Critics take heat for their ‘Passion’ reviews

Film critics are divided over The Passion of the Christ — and their readers have had heated responses to their reviews.

The Chronicle’s Eric Harrison, giving the film an F grade, called it “stylish and visually polished” but criticized director Mel Gibson for his “obsessive need to zoom in and linger on bloodletting” and “caricatures of sadistic villains.”

Harrison has received more than 100 calls and e-mails from readers, most of them critical of his review, though some readers thanked him for his “courageous” analysis in the face of huge publicity.

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave Passion a four-star rating. He said that most responses he’s received “have been favorable and very thoughtful,” with “few of the usual semi-literate e-mails some kinds of movies inspire. Pro or con, this movie seems to have people thinking seriously.”

By contrast, Roger Moore of the Orlando Sentinel said The Passion is “bringing out intolerance.”

In his review, Moore described Gibson as “inspired” but said The Passion’s violence is like “a horror film” and its Jewish characters are “hissing caricatures.” Moore said he’s received about 100 e-mails so far, most of them negative.

“I have more people praying for me now than I ever thought possible,” he said, “and I still have a cold somehow.”

Moore said readers have mistakenly perceived his review as “attacking their religion instead of the movie. They can’t seem to separate the two. This has been the worst (response) since I attacked Black Hawk Down for its pro-military spin on history.”

Glenn Lovell of the San Jose Mercury News, who called The Passion “anti-Semitic” in his review, said some readers think he wrote that because he’s Jewish (he’s not). One reader called him “anti-Catholic.”

In his review, Lovell said the film’s violence was “more suited to the S&M crowd than to anyone seeking an uplifting sermon on everlasting redemption.”

Many readers “took exception to that,” he said. “Most say, `We’re praying for you.’ Someone said, `You’re obviously a pinko.’ They’ve called me a homosexual Jewish liberal. I’ve had more responses to this review than anything I’ve ever written, about 80 e-mails so far.”

Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle called the film “inspired” but also “a grand miscalculation” for “turning Christianity’s central event into an action movie” with “brutal and unrelenting violence.”

“I’m getting the usual response I get when I pan an action movie — very angry and aggressive and, of course, anonymous, only this time it’s combined with a religious element,” he said.

He said readers have assumed that he’s Jewish (he’s not) and that he isn’t Christian (he is).

“The typical letter is a nasty, outraged tirade, after which the anonymous writer realizes that he or she may have stepped over some line,” he said. “So then it ends with the writer saying he or she will be praying for me.”

Karen Hershenson of the Contra Costa (California) Times, who gave the film a C grade, said she’s gotten about 30 e-mails and 50 calls since writing that Gibson, by being “so graphically violent … diminishes his film’s spirituality.”

“I have never been more careful or cautious in a review,” she said. “Critics can be flippant — that’s part of the fun of the job. But I tried very hard to be respectful. Even so, I’m getting the sense that a lot of people don’t want this to be reviewed as a film.”

A lay minister praised her for a “brave” review.

“That was the little shining light,” Hershenson said. “Other readers also had trouble with the violence and looked away. But they said they were glad that they went.”

Philip Martin of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette gave The Passion a mixed but largely favorable review. Though he said it had “little evangelical value,” he argued that cinematically it’s a “work of art.”

“The reaction has been milder and more thoughtful than I thought it would be,” Martin said. “I haven’t had any crazies or anybody being rude, but I didn’t really sack the movie.”

Chris Garcia of the Austin American-Statesman gave the film three stars, calling it “beautiful but overcooked.”

“I got a couple of knee-jerk things where (readers) didn’t even address the review,” Garcia said. “They forgive me for not wholly embracing the film the way they do. But other people have thanked me for writing an objective review of a ridiculously overhyped movie.”

Geoff Pevere of the Toronto Star, who called the film “a spectacle of pure, concentrated brutality,” got about 100 e-mails, almost all “overwhelmingly negative.”

He said many people “forgave” him for his “sins,” but only after “calling me all kinds of rather un-Christian names … and a whole bunch accusing me of failing to see `the truth’ — which is true. I saw a movie, but not the truth.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Houston Chronicle, USA
Mar. 5, 2004
Bruce Westbrook

Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday March 6, 2004.
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