As Roman soldiers selected a spiked whip from a table laden with torture devices, the audience gasped. But that was the only sound viewers would make during a Wednesday night showing of “The Passion of the Christ.”
“It was very gruesome,” said freshman Eugene Meyers after watching Mel Gibson’s highly anticipated but controversial chronicle of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. “It’s real, but it’s accurate.”
“Passion,” which opened in theaters Wednesday, had the fifth highest mid-week movie opening in history, despite accusations from several Jewish groups and scholars that the film is anti-Semitic and portrays Jews as responsible for the death of Jesus.
In 1965 the Vatican retracted any blame the church had placed on the Jewish people for the crucifixion of Jesus.
In the film, the Jewish priest Caiaphas urges Roman prefect Pontius Pilate to crucify Jesus, after members of the Jewish community beat him up for supposed blasphemy.
Pilate, portrayed as merciful in the film, says he can punish Jesus severely but is unwilling to bear responsibility for killing him. The Roman soldiers eventually crucify Jesus, after urging from the Jews.
Marc Saperstein, director of the University’s Judaic Studies program, said this “does not fit any historical understanding” of how the Romans governed because the Romans were always quick to execute messianic figures.
“The high priests are visually identified as Jews and they are caricatures, cartoon figures, with no attempt to picture them as human beings living in a historical environment,” Saperstein said. “There’s no attempt to explain their position … whereas the governor (Pilate) is presented in a kind of context with a human dimension.”
Gibson told The New Yorker that his film was a strict interpretation of the Gospels, a part of the New Testament that is based on eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ death.
He also defended his father, Hutton Gibson, who recently said the Holocaust was “all – maybe not all fiction – but most of it,” according to The New York Times.
Several Christian priests and theologians would not comment on the film’s content.
Some students who saw the film said there was little anti-Semitism and it portrayed events accurately.
“Nothing in the movie itself was anti-Semitic,” freshman Mike Duffy said. “But it’s open to interpretation by people unfamiliar with the story.”
A relatively small crowd attended a late showing of the movie at Loews Georgetown Wednesday night, though earlier in the evening the film was shown on multiple screens to accommodate larger audiences. Because the movie debuted on Ash Wednesday, a Christian holiday that signals the beginning of Lent, several moviegoers had black marks on their foreheads to signify the sign of the cross.
The movie, which is in Aramaic, Hebrew and Latin with English subtitles, shows Jesus being bound, punched, whipped and spit upon by the Romans before they crucify him.
“I think the best way to look at it is that a crucifixion is extremely brutal and violent,” said junior Adam Drexler, who went with a group of students from the Newman Catholic Center to see the film. “The person who goes through it endures a terrible amount of suffering. In order to portray that to the audience, Gibson needed to show the violence.”
Others, however, said the film over-emphasized the violence inflicted on Jesus. Saperstein said the movie’s 15-minute whipping scene was only described in one sentence in one of the Gospels.
“This was a long presentation of the most vicious type of violence which continues to the point where it seems totally gratuitous,” Saperstein said. “Many viewers came away saying ‘well the message is love and forgiveness,’ but looking as an outsider I don’t think that was emphasized.”
Simon Amiel, executive director of GW Hillel, said he is concerned about the effect the movie will have on relations between Jews and Christians outside of metropolitan areas such as D.C.
“In areas where individuals are not as sophisticated, this movie may lead to a rise in anti-Semitic acts or thoughts,” he said.
Saperstein said that despite using “some of the worst anti-Semitic stereotypes,” the film is unlikely to cause discrimination against Jews.
On Thursday’s “The Tonight Show,” Gibson defended his film, saying that its message is tolerance and people should not be surprised by the movie’s violence.
“The Bible is R-rated,” Gibson told host Jay Leno. “I mean, look at that book … That’s a hot book.”
-Julie Gordon contributed to this report.