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Judge ye not Gibson's film until you've actually seen it

Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" is not an anti-Semitic film. It does not preach that all Jews -- past, present and future -- must bear sole responsibility for the death of Jesus Christ.

It does not say his blood is on their hands.

It is not a work of hate.

It is a powerful and important film, helmed by a man with a sincere heart and a warrior's sense of justice. It is a story filled with searing images and ultimately a message of redemption and hope.

That said, this movie will not change your life. It's a movie. You can eat popcorn and drink Coca-Cola while you watch it. You can buy promotional tie-in products, like a "crucifixion nail" to wear around your neck or a candle with the film's logo, and I'm not kidding. You might be moved to tears or repulsed by the violence onscreen, but it will not turn you into a hate-monger, nor will it cause you to renounce your materialistic ways and devote your remaining days to a life of poverty and sacrifice.

"The Passion" is the story of the last 12 hours of Jesus Christ. As filtered through Gibson's lens and influenced by his core beliefs, it is a work of power and impact -- a blood-soaked depiction of the unspeakable suffering that one man endured for all humankind.

It also might just be the greatest cinematic version of the greatest story ever told.

You've already read and heard some very different reactions to the film -- from individuals who have seen rough cuts of the movie, and from people who didn't feel the need to actually see the film before condemning it, and isn't it something that they don't see the irony in such prejudicial behavior?

Now, finally, "The Passion of the Christ" arrives in theaters. We're getting the reviews from film critics, theologians and paying customers. Some will concur with my assessment of the film and will celebrate its message, and others will express anguish and outrage over the anti-Semitism they feel should be clear to anyone. And not only will they call the film anti-Semitic, they'll call me anti-Semitic for daring to defend the film in this column.

I will be told that for centuries, passion plays were staged with the express purpose of fostering anti-Semitism. I will be reminded about the horrible injustices endured by Jews through the ages. I will be told I'm ignorant and that I need to read this text or that article or these books. I will be lectured about Gibson's beliefs and behavior, and the views of his dad.

It won't matter that I've never denied the existence and the purpose of passion plays, and that I wouldn't even think about minimizing the unconscionable treatment of Jews through history, and that I've never downplayed the very real and unforgivable anti-Semitism that riddles our world like a cancer.

It won't matter that I'm talking about this movie and what I believe it's about. I'll still be told that I just don't get it.

Fine. I only ask that before you voice your anguish and anger, you actually see the movie for yourself, with open mind and open heart.

It is true that in "The Passion of the Christ," Pontius Pilate is portrayed as a more conflicted figure than the actual Roman leader who crucified hundreds of Jews, while Caiaphas and the other temple leaders are shown to have perhaps greater influence than is historically accurate. But in the movie, as in the Gospels, it is Pilate who washes his hands of Jesus' fate and condemns him, and it's the Roman soldiers who sadistically torture Christ and nail him to that cross. In scene after bloody scene, we see these soldiers howling with glee as they rip pieces of his flesh from his skin, pummel him, kick him, whip him and turn nearly every inch of his face and body into an open wound.

(Memo to church leaders and parents: This movie has earned its hard R rating.)

Yes, some Jews in this movie are villains. Others, starting of course with Jesus, are heroes and saints. From Mary, the mother of Jesus; to Mary Magdalene, who remains fiercely loyal to Jesus; to John, who comforts Mary and Mary Magdalene; to Simon, a family man who is forced by the Romans to carry Jesus' cross but comes to respect and worship him, we see Jews who are brave and admirable and loving.

Also, we must keep in mind that Jews and Romans alike were simply fulfilling their roles in God's plan for Jesus, who was put on this Earth to die. The Jews didn't kill Christ; humankind did.

Still, is it possible that someone will see this film and then go out and commit a hate crime? Of course -- and if that happens, the responsibility for that crime will lie with the offender, not the movie. Whether we're talking about "Natural Born Killers," hard-core rap, violent video games or a controversial film about Jesus Christ, it's up to the individual who consumes this art to control himself and to abide by the laws of the land, and the laws of decency.

And no matter what your beliefs, they should be strong enough to withstand a movie. Any movie.


Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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