Passion of the Christ (2004)
Directed by Mel Gibson

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * ½

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Gibson narrates the final day of the life of Jesus.

Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ deserves neither the extreme praise nor the extreme condemnation it has frequently received. It is, in fact, a mediocre film no better and little worse, on the whole, than the great majority of movies being produced in Hollywood today.

Technically, the film is always well made and is frequently genuinely impressive. The costumes and sets are alike stunning and give The Passion of the Christ a remarkably authentic look. The movie is, however, so seriously flawed that it is often irritating and occasionally laughable.

Gibson constantly relies on a handful of hackneyed techniques to move the viewer. Rather than doing so, however, he instead demonstrates the limitations of his talents. Virtually every dramatic event in the movie is, for instance, shown, at least in part, in slow motion. In fact, The Passion of the Christ very likely includes more slow motion than does any other movie I have ever seen. Gibson further demonstrates his lack of subtlety by intermixing many of his dramatic scenes with flashbacks of Jesus' happier past. Although these flashbacks are clearly intended to contrast with the sorrowful events of Jesus' present and to increase thereby the emotive impact these events have on the viewer, they are, instead, silly, overdone, and frequently annoying. What is more, if the moviegoer is not moved by these gimmicks, the director reminds him that he should be experiencing a terrible sadness by battering him with waves of sorrowful music.

The effect of Gibson's overuse of slow motion, flashbacks, and dolorous music is risible rather than moving and wearisome rather than engaging. At one point, for example, as Jesus is carrying his cross to the accompaniment of the heart-rending score, his mother sees him stumble. Gibson cuts to a depiction of her memory of a time when Jesus stumbled as a child and she rushed to his side, which inspires her to rush to his side in the present. The scene, much of which is shown in slow motion, is utterly maudlin and ineptly manipulative. It is not unique. The movie is filled with one incident after another like this one, and their extreme repetitiousness quickly grows tiresome.

Sadly, Gibson is no more subtle in his approach to other aspects of his film. The movie's villains are thus caricatures of evil. The Jewish priests are snarling, deceitful, and vicious. The Roman soldiers are violent, sadistic, and brutish. Herod and his courtiers are strange, drunken, effete creatures reminiscent of the inmates of a mental asylum from a bad horror film. The list goes on and on. Many of these grotesques resemble figures from medieval paintings of the life of Christ and could well have been interesting as a consequence. Such paintings, however, being stylized, rely upon various conventions and do not attempt to portray the world precisely as it is. Gibson, on the other hand, clearly does intend that his film should be a window into a bygone age. Any naturalistic effect is, however, undermined by the fact that absolutely nobody behaves as do the villains of The Passion of the Christ. Such monsters could have increased the emotive impact of a more stylized film, but in a movie that presents itself as realistic, their disjunction from the persons of ordinary experience gives a sense of falsity to the film which greatly weakens any feelings it might have aroused.

Whatever the limitations of the villains of The Passion of the Christ, they are the only characters with a hint of any personality. Virtually every other person in the movie is a complete nonentity. The Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene do nothing but weep, look pathetic, and follow Jesus from place to place. Jesus' disciples are, at best, little more than faces, and the various characters with whom Jesus interacts are usually present only so that they can perform some action mentioned in the Bible or Christian tradition. They are certainly never more than mere automatons performing those actions. Not one of these characters is able to engage the viewer's interest even for the briefest moment.

There are, nonetheless, a number of sequences in which Gibson's use of caricatures and his extreme exaggeration work well, such as that in which Jesus' scourging is depicted. The violence is so lurid and the overacting so extreme that the scene is reminiscent of a medieval painting of the event and does somehow succeed for much of its duration. Unfortunately, Gibson is unable to maintain the effect he briefly achieves and his usual ineptitude manifests itself. The wildly exaggerated villainy of the Roman soldiers and the horrors of Jesus' suffering are replaced by overwrought images of the movie's two Marys weeping and the sounds of the manipulatively sad score. The scene at once becomes melodramatic and silly. Even when Gibson returns to his depictions of the scourging, he is unable to resuscitate the interest he had earlier aroused. Instead, he intermingles images of the Roman soldiers whipping Jesus in slow motion with flashbacks of Jesus' happier former days and bathes everything in pathetic music, hoping he can thereby remind the viewer how sad the events being depicted really are.

Gibson's incessant reliance on a handful of tiresome techniques leads to the movie's greatest flaw, its frequent tediousness. Whatever problems a given film has, if it is entertaining, it is worth watching. If a movie is dull then it fails completely. Although The Passion of the Christ is certainly not so boring that it is unwatchable, the repetitiousness of Gibson's manipulative techniques, especially his constantly showing events in slow motion, grows wearisome and makes parts of the movie seem interminable.

Despite its numerous faults, The Passion of the Christ is not without interest. Unlike most film depictions of Jesus' life, which focus on his teachings, Gibson concentrates on Jesus' sacrifice. Most educated Christians throughout history would surely say that what made Jesus unique was not his teachings, but that he made himself into a sacrifice by which he atoned for man's sins. Gibson is, therefore, reflecting historical Christianity and, I might add, the views of the writers of the Gospels, in emphasizing this aspect of Jesus' life in his movie. His approach has a potential for vibrancy and emotivity that an account of Jesus' teachings simply cannot have.

In fact, this approach could, potentially, manifest to a broad audience of believers and unbelievers alike a mystery at the heart of Christianity and several related traditions. The idea of a god as a sacrifice was a common theme in ancient Middle Eastern religion. Christianity developed in a world where stories of Adonis, Attis, and the like had resonance, and early Christian texts incorporate themes which were present in those religious traditions. While the writers of the Gospels might not have consciously borrowed from such stories, it is a virtual certainty that they would have been familiar with them. This being the case, it is probable that those stories influenced early Christian concepts of religion. For Christians, Jesus made of himself the true sacrifice, thereby transforming both man's nature and his relation with the divine. This sacrifice, which has such ancient roots and such a capacity to move the human heart, is far more central to Christianity than are Jesus' moral dictates. Most Christian traditions have, in fact, held that a person need not know the dogmas of the religion to attain salvation, but that he must accept Christ's sacrifice to do so.

Instead of providing the viewer with an extended lecture on Christian morality, which is, after all, an adjunct to the religion, Gibson allows the viewer to participate in a passion play, to experience the suffering of the divine sacrifice at the core of the Christian faith. While his attempt to do so may not be a success, he does try to draw us into the world of his religion so that we feel Jesus' agony. He pulls away from the didactic and reveals to us the world of ritual and immediate awareness. He attempts to let us experience the transcendent, however terrifying that experience may be, and such experience is, after all, the essence of religion.

Despite such interesting themes, I must admit that I was somewhat disappointed by The Passion of the Christ. After all I had heard about it, I was hoping to see either a masterpiece or an embarrassment so bad I could enjoy it for its silliness. Instead, I was presented with a work of undistinguished mediocrity. The movie hardly deserves the attention it has received. There simply is nothing exceptional about it.

Review by Keith Allen

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