Like most hot buttons in the Culture War, Mel Gibson's film of the first Easter weekend doesn't fit either side's breathless descriptions of it. One league of pundits warns us that The Passion of the Christ is a gruesome screed, so anti-Semitic that it's apt to inspire spontaneous pogroms and so gory that it will terrorize the hapless Sunday school kids bused in to see it. The opposing team says it's a devout work of art, a marvelous tool for spreading the Gospel, and proof positive that Gibson's liberal critics have no affinity for God-fearing Middle America. It's a great way to fill airtime, and an even better way to sell tickets, but it doesn't have much to do with the content of this mediocre movie.
I'll begin with the most popular question: "But is it good for the Jews?" I'm far too assimilated and irreligious to speak for all my brother Semites, but I can't say I recognized any bigotry on the screen.
From some of the advance notices, you'd expect The Passion of the Christ to be two hours of hook-nosed bankers drinking baby blood; instead, it doesn't even rise to the level of using the word "neoconservative" and mildly chiding Israeli foreign policy. It's true that many people, working from the same basic story, have concluded that "the Jews"—all of us—are responsible for Jesus' death. But Gibson has repeatedly disavowed that view, and he's added nothing to the story that should encourage anyone to connect the film's Pharisees to any Hebrews offscreen. Indeed, the movie contains both villainous Jews and sympathetic Jews, which is about what you'd expect from a picture set in an overwhelmingly Jewish city. If there's Judeophobia here, it's not even as much as you'd find in The Phantom Menace or Batman Returns.
And the gore? It is real, though anyone who comes to the theater expecting to see the Kill Bill of passion plays will be disappointed. All the blood will surely come as a shock to those who get their sacred art from interdenominational greeting cards and Touched by an Angel, but it shouldn't surprise anyone who's spent time in, say, an art gallery. Still, the critics seem obsessed with it. MSNBC.com's John Hartl, for example, appears amazed that the movie spent so much time depicting Christ's suffering and hardly any relaying the man's message: "It tells us next to nothing about Jesus, aside from the fact that he said a few things about loving one's neighbors and then died horribly." Hartl forgets that film is a visual, visceral medium, and that it needn't be driven by narrative or weighed down with explanations. I'd hate to see his review of Bosch's Christ Carrying the Cross or Goya's Arrest of Christ.
Unfortunately, Gibson isn't exactly a Goya. I'm not a Christian, but I did have high hopes for the movie: The violence, the unfashionable focus on Christ's physical suffering, the director's eccentric traditionalism, the charmingly odd decision to have the actors speak dead languages—they all combined to suggest an idiosyncratic, deeply personal vision, an experimental film for the red states. And if Gibson had been content simply to photograph his bloody stations of the cross, we might have gotten just that. Instead he underlines virtually every other shot by amping up John Debney's awful score and shooting in slow motion, as though he has no faith in the simple power of images. What's more, he hasn't even achieved the authenticity he strives for: He makes mistakes in everything from language (his characters trade lines in bad Latin when they ought to be speaking good Greek) to the mechanics of execution. (As anthropologist Joe Zias told Reuters, "You cannot crucify a person through the hands because there is nothing there but skin and muscle. It will tear.") One expects historical errors from Hollywood, but the whole conceit of this movie was Gibson's alleged attention to detail.
And the film's purported power to spread the Good News? Well, it didn't make me reconsider my faith in anything, save perhaps the acuity of certain critics. If you're already a believing Christian, The Passion might deepen your devotion. If you've got doubts, I can't see how this, or any mere movie, could dismiss them.
Not without help, anyway. I rather hoped the Holy Ghost might manifest Himself in the theater while I was there, but the closest He came to showing up was near the beginning, when Jesus, taunted by Satan, stomps on a snake.
Two rows behind me, a guy shouted, "A-men!" Alas, he did not repeat the sentiment at the end of the picture.