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updated 3/23/2004 6:02:06 PM ET 2004-03-23T23:02:06

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The movie The Passion of the Christ ignited passionate debate about its graphic violence and the appropriateness of such disturbing images for children. Is there such a thing as "good violence?" We talked about it with an internationally recognized authority on the psychology and sociology of film, H. Arthur Taussig, Ph.D..

Moderator: Welcome to WebMD Live, Dr. Taussig. The interesting twist in the debate over this film is that some are saying kids should see it because they need to learn how Jesus suffered and died to understand the basis of their faith. How do you define the line between a legitimate learning experience and over-the-top violence?

Taussig: I have always believed that the rating system is of little use to parents, because my bottom line is only parents can know their children. For instance, if a film is rated PG-13, is that in terms of sex or violence or language? Every parent knows that at one point his or her child can stand the violence, perhaps, but not the sex, or the other way around. So with this film, it is the parent who has to decide whether it will be a valid learning experience. 

However, let me add my personal opinion on this. I think a child can see this film when the parent thinks the child can understand complex theological problems.

Member question: How can a parent best determine his child's ability to understand complex theological problems?

Taussig: I am not a theologian, nor am I a professional church person. However, if your child has had a long history of religious education and can answer modestly complex religious questions to your satisfaction and understanding, that might be a way to judge their religious maturity.

Member question: Our church is thinking of taking children age 10 and above with their parents to see The Passion of the Christ. I am wondering if a child's mind can differentiate at that young age that the violence in the film was created by Mel Gibson to create the impact of his sacrifice for us as Christians. Do you think that children as young as 10 should be allowed to view this movie accompanied by their parents or could the violence be harmful to the psyche at such a tender age?

Taussig: This, of course, is an extremely difficult and important question. I don't mean to cop out, but again, it's up to the parents to decide, and not any outside organization, whether it be a rating system, a church, or the local newspaper.

Some children at age 10 may be able to understand the film; however, I think very few can. I would recommend that parents see the film without their children. They can not only get an idea of what is going on, but also can prepare themselves for possible questions.

Moderator: Maybe a good idea, if parents want to have their kids see it, is to wait until it's out on video. Then they can see it at home, where it's safer and parents can pause the movie to explain something or if it gets too intense.

Taussig: Absolutely. This is what I recommend in my book, and also perhaps even showing it over three or four days if it's too much to absorb.

However, the real difficulty in this film is the context. For instance, if the subject matter were different, if the central character were not Jesus, the film would be almost pornographic. In my experience, it is the bloodiest film I have ever seen, and I've seen all the slasher films. So parents have to be prepared to generate a context for the film to distinguish it from other violence in our society, whether that is film or video games or even the news.

Member question: If a child is watching the movie with a parent and becomes visibly upset, is it best to leave the theater to talk about it or better to stay there to see how it works out?

Taussig: If, while watching the film, a child becomes extremely upset, which I can see happening, certainly a viable option is to leave the theater, allow the child to calm down, and then perhaps ask the child whether he wants to go in now to see how it turned out, or to say, why don't we watch it at home when that comes out in a couple months? I think empowering the child to make the decision like that will help diffuse any possible problems.

Member question: What about other films that use very realistic violence, like Saving Private Ryan , that can also make the argument that the violence was necessary to convey the horror of an historical event? No one seemed to want to take his or her children to that movie. Why is The Passion of the Christ different?

Taussig: Yes, you're quite right. Saving Private Ryan claimed that the violence was necessary to portray a historical event, and few parents would take their children to see it. I think this points out the difference in our culture of the position of war and the position of religion. Again, it is the context. If it were not a religious film, many people would be calling it a snuff film.

Moderator: You mentioned this movie being the bloodiest you have seen. Has Gibson raised the bar for violence in films? Where do we go from here?

Taussig:
Good question. Mel Gibson has raised the bar in graphic violence, but we have to go back to the context. I don't think the public, in general, would tolerate this kind of violence for so great a portion of the film in any other genre, whether it is a war film or a gangster film.

Member question: How can this movie be too violent? There are all kinds of movies out there in reach of anybody's eyes and nobody says anything about them. There is cursing on TV, gay relationships on TV, and sex on TV. How is our savior being crucified harmful to watch?

Taussig: It may be harmful if one does not understand that it is Jesus and who Jesus is or what Jesus represents. Just like in other films, there are people, whether because of age or interest, do not understand what the filmmakers are trying to say. 

Again, this film is about two hours long. For a full hour and a half, there's nothing but brutality, beatings, and horror. Now, one has to go to great lengths to put this into a religious context if one is not completely convinced of the religiosity of the film, and therein lays the danger that people, either because of age, immaturity, or education will not understand the nature of the film and see something completely different in it.

Member question: I don't know if I should take my grandchildren to see The Passion of the Christ . I'm interested to know if you know anyone has taken their youngsters and what his reactions were?

Taussig: Nope. My recommendation, again, is to see it by yourself first before taking your children or grandchildren.

Member question: Do you feel that the point could have been made with less graphic violence?

Taussig: The point has been made with less graphic violence in any of our religious films, from The Greatest Story Ever Told to Ben Hur , to any of the films that have been set around the crucifixion. However, some people think the point was not made well or powerfully enough. It is parallel with films that decry drugs. You cannot have an antidrug film without showing drugs, and by this theory the more horrifying and powerful the effect of the drugs, the stronger the message. Thus, films like The Panic in Needle Park or Requiem For a Dream , which are truly horrifying, have a strong antidrug message.

