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A dispassionate appraisal.

The Passion of the Christ written by Benedict Fitzgerald and Mel Gibson; directed by Mel Gibson; produced by Bruce Davey, Mel Gibson, and Stephen McEveety (Hollywood: Newmarket Film Group, 2004) 127 minutes; rated R

at this juncture the Internet is littered with reviews of Mel Gibson's celluloid passion play covering the last twelve hours of the pre-resurrection life of Jesus Christ. Released on Ash Wednesday to overwhelming box office returns and media buzz, then topping the charts again on Easter, this film has become famed enough to perhaps warrant some new Guinness category for largest orgy of profits and publicity during a Lenten season. So you've probably decided by now if you're going to see it, or have already seen it, and therefore know what you think of it. In this context, I only need to add my somewhat unique perspective to the many excellent comments published by others--for I approached this film in my own particular way.

Before going to see the The Passion of the Christ I was prepared to give Mel Gibson some benefit of the doubt. I was braced to witness a great but socially harmful film, like D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (a pioneering work of cinematic art that generated racial incidents after its release in 1915). Given this orientation, I resolved to set aside my personal dislike of the topic and try to judge Gibson's work by normal cinematic storytelling standards. After all, to me the events depicted are fiction. So I simply wanted to determine if it was good fiction--if it could stand up to another great drama containing anti-Semitic sentiment, William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.

I was sorely disappointed. I emerged from the theater afterwards thinking that I'd essentially done penance for Lent by giving up $7 to sit in a darkened room for two hours and watch a man with whom I couldn't identify be beaten and tortured to death.

I think there's a lesson screenwriters should learn from the The Passion of the Christ: there's a big difference between a story and a mere sequence of events. This movie is the latter, with only cryptic flashback references to the back story that the viewer is already expected to know. Indeed, if a viewer hasn't been raised Christian or isn't otherwise conversant with the material, she or he simply won't understand what's going on. The person will be like Pontius Pilate (the only character I could identify with), utterly bewildered by the whole mess.

By contrast, one doesn't run into this problem with, say, the ancient Greek tragedies. Even though the original audiences were as familiar with the mythic material as modern American moviegoers are with the Gospels, the tragedians took the time and trouble to first establish character and setting (even to the point of narratively reviewing the relevant preceding events from the larger storyline and genealogies) before launching into the main conflict. And then they provided a meaningful resolution at the end. Mel Gibson did none of this.

Aristotle laid down in his Poetics the rules for dramatic fiction. These remain valid today, including his annoyingly simple and oft-repeated sentence, "A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end." But Gibson preferred to give us a story shorn of almost all beginning and end, leaving a massive middle containing little more of interest than a rising intensity of implausible violence that should have been rated NC-17.

The film opens in the garden of Gethsemane where a pathetic and frightened man, who we come to realize is Jesus, is apprehensively contemplating the fate that lies before him, steeling up his courage, arousing his disciples, and facing Satan. Once he secures the necessary resolve, symbolized by stomping on a serpent, the torture train begins its journey. And this grisly ride lasts almost the whole length of the film. Indeed, if the viewer blinks the end might be missed. Within the tomb a naked Jesus appears, no longer a bloody pulp but restored to the picture of health. He has just emerged from the collapsing shroud and calmly walks off camera. The End.

Given this lack of story, the only way the film can be regarded as art is if it isn't judged by the standards of drama but rather by those of a (long) sketch or vignette. I see The Passion of the Christ as a detailed and intense pantomime on a crucifixion theme.

But, putting art criteria aside, it is reasonable to ask about the film's actual emotional impact. For the benefit of whoever would like to assess psychological or sociological effects of the film, I have this subjective reaction to share. Even though decades of Christian conditioning reside in the cells of my brain, the knowledge of which caused me to go to the theater expecting such baggage to be brought back to the surface, Gibson's work didn't move me at all. The violence was merely as tedious as it was pointless and I came away annoyed rather than impacted.

In sum, Mel Gibson made a lousy movie.

Fred Edwords is editor of the Humanist.
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Title Annotation:'The Passion of the Christ'
Author:Edwords, Fred
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:May 1, 2004
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