting it to the death of a god.”
Although the Second Vatican Council changed its teaching, declaring that Christians should not blame Jews collectively for what happened to Jesus, critics contend that Gibson?s incendiary film has prompted many to worry that church doctrine does not offer Jewish people protection enough.
Flynn believes there is good reason to fear the film could inspire an anti-Semitic backlash. ?For me it was too bloody,? she said. ?It was too gory. I had to turn my head away a lot of times. And the scourging, I don’t know if it was that bad, but it couldn’t have been any worse.?
Like many other critics, the film’s vivid portrayal of the role of Jewish people in the event is what troubled Flynn most.
Said Surlis: ?It?s not true to say that it?s the Gospels that have provided Mel Gibson with his screenplay because he has also, for example, supplemented scripture with the visions of that 19th century mystic Catherine Emerick. His own instincts lead him in the direction that supports his particular religious view.?
One of the things critics most find fault with in the film is that the actual teachings of Jesus are noticeably minimized. They represent just less than 12 minutes in two hours. If Christ?s teaching is not the message, they ask, then what is?
Said Surlis: ?Given his temperament and the type of films he has made before ? ?Braveheart,? for example ?- it doesn?t surprise me that the film is a violent and one-dimensional as it is. If there was a social dimension to this film that acknowledged that anyone who spoke out against poverty, injustice, racism and discrimination is going to meet a similar fate, that would have changed things. But that?s not what he?s saying at all. He takes a very reductive, conservative view.
?Christ?s teachings were a direct assault on his own society. What he preached, if adopted, would have turned his society upside down. Those teachings have usually been read in a non-political way down through history. And even today many Catholics will get angry when you preach the Gospel from that perspective. They come to church wanting a very comfortable, individualistic, interior spiritual message. They don?t necessarily want to be challenged by Christ?s teachings. They simply want reassurance. They want the magic. In his own way, Gibson is providing them with it.
?There?s no engagement with Jesus?s social context or any real consideration of his message. Instead we see him brutally tortured and flayed alive for an hour. And by picking up at the Passion Gibson leaves out crucial aspects of Christ?s message, such as the Sermon on the Mount, the Table Fellowship, the Casting Out of the Demons -? crucial aspects of Christ?s message. That message was one of inclusive justice: you belong because you?re human and in the image of God. It was not merely one of blood atonement, which historically has dangerous precedents. Jesus came to show us what life would be like if God?s will was fulfilled on earth as it is in heaven. Gibson gives us man?s will fulfilled upon God. But that?s really all he gives us. The full story is much greater than that.?