In contemporary society, one often gets the impression that a
strict line divides what we consider entertainment and what we
consider “real life.” Though there is the occasional worry about
violence in the media or excessive celebrity influence on children,
by and large popular entertainment – especially film – is seen as
an escape from the concerns and struggles of our day-to-day
existence. For many, in fact, this is the sole purpose of art.
There are times, however, when a piece of art is able to tap into
the very foundations of popular culture in such a way that it
becomes more than mere entertainment, and becomes a cultural event
unto itself, indiscernible from the elements of our “real”
It is hard to find a better example of such a crossover
phenomenon than Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” That
there is no need to summarize or introduce the film here is
testament to its pervasiveness: like no movie event I can recall in
my (limited) years, this film has ignited controversy and – forgive
the pun – passionate debate on almost every level. The film,
initially viewed as an independent gamble, has earned box office
income comparable to blockbusters like “Lord of the Rings: Return
of the King” and has reignited cultural debates that have raged for
The controversy began even before the movie was released.
Churches and religious groups rented entire movie theaters in
pre-emptive attempts to support Gibson’s project. Despite knowing
little to nothing about the film, religious leaders praised Gibson
for his honesty and faith. The movie was shown to the Papacy, and
the pope reportedly praised the film, claiming, “It is as it was.”
(This quote was later contested by the Vatican.) Gibson only fueled
the fire; he boasted that agnostics and Muslims on the set of the
movie had found their way to Jesus and denounced critics of the
movie as “anti-Christian.” On the other side, Jewish leaders
worried about the film’s depiction of Jewish people, worrying that
it may stir anti-Semitic feelings by portraying Jews as solely
responsible for Christ’s death.
Now that viewers have had a chance to view and critique the
movie, the scope of discussion regarding the film has expanded from
the level of mere rumor and guesswork. Unfortunately, what I
learned when sitting down for Gibson’s brutal epic was that, in
plain words, it almost doesn’t seem worth the fuss; it certainly
doesn’t seem worth the $30 million that Gibson reportedly paid out
of his own pocket for the film.
Some readers may already be aware of Gibson’s liberties with
certain accepted facts of the persecution of Christ. For example,
the filmmaker’s portrayal of Roman Gov. Pontius Pilate as a
sympathetic and moral leader is entirely at odds with the
historical Pilate, who was notorious even by Roman standards for
brutality and intolerance towards the Jews (and Jesus, in fact).
Gibson’s strange decision to portray Caiphas and the pharisees as
Christ’s sole prosecutors does not deal very responsibility with
the anti-Semitic question, to be sure.
Before going too far with such criticism, however, we should
consider the view that films are not historical reports but rather
vehicles for aesthetic expression and emotional affectation.
Therefore, this argument goes, to judge “The Passion” on its merits
as a historical document misses the point.
This argument is only helpful, however, if “The Passion” truly
stands alone as a fine piece of cinematic achievement.
Unfortunately, it fails to do that. “The Passion,” despite its
sacred subject matter, is in fact little more than a simplistic and
juvenile experiment in cathartic cinema that attempts to win the
viewer over by means of repetitious brutality and unrelenting gore.
Theme, character development, subtlety and narrative are thrown
aside and replaced with blood, pain and misery, as if the holiness
of Gibson’s intentions to create a “faithful” piece of work is
supposed to win over the viewer. Unfortunately, high intentions do
not make a work of art worthwhile. It is difficult to feel anything
but impatience and disgust as one watches actor Jim Caviezel’s skin
torn from his body, or as he falls time after time in dramatic slow
motion under the weight of his cross.
Movie critic David Denby, writing in the New Yorker, offered
this succinct evaluation of the film: “The movie Gibson has made
from his personal obsessions is a sickening death trip, a grimly
unilluminating procession of treachery, beatings, blood and
agony… Gibson is so thoroughly fixated on the scourging and
crushing of Christ, and so meagerly involved in the spiritual
meanings of the final hours, that he falls in danger of altering
Jesus’ message of love into one of hate.”
This is, indeed, the great tragedy of the movie. With so much
influence and financial sway, Gibson had the ability to bring those
aspects of Christ’s life to the screen that would have brightened
the spirits of believers, and rewarded those who threw their
support to the project without knowing the first thing about it.
Instead, Gibson chooses to beat the viewer into submission with
violence and dread, exploiting every trick of sensationalist
cinema. In the end, it is Gibson’s own passion for carnage that
reduces his movie to such a repulsive and disappointing level.
Brent is a freshman studying philosophy. His column runs every