First, a Prologue.
I've been reviewing movies on the internet since 1998 at six different web sites. My early reviews were at a site I started called Movie Bodega, which thankfully has been (purposefully) lost in the mists of time. After that, I appeared at Epinions (briefly), Movie Mania (even more briefly), and Juxtaposition (a flickering moment). I found a new home with Jill Cozzi, who was looking for a partner at Cozzi Fan Tutti, which transformed to become the site you're reading now, Mixed Reviews. All totaled, there are about 500 reviews spread across the web that I can be justifiably blamed for.
When I look back on my work, I've realized -- much to my sheepish disappointment -- that over the years I keep repeating certain phrases here and there. At first, I thought this was simply a lack of originality. (And it is, to a degree.) But a more important realization is that these oft-repeated phrases that I keep coming back to are something else. They are truths. Maybe not absolute truths, but personal ones, constants in my perception of the art form, truisms that prove themselves over and over again as I sit in all these dark movie palaces.
One of those phrases I repeat frequently, it seems, is this (paraphrased and recombobulated many ways): art does not exist in a vacuum. Films, theatre, paintings, dance, music -- they all interact with the culture and context that surrounds them, the audience that watches them, the world that spawns them. THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, certainly, is a shining example of that (as anyone who has read a newspaper or turned on a television in the last three weeks can tell you). It is barely even a movie, really, subsumed into being a Cultural Touchstone, a pivotal moment in our social and political datasphere. Malleable and formless, the film's controversial launch has caused the film to become in large part whatever you, dear reader, decide it is. Art does not exist in a vacuum.
So what can I say that matters to the shape of a Cultural Touchstone like THE PASSION? Not much. I recognize that this page is but one of thousands currently clogging the Web about this film. And I recognize that my critical abilities will probably not add any significant contribution to the arguments, polemics, or discussions. So instead of putting on my Critic Persona and pontificating, I'm just going to try to talk to you, person to person, and share my reactions as clearly and as thoughtfully as I can. Your opinion on this film is, of course, as valid as mine. The only difference between us, dear reader -- and it has always been the only difference -- is that I'm writing mine down.
Thus ends the Prologue.
Although there are moral, humanistic questions that begged to be asked in the face of the controversy surrounding THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST -- is it anti-Semitic? is it spiritually redemptive? -- it may be more necessary to first ask the most important question one can ask about any piece of celluloid.
That question is: If the polemics and controversy were removed -- if THE PASSION was not a Cultural Touchstone, but merely a movie like any other -- would it be a good film anyway? The answer to that most basic judging criteria is, sadly, no. As perhaps the most famous religious story in the history of humankind, the crucifixion of Christ is so well-known that the film cannot be blamed for its lack of surprise or complexity. But Gibson seems wholly disinterested in the idea of dramatic tension when it comes to THE PASSION. Furthermore, the film is quite glossy, shot in gorgeous golds and luxurious blue hues, and the production design merely updates the roman-toga garb of 50's period epics. Gibson's direction favors grandiosity over storytelling, pomp over substance; there's no moment that can't be bigger, more terrifying, or more faux-sacred by adding John Debney's Carmina Burana-ripoff score underneath. THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST has an all-too-professional sheen that keeps it from being truly affecting emotionally. It seems to be saying, we're telling the story of the prophet and savior...but we're not opposed to winning some Oscars at the same time.
This is not to say that THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST doesn't engender a visceral reaction, which many religiously-minded viewers may sublimate into emotional response. For THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is, without a doubt, the most violent movie I've seen in my 30-plus years of life. It goes beyond brutal. It goes into a realm I've never experienced, a fetishized orgiastic celebration of pain and blood and broken bones well beyond mere barbarism. One can only assume that the violence is so outsized because Gibson wants to bludgeon his audience with Christ's physical suffering. Gibson has tried, and perhaps succeeded, in imagining the unimaginable...pain so enormous, suffering so intense, that it pushes past the barriers of a civilized society's conception. It also isn't very interesting, in and of itself. It's just horrific and numbing, all at once.
Certainly, there is precedent in Christian dogma for the idea of brutalization -- the entire religion, in some aspect, is based on the sadomasochistic idea that Jesus died for the sins of humankind, which conversely requires the suffering of latter-day folk to regain redemption in God's eyes. Gibson begins the film with a quote from the Book of Isaiah: "He was wounded for our transgressions." As a thesis, it is visually vibrant but dramatically flat. The repeated beatings of Jesus are special-effect miracles, certainly, but they are so graphic and obvious that they pull the viewer out of the movie (and subsequently, out of any complex exploration of the moral struggles of Jesus). Ultimately, the torn flesh, dislocated bones and cranial piercings (which, as portrayed in this film, would medically kill a mere mortal) become nothing more than a grueling marathon of horrors for the audience to get through. It is sluggish and vapid, painful but nothing deeper.
I'm detouring for a moment here, because I don't want to slip into ReviewSpeak. I mean this to be a personal response to this Cultural Touchstone, this phenomena that has grown up around Mel Gibson's very personal movie. We've all read about the churches in the Midwest and elsewhere that are buying out entire theatres for THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, sending young children and families to see it. And I realize that violence doesn't bother many Americans these days. But I have to ask you, dear reader -- Should children really see this? Do they have the perspective to measure something this overpowering? Is the fanatical need to grasp for God so desperate?
