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Posted February 13, 2004

Gibson's 'Passion' earns "R" rating for graphic violence

By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service

The Motion Picture Association of America has given actor-director Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ" an R rating for its sequences of graphic violence.

In a rough cut of the movie shown during a November screening in Washington, one five-letter vulgarism for a promiscuous woman was directed at Mary Magdalene by a Roman soldier early in the film. Appearing as an English subtitle, the term was startling because the word -- or anything remotely like it -- does not appear in any biblical account of the Passion.

But that word alone would not merit the R rating -- for "restricted, under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian." In fact, a much cruder word can be spouted twice in a film -- albeit in a nonsexual way -- and the film can hang on to a PG-13 rating, which allows anyone of any age to see the movie without parental accompaniment.

The violence that did earn "The Passion of the Christ" the R rating is historically based. But how that violence is depicted is another matter.

A Feb. 7 Los Angeles Times story said, "Gibson has emphasized that it (his film) is not for young children."

"Even Mel Gibson told us that he would not recommend this movie for anyone under the age of 13," said the Rev. Jerry Waugh, senior pastor at Northcliffe Baptist Church in Spring Hill, Fla. Rev. Waugh had attended a Chicago screening of the film with Gibson present.

Even those endorsing "The Passion of the Christ" say it is not suitable for young children, or that parents should see the movie first before deciding whether to let their children -- of any age -- see it.

The Gospels say Pontius Pilate had Jesus scourged, but there's no account of precisely what happened in the scourging. There is mention, though, of the crown of thorns being placed on his head, and the three falls Jesus had carrying the cross on the way to Golgotha. Much of the rest is the filmmaker's interpretation of events.

One past film where the Motion Picture Association of America had to wrestle with historical accuracy in determining a rating was "All the President's Men," the cinematic treatment of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's account of the Watergate burglary that ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.

The foul language heard in the movie was based on the transcripts of secretly made White House tapes whose existence helped lead to Nixon's downfall.

In 1976, though, there was no PG-13 rating. So the MPAA gave "All the President's Men" a PG rating, and the movie won a slew of awards, including four Oscars -- one for best adapted screenplay.

But the violence depicted in "The Passion of the Christ" may do less to shock and outrage viewers than to stun them. One common myth held that Jesus received 39 lashes at the hands of Pilate's men. But in the November screening, Gibson had Jesus being struck by the whip more than 100 times -- and the film included plenty of slow-motion images of whippings with sound effects.

Paul Lauer, a spokesman for Icon Productions, Gibson's filmmaking company, told Catholic News Service in November that Gibson was working to edit some violence out of the film. But first-person accounts from some who attended invitation-only screenings in January still attested to the quantity of crucifixion-related violence on the screen.

As of mid-February, reviewers in the U.S. bishops' Office for Film & Broadcasting, which judges movies not only for their aesthetic content but also for their moral suitability, had not yet seen "The Passion of the Christ," which does not debut in theaters until Feb. 25, Ash Wednesday.