'Passion' Premiere Splits Audiences

updated 02/25/2004 at 12:00 AM EST

originally published 02/25/2004 7:03PM

Mel Gibson says he didn't expect such a strong response from his new film "The Passion of the Christ." But as the controversial and violent movie opens in 2,800 theaters today, it is stirring some passionate thoughts from movie goers who watched early screenings.

"I didn't expect the ferocity of controversy. Religious themes do hit a nerve, but I didn't know I'd cut a main artery," Gibson said prior to his film's Ash Wednesday opening, Variety reports.

Still, the reviews are mixed, both from critics (whose early reviews have bashed the film's unrelenting violence and overall lack of context) and movie goers themselves.

"When you see the sacrifice that Jesus made, it makes you feel like, 'I have to do something better with my life,'" said Arch Bonnema, 50, a financial planner for a Texas church who donated $42,000 of his own money to screen the film for audiences, the Associated Press reports.

However, many Jewish audiences have had an entirely different reaction to the film, claiming that not only does the movie portray Jews poorly, but also that it could ratchet up anti-Semitic actions.

"I don't have any doubt this film will cause anti-Semitism," Dov Hikind, a Democratic assemblyman from Brooklyn, N.Y., told Reuters. "I don't have any doubt that this film will result in violence."

Meanwhile, some biblical scholars have taken exception to the historical accuracy of Gibson's movie. Among the criticisms are characters who speak in Latin. According to some historians, the correct language would have been Greek. (The film is in Latin and Aramaic with English subtitles.)

More upsetting to some was the absence of historical context, Reuters reports. "The lack of context is the most devastating thing for anyone who says (the film) is faithful to the gospels because the gospels have the context," John Dominic Crossan, a professor of religious studies at De Paul University, tells Reuters.

Gibson has countered such claims saying that he sought input from numerous religious scholars and other theologians. But where the gospels were not clear, he said, he trusted his own vision. "Since the experts canceled each other out, I was thrown back on my own resources to weigh the arguments and decide for myself," he said.

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