An advance screening of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ drew scathing reviews yesterday from an interfaith group of 600 Baltimore-area Christians and Jews, who called the film gratuitously violent, historically inaccurate and just plain bad.
The criticism transcended faith as rabbis and priests alike trashed most aspects of the movie, from its inclusion of scenes not found in the Bible to its portrayal of the Jewish High Priest Caiaphas and the Jewish mob as the prime culprits in the crucifixion of Jesus.
"As a scripture person, I offer sympathy for my Jewish brothers and sisters here," said the Rev. John Donahue, a Jesuit and professor of New Testament studies at St. Mary's Seminary & University in Roland Park, who served on a panel after the screening at the Senator Theatre.
"Historically, the portrayal of the Jewish leaders here is a parody. The movie has many things that are attested to in no gospels whatsoever."
M. Sigmund Shapiro, a member of Baltimore's Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies, which organized the screening, walked out before the end of the film because, he said, he could not stand the gore.
"It was like a Frankenstein movie," Shapiro said of The Passion, which graphically depicts the seemingly endless beating of Christ by Roman soldiers with cats-of-nine-tails and by an angry mob as he carries the cross to the mountaintop.
Shapiro also said that, dramatically, the film is so poor that he's optimistic it will not inflame anti-Semitic feeling, as some Jewish organizations have warned.
"By and large, I think it's a non-issue," said Shapiro, 76, who oversees a freight-forwarding and customs brokerage company. "I have the feeling that Jesus would think it's a lot of crap. If it had been a better film, I would have been more concerned."
The Passion opens today in 2,800 theaters across the country on a crest of publicity unheard-of for a religious film. For almost a year, some Jewish organizations have expressed concern that the movie's sheer violence and portrayal of the Jews could resurrect the age-old charge that Jews killed Christ.
Since medieval times, passion plays - which, like Gibson's movie, depict the last 12 hours of Christ's life - have often been openly anti-Semitic and used to justify persecution of Jews.
The Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies held yesterday's screening and discussion to promote an informed conversation on the film and to defuse tension in advance of its opening.
While most of those who spoke criticized the film yesterday, some called it spiritually stirring. The Rev. Frederick Russell, senior pastor of Miracle Temple Church, a Seventh-Day Adventist congregation in Baltimore, said he looked past the violence and question of Jewish culpability to what he called the film's deeper message of Christ's sacrifice and mankind's responsibility for his death.
"This is a deeply moving, violent situation, but when I pull back from that violence, it becomes very personal," Russell said. "It was not the Jews who put him on the cross - my sins put him on the cross."
Russell's comments drew one of the few rounds of applause in the hourlong discussion, suggesting that others agreed with him but might have been reluctant to speak up in an emotionally charged environment.
In a sign of the conflicting reactions the film could elicit from Christians, Rosann M. Catalano, the Institute's Roman Catholic staff scholar, seemed perplexed by Russell's response.
"Maybe we were watching two different movies," said Catalano, "but there was nothing in that film that taught me that Christ died for my sins."
Although yesterday's audience was highly critical, it was not demographically representative of Baltimore's religious community. Institute officials estimated that 40 percent of attendees were Jewish, with the other 60 percent Christian.
During the discussion, one participant suggested that evangelicals, who did not seem to number many in the audience, might have a far more favorable reaction to the movie.
Nationally, evangelical leaders and ministers have hailed The Passion as an unprecedented opportunity to bring Christ's story to the masses and have purchased large blocks of tickets.
Their enthusiasm and the controversy over the potential for anti-Semitism have created unusual interest in a film on a subject that often fares poorly at the box office. Industry analysts expect The Passion to gross as much as $40 million in its first five days.
After the screening, Judy Meltzer stood in line waiting for the restroom, shaking her head. Meltzer, who runs a center for adult learning at Chizuk Amuno Congregation, was still trying to absorb the movie's gore.
"I don't think it's anti-Semitic," she said of the film. "I hope not. But I don't think you have to show all that blood."
"I hope churches don't insist that young people see this. I can't believe it would be a good thing."