Video: Ebert gives Passion a thumbs up

updated 2/26/2004 4:25:40 PM ET 2004-02-26T21:25:40

Everyone wants to know whether “The Passion of the Christ” is worth seeing.  One man whose opinion carries a great deal of influence is the nationally-known film critic from the “Chicago Sun-Times,” Roger Ebert.  He joined Deborah Norville from the studio of his syndicated television program, “Ebert and Roeper” to answer a few questions. 

DEBORAH NORVILLE, MSNBC HOST:  First of all, which way did your thumb go on this one, up or down?

ROGER EBERT, FILM CRITIC, “CHICAGO SUN-TIMES”:  My thumb was way up.  I admired the film as a work of passion and obsession by Mel Gibson.  Obviously, it comes from his heart.  And I think it‘s a very well-made film.   On the other hand I was shocked, as many people were, by how violent it was, and I think the message that needs to get out is, this is not a family film. 

NORVILLE:  Are you surprised to see the call going out for children as young as 11 years of age to go and see this movie?

EBERT:  A man came up to me today on the sidewalk, “I‘m taking my 11-year-old son tonight.”  And I said, “Do not do that.”   It‘s rated “R” for a reason.  Actually it should be rated “NC-17.” 

It‘s the most violent movie that I‘ve ever seen. 

Now, I believe that Gibson made it that way, because his mission in making this film was to dramatize the suffering that Christ underwent.  And that was his right as a director, and he did it very well.  But to take children to this film would be a horrible thing to do. 

Was it historically accurate?
NORVILLE: Was this movie historically accurate to the biblical retelling of the crucifixion of Christ?  You got rather technical, rather philosophical, rather religious in your review on your show. 

EBERT:  I guess I did, but I‘m certainly not a theologian, nor am I an expert on the Gospels.  In fact, I‘ve read about a few dozen reviews of the film that have been very, very useful to me, including one by Alana Newhouse in “The Forward,” which is a Jewish publication.

I think the film probably should have been more nuanced in its depiction of the Jewish high priest, Caiaphas, who is seen as a little too negative compared to the biblical sources.  But then don‘t ask me, ask a biblical scholar. 

On the other hand, I do not believe on balance this film was anti-Semitic.  I believe that the priests are seen as people who are threatened politically by the heresy of Jesus and who would like to see him removed. Most of good people in this movie are Jewish, including not only Jesus and Mary, but Mary Magdalene and John but also Simon, who helped him carry the cross, Veronica, who wipes his face, people in the crowd who cry out against his punishment.

And the sadists in the movie are the Roman Centurians.  There are good and bad people.

NORVILLE:  One of the things you also point out is the reminder that in the biblical story of Christ, it‘s necessary that he die. 

EBERT:  Well, this is the point that everybody seems to miss.  There is this theory that 'somebody killed Jesus'… it misses the point. Jesus, if you‘re a Christian, came to earth to die.  That was his mission.  That was his purpose; that was his desire.   And no individual, no race, no religion, no nation killed him. 

According to Christian teaching, we all killed him.  He died for our sins.  So therefore anyone who thinks that, for example, the terrible idea that the Jews killed Jesus is correct, has not looked at their Bible and is not acting like a Christian, if they believe that.  It‘s a sin.

The whole country's talking
NORVILLE:  Have you ever found yourself in recent memory getting so emotional about a movie and so personal in a review?

EBERT:  That‘s what‘s interesting.  This movie has the whole country talking on a serious subject. 

I remember in the 1960‘s, “Blowup” or “The Graduate,” everybody was talking about.  Usually what do we talk about? Sports and the weather.  Now every day I find myself in at least one or two theological conversations. 

That‘s good.  That‘s good that people are thinking about these things, no matter what their opinion is. 

NORVILLE:  In the most unlikely places, too.  I mean, I had one in an elevator today going up to work.  And you know, 13 floors we covered a lot of ground. 

EBERT:  It‘s amazing.  Who would have thought that all of America was so interested in this subject?  I mean whether or not the movie is good or not, they‘re all talking about. 

Comparing it with other films
NORVILLE:  Let me ask you how this movie compares to other stories put on film of the life and times of Christ?  How does this movie compare with others that you‘ve seen over the years?

EBERT:  This film is completely single-minded.  It‘s about the Passion of Christ.  It‘s violent from beginning to end. 

Two great films about Christ that are more dimensional would be “The Last Temptation of Christ” by Martin Scorsese and “The Gospel According to Matthew” by Pasolini, the Italian director, who shot it with peasants in Italy and used his own mother as the Virgin Mary. 

NORVILLE:  But “Last Temptation” certainly got a lot of hoopla, too.  There were death threats and bomb threats and all kinds of things when that one came out. 

EBERT:  See, the problem with that movie was that Scorsese took literally the fact that Jesus was not only God but man.  And so he dealt with Jesus as fully God and fully man.  And he said Jesus was a man.  Jesus wasn‘t some figure on a holy card.   He did feel things, like a man would feel, and so a lot of people were offended by that. 

I think that “The Last Temptation of Christ” is a great movie, and incidentally, Gene Siskel, my late partner, picked it as the best film of the year. 

What were Mel Gibson's motivations?
NORVILLE:  Let me ask you about Mel Gibson and his motivations, which we can only guess as to what they were. 

One of the things Mr. Gibson did was show this film to selected religious leaders prior to its final edit.  Was that to seek the guidance and input of those individuals? Or to foster a pre-movie launch hype that has taken on an amazing life of its own?

EBERT:  I don‘t know.  But I‘ll just give you a little insight.  I had three conversations with Gibson over the telephone about seeing this movie.  The first one in August of last year,  and we kept being told, “We‘re going to show it to you.  We‘re not going to show it to you.  We‘re bringing it to Chicago to show it to the church and then the next morning we‘ll show it to you.”  And then that was cancelled. 

I think that he was so uptight about this movie that he has so much invested in, that from day-to-day he didn‘t know who to show it to or what to say about it. 

I believe that in a way this has totally occupied his mind to such a degree that at this point he must be completely strung out,  let‘s face it. 

NORVILLE:  Do you think, in a sense, this has been Mel Gibson‘s own cross to bear in the same way that Jim Caviezel bears the cross up the hill to Golgotha in the movie?

EBERT:  I think so.  I think this is a work of faith for Gibson.  And that‘s one of the reasons I think it‘s a great film.   Most of the films we see are by directors who get some script off the shelf and hire some actors and don‘t really care unless it doesn‘t make money.  Very few films are made from the heart.  Occasionally a film is. 

The great directors work from the heart.  “Schindler‘s List,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” movies like this.  But most movies are disposable.  Gibson, I think, put his entire being on the line here, and I think that a lot of his behavior can be explained just by nervousness. 

NORVILLE:  I‘m wondering if it‘s a precursor of more religious themes coming to the movie screens in the future?

EBERT:  Well, maybe, but let me express my wish:  If that is the case, I would like to see, in the case of Jesus, more films that are more about his teaching and not simply about his suffering.  I mean, there‘s very little of Jesus‘ teaching in this movie, really.  And also I‘d like to see something about other religions. 

Deborah Norville Tonight airs weeknights, 9 p.m. ET on MSNBC.

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