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FIRST-PERSON: To-may-to, to-mah-to: Reviews vary

McMINNVILLE, Ore. (BP)–Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com) is a website dedicated to all things cinematic. Among its offerings, it provides visitors with access to a huge collection of critical reviews. The site boasts of having information on more 100,000 movies and links to 360,000 reviews. To say Rotten Tomatoes seeks to be comprehensive would be an understatement.

On a recent visit to Rotten Tomatoes, I came across review for one of the most controversial films in recent memory. Here are some excerpts:

“Hear what it is like to put not just sweat into a film, but also one’s faith –- and be persecuted for that transgression,” wrote Widgett Walls of Needcoffee.com

Bryce Wilson of CinemaBlend.com commented, “It is simply the first movie to fully realize the drama at the heart of the Christ story.”

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“A courageous and imaginative take on one of the greatest stories ever told,” stated Sandi Chaitram of BBCi Films in her review.

David Nusair of Reel Film Reviews wrote, “If you’ve got a good understanding of Christian history, you’ll probably dig this flick.”

“A challenge and affirmation of our most basic notions of faith,” commented Rob Vaux of Flipside Movie Emporium.

These excerpts sum up the majority opinion for the movie in question. It received mostly favorable reviews and garnered a 75 on the Rotten Tomatoes rating scale. So, while not considered a blockbuster classic, it falls into the category of a quality film worthy of a viewer’s time and attention.

If you have assumed the reviews that I referenced are about Mel Gibson’s recently released “The Passion of The Christ,” you would be wrong. The excerpts above are all comments about the 1988 film “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

Based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel about how Jesus might have struggled between the spirit and the flesh, The Last Temptation was considered controversial because it included nudity and sexuality. Christ’s humanity was magnified to the point he was depicted as self-loathing, fallible and fallen. Most disturbing for many was a scene where Jesus imagines himself having sex with Mary Magdalene.

According to Rotten Tomatoes, The Passion of The Christ is not faring nearly as well with critics as did The Last Temptation.

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To be sure, Mel Gibson’s effort to portray the last 12 hours of the life of Jesus as accurately as possible has drawn praise from some critics, but not many. Most have given The Passion negative reviews, which tally a rating of only 55 by Rotten Tomatoes’ count.

More telling is a feature at Rotten Tomatoes called the “Cream-of-the-Crop.” This new addition allows visitors to see what the most notable critics are saying about a movie. According to this scale, the most respected film commentators rate The Passion a dismal 39.

What have those disappointed in The Passion said about the movie?

“Gibson has made a movie for nobody, really, but Gibson,” Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote for Entertainment Weekly.

Peter Rainer of New York Magazine commented that the movie “Bears the same relation to other biblical epics as a charnel house does to your local deli.”

“Bloody to the point of gruesome, moving without being inspiring,” stated Roger Moore of the Orlando Sentinel.

Glenn Lovell of the San Jose Mercury News wrote, “The extreme violence does not teach a lesson; it’s an end in itself, more suited to the S&M crowd than to anyone seeking an uplifting sermon on everlasting redemption.”

The most common complaint from those who take issue with The Passion is the film’s violence. I have news for these critics: the harsh reality is that Roman scourging and crucifixion were brutal, sadistic and tortuous methods of punishment. Gibson’s goal, as I understand it, was simply to show the reality of Christ’s last hours as realistically as possible. In my opinion, he has done just that.

Interestingly enough, other historical films containing disturbing violence have drawn praise from movie mavens. According to Rotten Tomatoes, the films “Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Pianist” -– all graphic in their portrayal of World War II events -– rated 95-plus among critics.

So why does the depiction of a self-loathing Christ given to pornographic fantasy produce praise from most critics while a beaten and bloody Jesus draws scorn? Could it be that a struggling, doubting Jesus inspires little more than polite debate, while a film that has the suffering of Christ as its central theme demands a more personal response?

Like the supporting cast portrayed in The Passion, viewers will either be drawn to the crushed Christ or they will be repulsed. However, after experiencing the film, it will be difficult to remain ambivalent about the historical reality of Jesus’ death. Just ask the critics.
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Kelly Boggs’ column appears each Friday in Baptist Press. He is pastor of Valley Baptist Church in McMinnville, Ore.