So I believe that Gibson has chosen to make the film as powerful as possible in order to send his message as hard and as effectively as possible. The question, of course, is will a person's religiosity be increased by this experience.

Moderator: The slam on some of those earlier movies was that they were too sugarcoated, or in the case of Scorcese's film, Passion , that it was blasphemous. Can any filmmaker ever make the 'right' movie about the crucifixion?

Taussig: Every single one was right, for that filmmaker. Any filmmaker who films a religious story will edit it to emphasize the particular points that he or she wants. Those points will reflect the filmmaker's ideology and the ideologies of the time in which the film is made. Thus, Cecil B. DeMille had a certain personal take on the Bible, and on the audience to whom he was speaking, in the same way that Mel Gibson has a personal take on the Bible, and he clearly has an audience in mind. So I think all the films made about Biblical incidents are valid expressions of that particular time and filmmaker.

Member question: Adults are reporting that seeing this film brought them back to a closeness to their spirituality that they'd lost touch with. It is possible for a teen to have the same response?

Taussig: While some adults have reported that the film brought them closer to their religiosity, there are also a number of adults who were horrified. The same can happen to teenagers, depending on their background. As I said before, if they have had a religious education and are mature enough to understand the context of this film, they may have a positive experience. However, the opposite might also happen, and all the things that parents worry about happening to their teens because of violence in the media, may happen to them. As I said in my opening, only a parent can know their children.

Member question: As a Jewish parent and educator, I am appalled at the thought of taking a child to see this film. I equate it to the sensitivity required when teaching children about the Holocaust. There are lessons to be taught and learned, but you don't show this kind of violence to children. We did not take our son to see Schindler's List or Shoah when they were out. We felt he wasn't ready. Even teens need a broader context to understand what they are being shown. And from what I have read, Gibson's vision of the passion doesn't match what most mainstream Christian and Catholic churches teach. In fact he repudiates the teachings of Vatican II. If the church a young person attends doesn't even teach about Jesus in this way, into what kind of context can they put this entire experience?

Taussig: You are absolutely right, but where do you draw the line? Do we do it at age 17, 18, 19, the day after 19, 20? I would go back to my premise that it is not physical age but individual maturity and educational background. Just as a teen that has a good educational background in the holocaust might benefit from seeing Schindler's List , so might a similar teen benefit from seeing The Passion

However, there is a great difference between Schindler's List and The Passion . Schindler's List is in black and white, which distances the audience from the film. Gibson, on the other hand, has used a variety of film devices to narrow that distance as much as possible. For instance, one device is to have the actors speak in Latin and Aramaic. This gives the film a gloss of authenticity, in addition to putting it in a category of art films, which in our society are elevated above the usual Hollywood crap.

Another device Gibson uses is slow motion. Slow motion causes the audience to study carefully and leisurely what is going on. Alfred Hitchcock, in Rear Window , had a slow motion kiss so we could savor the beauty of the love affair. By contrast, Gibson's slow motion is during the most horrific parts of the violence. I will leave you, dear reader, to draw your own conclusions.

Member question: He used the slow motion device in Braveheart , but then had Robert the Bruce redeem himself and save the Scottish people. What does Gibson do after the death of Christ? Is the resurrection, the redemption the final note? Does he justify the violence with the basic premise that the resurrection follows the death? After all, isn't that the important aspect for most Christians?

Taussig: Another wonderful question, and this one hits me personally, where I had the most problems with the film. Admirably, Gibson has put a lot of money and his formidable artistry in service of his religious convictions, and that cannot be denigrated no matter what the product. My problem was that after two hours of scourging and crucifixion the resurrection was over in less than 10 seconds. My personal view is that 2,000 years after the fact our world needs Jesus' messages of peace and love now more than ever.

Moderator: You discussed the child being able to handle advanced theological concepts as a measuring stick for viewing this movie. What criteria do you recommend for parents to use when determining whether their child should see other movies?

Taussig: I think that a parent living with their child almost 24 hours a day is the best observational paradigm that a parent can have. If one child can't step on a bug, while the brother or sister delights in it, we know something about their sensitivity to violence. If while watching I Love Lucy reruns one child giggles while the other child, at the end of the program, when Dezi and Lucy kiss, turns away and blushes, we have some measure about their sexual maturity.

Good observation is something that parents can do easily. In fact, it's hard to avoid. Simply imagine how your child would react to various situations and you will probably have a good measure of the appropriateness of that film for the child.

Moderator: Do you have any final words for us, Dr. Taussig?

Taussig: If people disagree about the religious, social, psychological, or personal reflections and effects of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ , it has led to broad discussions, and every discussion I have seen, including this one, I think has been beneficial beyond, or independent from, the film. That people are now thinking about their personal religiosity and thinking about their children's religiosity, is something we can all thank Mel Gibson for, whether we see the film or not or whether we take our children to see the film or not.

Moderator: Thanks to H. Arthur Taussig, Ph.D., for sharing his expertise with us. For more information on films and families, read his book, Film Values/Family Values: A Parents' Guide . For more discussion on this and other parenting issues, be sure to head for the WebMD message boards, including Parenting: Friends Talking, where you can post questions and get advice and support from fellow WebMD members.


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