The body on the screen is beaten to a blood-drenched pulp -- flesh ripped by a cat-o'-nine-tails and rising in welts at the force of the blows. Leather sandals splash and soak in puddles of blood. It is an orgy of pain and violence.
Long, brutal scenes such as that one make up much of the yet-to-be-released film "The Passion of the Christ." While early attention has focused on whether Mel Gibson's film has the potential to inspire anti-Semitism, a viewing last week of a still-unfinished version suggests it may raise concerns about the unremitting violence of its images as well.
While not condemning the graphic nature of the film, Brother Charles Jackson, director of vocations with the California Province of the Society of Jesus, said: "It was so graphic and the scourging so long that you almost shut down. Psychologically you just can't handle it."
The issue could take on added urgency because the R-rated film is being broadly marketed to evangelical Christians, including the teen market, although Gibson has emphasized that it is not for young children.
The R designation also may cast renewed attention on the Motion Picture Assn. of America ratings system and raise questions about whether any kind of violence would be sufficient to warrant an NC-17. The rating has largely been applied to movies with explicit sexual content.
Though the Ash Wednesday release date in roughy 2,000 theaters around the country is little more than two weeks away, the film viewed last week clearly remains a work in progress with many sound, musical score and color corrections incomplete. Gibson is expected to lock in a final version of the film later in the week. This version did not include the so-called blood curse, drawn from the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jews cry out, "His blood upon us and upon our children" -- a reference that had drawn fire from Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
"The Passion" follows the last 12 hours of Jesus' life, and from the initial beatings to the Crucifixion, Gibson (a member of a conservative religious group) spared little in his effort to create a searing vision of pain and suffering. For some religious conservatives, watching that pain is precisely the point. Others wonder if the brutality is excessive and will turn audiences away.
Paul Hetrick, vice president of media relations with the Christian group Focus on the Family, saw it in June with a group of 30. He said questions were raised about the length of the film's violent scenes as well.
"We suggested that he didn't need to go on that long," Hetrick said. But Gibson told them that he had already cut significant portions and that he wanted to maintain the film's realism.
In the end, audiences should be prepared for the realism, Hetrick suggested: "It's not entertainment. It's a very important film and a significant film."
Still, the graphic nature of the film is likely to raise the question of what it takes to get an NC-17 rating for violence -- which means no one younger than 17 may attend. (In 1990, the MPAA revised the X rating to NC-17 to help separate mainstream movies from pornographic films and videos.)
The ratings are applied by a governing body of eight to 13 members who live in Los Angeles whose identities are kept confidential. These people, all of whom are parents, are selected by Jack Valenti, president of the MPAA.
The most recent film to trigger discussions about the application of NC-17 for violence was Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill: Vol. 1." In October, the rating board's decision not to give the film an NC-17 outraged some advocacy groups and industry critics who maintained the movie was too bloody to merit an R. Bernardo Bertolucci's film "The Dreamers," due in theaters this weekend, will be the next film to carry an NC-17, in this case for nudity and sexual content.
In America, it seems to Dan Harkins, owner of Harkins Theatres in Arizona, moviegoers are much more comfortable with violent images than sex. He has ordered extra prints of "The Passion" because of the interest it is generating and remains unconcerned about the violence.
"This is going to be a lot of families' first-time exposure to an R-rated movie," he said. "Sexual content has always been more objectionable than violence. There is a polarity between those two with the audiences. Why do the mores of this country follow such a different path than Europe? There is more of a puritanical tendency here."
While Valenti declined to comment on the decision to give an R rating to "The Passion," he speculated that perhaps the film's historical and religious currency made it possible.
"It is unethical for me to comment on this particular movie," Valenti said.
Valenti went on to say the difficulty with any ratings system is: "You are dealing with it subjectively. What is too much violence? That is a good question."