Movies and religion have never mixed well. Inevitably, a movie will misrepresent one religion or another and be faced with protests and threats of boycotts. Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ has sparked the fiercest debates since ... well, since Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, when Christian groups screamed bloody murder over the auteur's supposed blasphemy. This time, most of those same organizations have rallied behind the movie, which purports to faithfully recount the last 12 hours of Jesus Christ's earthly life as it is described in the New Testament. In the other corner is the Anti-Defamation League along with various other figures of Jewish and liberal communities, levying charges of anti-Semitism against the film and the filmmaker, stirring up controversy everywhere one looks.

Their concerns are worth addressing, but there is a much better reason to condemn The Passion of the Christ: it is awful, terrible, unwatchable. Bloody and graphic beyond almost anything I have ever seen on screen, the film will serve no purpose except perhaps to reaffirm the faith of those who are already certain that Jesus suffered and died for the sins of man. As a work of cinema, it is virtually non-existent: in almost perverse fashion, Gibson assaults us with interminable scenes of brutality and torture while bringing absolutely nothing new or substantial to the table. If what you are looking for is an overwrought, hyper-violent reenactment of Jesus' final hours (in Latin and Aramaic, no less), that is what you will get here, and no more. I may be a non-believer, but I see no reason for anyone to put himself through that.

It may have been a worthwhile endeavor if Gibson were an accomplished or even a competent filmmaker; alas, the man who once won a Best Director Oscar must have been in too deep a religious reverie to be concerned with the technical details of shooting and editing. Stylistically, all he seems capable of is an occasional jerk of the camera and endless slow motion -- I know that Jesus buckling under the weight of the cross is significant, Mel, but is it really necessary to slow it down every time it happens? Slo-mo is a convenient and often effective way of underscoring parts of a film -- just ask Peter Jackson -- but when it's the only device in your arsenal, you're in trouble.

Some of the accusations of anti-Semitism may actually be justified. (I know -- I'm as surprised as you are.) While it is usually wise to give a director the benefit of the doubt when it comes to issues like this, Gibson definitely makes at least one questionable decision: he extrapolates on the character of Pontius Pilate by making him more conflicted about ordering Christ's crucifixion than he is in the source material, while retaining every bit of the Jewish high priest's bloodthirsty image. "What is truth? Can you tell me?" asks the beleaguered governor, while the Jew gets to impart profundities such as "Blasphemer!" and "Crucify him!"

It is very easy to put a man on screen and mercilessly beat him for two hours straight, making the audience suffer along with him. Film is a very potent medium for evoking such a primal emotional response. The Passion of the Christ has nothing else to offer. As a work of art, it is negligible; as a historical reenactment, it is thoughtless and rudimentary. And if it is to be taken as evangelism, then it is of the worst kind: the kind that attempts to guilt, goad and threaten the viewer into submission.


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