Friday, May 21, 2004

Hey folks,

I am posting my review of Mel Gibson's The Passion here. Comments are welcome.

Review: The Passion

The Passion, Mel Gibson’s runaway hit, might be best compared to the movie Pearl Harbor. Both movies purport to depict historical events. Both feature finely-hued cinematography. Each broke the bank at the box office. Both movies rank among the worst movies this critic has ever seen.

There are so many things wrong with “The Passion” that it is hard to know where to begin. Great dramas treat human beings as characters. “The Passion” has one identifiable human character, and that is Pontius Pilate, depicted here as a weak Roman Governor who tries repeatedly to save Jesus from the Jewish mob braying for his blood. In the end, Pilate decides to allow the mob their wish to crucify Jesus, fearing another Judean uprising will cost him his job – and maybe his head. He washes his hands of the matter and, like a parent throwing in the towel with an incorrigible child, disclaims all responsibility for what will happen to Jesus.

This offensively inaccurate depiction of Pilate, who killed so often that he was eventually removed from his post as Governor by a regime not known for its pacifism, contrasts with Caiaphas, the high priest who is the arch-villain in the film. Caiaphas is depicted as a cartoonish villain, as are the rest of the priests who comprise the Sanhedrin, the screaming mob, and the Roman soldiers who tear Jesus apart with all manner of whips.

And tear him apart they do. What can be said about the violence in this movie that has not been yet said? It is played up for all it is worth and then some. Many viewers will doubtless ask how Jesus made it to the cross (let alone carried it); normal human beings would have died from the blood loss and the internal hemorrhaging caused by the endless and comprehensive flaying. There is little left for the viewer to do but seek relief in irreverent thoughts. Jesus takes one for the team. Jesus takes one for the whole league. This movie is very boring. Can’t Jesus die already? I wish Jesus was played by Mel Gibson and the movie was a reality TV show.

Like most bad movies, “The Passion” is unintentionally funny and cries out to be parodied. If you don’t believe me, just picture how the script read for the whipping scene. Jim Cazaviel and the actors who portrayed the Roman soldiers sit round a table during a read-through stepping on each other’s lines, mixing up screams of agony (AH-AH) with cackling laughter (HA-HA).

And even in its detailed depiction of violence, Gibson’s vision fails. By the time the crucifixion (better called a “crucifixation” for all of Gibson’s disgusting detail) rolls around, the audience is desensitized to the violence. The squishing of flesh on the soundtrack as the Roman soldiers drive nails through the bloody wonder’s hands and feet is expected and has little of the visceral impact a crucifixion ought to have. The crucifixion is an anticlimax.

Two questions must be seriously addressed because of film’s success: Is it antisemitic? Is it healthy for Christians?

Passion plays, particularly those that repeat the blood libel as Mr. Gibson’s does, are to Jews what cross-burning is to African Americans. They are symbols of hate toward Jewish people even as film depictions embraced by a country that has embraced Jews like no other in human history. And so Jews have every right to feel apprehensive about a movie that is a Passion play perfected, a movie that depicts a sympathetic Roman leader, an orgy of violence toward Jesus and an angry Jewish mob that loves every minute of it. This reviewer only wished more Christians understood this.

This reviewer wishes Christians also understood that in a post-Holocaust world, the idea of striving for a literal rendering of burdening Jesus with the sins of humanity is itself horribly misguided. In a world stained with atrocity after atrocity, many committed by Christians, Jesus gets off easy in this movie; being flayed and crucified does not begin to approximate the sins of humankind. The devil is right; the burden is far too heavy for one man to carry. The Jesus depicted in this movie does not carry it. And neither could anyone else, no matter what evil braintrust is consulted to devise ever more inventive forms of torture.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the fundamentalist community has embraced this movie as it has, if not encouraging the overtly antisemitic lessons of Passion plays past; what better tool can there be to engage in the fearmongering that is a strain in all forms of fundamentalism than this? Fundamentalist preachers who have pressured their congregants to see this movie show a shrewd understanding of the effect of cinematic gore. This explains the gross hypocrisy of their general condemnation of violence in American media and their embrace of this most gratuitously violent of all movies; if secular violence turns youth away from the Church, religious violence can bring them closer to it.

But using gratuitous violence to bring Christians closer to the Church is not any healthier than using gratuitous violence to drive them away from it. Responsible Christians should be frightened by anyone who bases their faith on what is depicted in this movie. They should worry about how Christianity itself comes off in this film, instead of taking for granted that because Christians dominate the Western world, the image of Christianity is not at issue. Much has been written about the effect “The Passion” will have on the way Christians feel toward Jews. Little has been said about how “The Passion” will make people of other faiths feel about Christians after the suggestion that the driving force in Christianity is an orgy of violence directed toward Jesus rather than the moral principles the Galilean preached about from Judean mountaintops, the ideas which have contributed mightily to some of the best of Western civilization. Christians should perform good deeds, sincere atonement, and live noble lives because of the golden rules Jesus propounded, not because they watched as fake blood dripped from Jim Cazaviel’s arm in Mel Gibson’s decadent contrivance.

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