Okay, maybe that last one wasn't fair. But if Hollywood's glamorization of violence in Lethal Weapon, Bad Boys and their ilk is evil and demonic, then isn't that also true here in THE PASSION? Or are there different standards for what is right, moral and decent...when it's about God, it's okay, but when it's about human beings, it's not? Look, don't get me wrong, I won't be protesting THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, and I think it's stupid and reductive to do so. But it's near-insane to take a child to this movie. Will this gurgling, bloody overindulgence finally quench America's love affair with violence? I hope so. (I won't hold my breath.)
The most distressing part of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, however, is the relatively sparse time given to Jesus' teachings and moral arguments. Christians, atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, can all support Jesus' messages of love, peace and tolerance, but sadly, that is not Mel Gibson's interest or focus. Devoted Gibson fans may argue otherwise...and yes, there is the occasional platitude thrown in as a flashback sequence. But even the casual viewer will immediately realize that love and peace are not what this film is about.
So what is it about? Theoretically, it is about the last days of Jesus' life as portrayed in the eyes of his followers John, Luke, Matthew, and Mark. But look closer at those closing credits. It's really very much about someone else...Mel Gibson. As the film's director, producer, co-writer, and uncredited editor, Gibson's vision of the crucifixion is the principal blueprint for THE PASSION. Technically, this latest opus shares many cinematic tricks with Gibson's other glorifying hero-worship epic, Braveheart: hyper-real Hollywood settings (Gethsemane, for instance, is an impossibly smoky swamp straight out of the Lord of the Rings) and frequent slow-motion (everything looks more important in slow-motion, right Mel?), both of which dominate over half the movie.
Gibson's protestations in his media interviews notwithstanding, there's a great deal more of Gibson's personal vision in THE PASSION than mere directorial choices. There is the sticky subject of Mel's own personal politics, the same politics that brewed this controversy in the first place. Watching the film makes Gibson's protestations of textual fidelity (used to deflect charges of anti-Semitism) laughable; for every Biblically-drawn scene, there's a matching scene of Gibson's own devising, usually a flashback designed to emotionally manipulate the audience. Scenes of pre-crucifixion Jesus with his mother are especially saccharin, including a jokey carpentry scene (Jesus builds a table that's too tall -- what a stitch he was!) and a cheap emotional moment with Mary and her son as a toddler. Short of Spielberg's "I'll-be-riiiiight-herrrrre" moment from E.T., I can't think of any cinematic scene that more determinedly pulled on an audience's heartstrings.
ReviewSpeak check. Yeah, I threw in that anti-Semitism phrase in the last paragraph, and then left it hanging there. What should one say about that? It's the 500-pound elephant in the Cultural Touchstone room.
My take: I think that anyone who isn't predisposed to defend THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST can take one look at the film and see evidence of anti-Semitism. And while some many argue that such bigotry is in the text of the Bible itself, one cannot use that as a defense of Gibson or THE PASSION. The filmmakers took so many artistic licenses throughout the film -- an androgynous Satan, a drag-queen Herod, a Jesus-friendly Pilate (more on all of those later) -- that it's ludicrous to imagine that Gibson couldn't have dealt with his Jewish characters in a more responsible manner. The unquestionably diabolical villain of THE PASSION is Caiphas, the Jewish high priest, who single-handedly forces the execution of Christ by inciting an all-Jewish crowd. Pilate, in fact, ultimately says that the only reason he agrees to the execution is because he fears Caiphas' wrath in a rebellion.
It doesn't stop there...every time the Jewish priests condemn Jesus, Gibson places Satan himself in their midst, slinking between them. A four-year-old could draw the comparison...Jews. Satan. Evil. Gibson is a smart man, and in the latter half of the film, he goes to great lengths to present us with "good Jews" who give Jesus water, carry the cross a bit, etc., etc. The problem, of course, is that merely presenting a cross-section of a persecuted minority does not undo the damage. Admitting that there are "good Jews" does not excuse the presentation of Caiphas and the priests as the malevolent, malicious masterminds of Christ's killing...especially when the two men who could actually do something about Jesus' fate, Pilate and Herod, are given passes by Gibson on their culpability.
Ah, Herod. In all the hullabaloo surrounding charges of anti-Semitism, no one paid any attention to Gibson's longstanding prejudice, homophobia. For no apparent reason, Gibson has chosen to present Herod as a transvestite -- we first see him in full makeup hurriedly putting on a wig. (To picture him fully, think of Victor Buono in King Tut drag on the old TV series Batman...a clucking, twittering, overweight fag stereotype that has all the seriousness of a clown.) Herod's one scene includes a number of fawning, preeningly effeminate boys that he lecherously teases. It's as homophobic as any portrayal in modern moviemaking since...well, Braveheart. Compounding this bigotry is Satan, who is unfathomably presented as an androgynously feminized male in black robes and urban-decay makeup. Unlike Herod, who is presented as comic relief (one hopes), Satan is a full-on homo menace; in his first scene, we are treated to (yes) a snake crawling from between his legs. Paging Dr. Freud, please pick up the white courtesy phone.
Ah, enough of this. It isn't important and THE PASSION, sadly, isn't very important either. As a piece of propaganda, I'm sure it will be very successful. But as a film -- and more important, as a document of faith -- it is a dismayingly simplistic, obvious, overbearing waste of energy remarkable only for the quantities of blood it spills. Someday, I hope, the very important and complex truths of Jesus will be presented in all of their glorious, magnificent nuance. Gibson, unfortunately, was only interested in the action-blockbuster transference of his own pain.
Email me if you have something profound to say. And please read my friend and colleague Jeff's review, which preaches a different kind of passion. We're all in this together, ultimately, and no amount of flogging (political or otherwise) can hide that fact.
-- Gabriel Shanks