It is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian season of Lent, and also the occasion for the opening of a new film about Jesus Christ that has stirred controversy almost from the moment production began last year. Some Jews are concerned that the depiction of the crucifixion in the film The Passion of the Christ, directed by Mel Gibson, could arouse anti-Semitism. Moviegoers in Houston reacted to the film based on their faith and their tolerance for graphic violence.
This is not the first film Hollywood has made about Jesus Christ and it is not the first to stir up controversy, but there has not been this much debate and discussion over such a film in some time.
Christian scholars have criticized the movie for a number of things, including its depiction of the Roman ruler of Palestine, Pontius Pilate, as a passive figure who only orders the crucifixion of Jesus after being asked to do so by Jewish high priests and a rowdy crowd of common people.
It is this depiction of Jews that troubles many Jewish leaders, including Martin Cominsky, Director of the Anti-Defamation League's Southwest Regional Office.
"We have a fear that Jews are portrayed in a very stereotypical, negative way in the film, but hopefully good people that choose see the film will put it in context and will understand that the Jews were not responsible for Christ's death," he said.
Mel Gibson has denied having any anti-Semitic intentions in making this film. He says his depiction of events is based on the four Christian gospels and that, in his view, the film is not about blame, but about redemption. Many Christians who have seen the film also reject the notion that it portrays Jews in a bad light.
Laurie McCary is the wife of a Protestant minister who saw the film in a Houston suburban theater. "I personally am a Christian, so I am coming to the movie with that slant, but I consider myself a Jew, grafted in," she said.
Ms. McCary went on to further explain what that means.
"Well, I would be, in the Bible, considered a Gentile, but I am a born-again Christian, which makes me a member of the Jewish family by my beliefs," she said. "It did show the Jews to be what, I think, they truly were in scripture. But the heroes of the film were also Jewish. So, I thought, the followers of Christ were Jewish, Christ himself was Jewish, so how could you say it is against Judaism?"
The Anti-Defamation League's Mr. Cominsky is among the Jews who hope that all people who see the film will have such a charitable reaction. He says he is not worried about the majority of Christians of good faith, but rather the few who already harbor hatred in their hearts and might be motivated by the film to commit acts against Jews. He nevertheless believes that if handled the right way, Mel Gibson's movie could serve as a point of dialogue between Christians and Jews. "I do think that it will be a catalyst for conversation and for study and for strengthening relationships," he said. "Our country, I think, is becoming more religious and I think it is important that Jews and Christians understand what hurts us, what hurts each other and also what helps each other. This is going to be a good moment to reflect on that and find a positive outcome from a very difficult movie."
One of the other aspects of The Passion of the Christ that has aroused anger and argument is the graphic and gruesome portrayal of the beatings and other torture inflicted on Jesus. Patricia Noble went to the film in Houston with a friend, but they had to leave midway through.
"I did walk out of the film," she said. "I found it to be nauseatingly gruesome. It is too bloody. It just goes on and on. There were 30 minutes of beating, would you say? Yes. It is forever. It is just more than a person can stomach. I came expecting to be uplifted and instead I feel devastated."
Laurie McCary says she understands the horrified reaction some people might have to this film because of its violence. Still, she says it is an experience that has renewed and strengthened her faith.
"By the end of the movie I had been what Mel Gibson said 'pushed over the edge,'" she said. "I thought, 'I do not know how much more I can take.' I even took my children to see the movie because they claim to be believers in Christ and I thought it is important, if they claim him to be their Lord that they see what he did. They handled it very well. It was extremely violent, but I believe that is the way it really was. I can say that today my love for Christ has quadrupled over what it was yesterday, before seeing the movie."
Film critic Roger Ebert, who was raised Catholic, says this is the most violent film he has ever seen, but he says he respects what Mel Gibson was trying to do with this portrayal. As for the depiction of Jews, Mr. Ebert says "A reasonable person, I believe, will reflect that in this story set in a Jewish land, there are many characters with many motives, some good, some not, each one representing himself, none representing his religion."
What worries some Jewish leaders and some Christians as well is that not everyone who sees the movie will be reasonable and that the production provides no context through which the events can be understood from an historic perspective. Christian church leaders in some communities are urging people to attend discussions about the film at local gatherings, where such matters can be addressed.