The following is my review of The Passion of the Christ. If you haven’t yet seen the film, I’d advise you read this later. If you’re the sort who will take this review as a criticism of your faith, then I’d advise you to read this never.
Talking about religion is an inherently dangerous prospect; despite all the lip service to peace and love, most zealots would feel little regret at stomping on the windpipe of a heathen. Or, for that matter, beating, scourging, and crucifying a heathen. And it’s obvious that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ has created quite a furor in the days leading up to and following its release. Unfortunately all the lightning has been drawn to the well-worn rod labeled ‘anti-Semitism’, while nobody has ignored the controversy long enough to realize the real horrifying truth: that it’s just not a very good movie.
Passion is a movie with a meaning; Gibson wants you to feel, and it’s clearly the sort of story that elicits emotional and spiritual involvement - witness that whole Christianity thing. Unfortunately the film seems reluctant to let the story stand on its own merits. Instead of unobtrusively telling the what is arguably most famous story of all time, Gibson feels the need to insert himself. Not in a literal sense, mind you - but in a real enough fashion that you’ll never confuse Gibson’s epic with the Bible.
My biggest complaint is the addition of a new character, a shadowy, hooded figure with no eyebrows who is apparently intended to represent the Devil, the Serpent of Eden, or perhaps just Evil in general. This addition is, to put it lightly, a huge mistake. I once read a review of the film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Langoliers which sums up my feeling here quite concisely: it is folly to attempt to give true evil a face. I privately think of this as the Alien principle: the less you see of something – the more indistinct, the more shadowy it remains – the more frightening it is. In the first Alien film you barely saw the titular monster at all, and it was scary beyond words – your imagination took over and filled in the gaps with your own personal worst nightmare. Mister no-eyebrows in Gibson’s film violates this principle to ill effect.
But the two-legged serpent himself isn’t the end of the problem – some elements of the film are nearly cartoonish in their error. The scene of this poorly-conceived beast screaming in what I can only assume to be Hell is the sort of thing I’d expect from a kindergartner. The monstrous baby he holds in one scene is sophomoric. The demonic children who herd Judas towards suicide are cliche. The single raindrop at the end, the symbolic tear of a crying God, is equally trite. These mistakes can all be collected under a single summary: Gibson wanted to improve on the Bible.
In a way, Gibson’s position going into The Passion is similar to that of Peter Jackson facing The Lord of the Rings. Both are treasured works whose devotees know them inside and out, and both are thus touchy subjects. On the one hand, a straight transcription to film would be empty; if the new medium is allowed to contribute nothing, then the exercise is inherently hollow. On the other hand, embellishing the story risks alienating the faithful and drawing their ire. The key difference between Jackson and Gibson, of course, is that Jackson got it right. The Lord of the Rings omitted some and added little – Passion added way, way too much.
My other major criticism of the Passion perhaps more of a pet peeve than anything else; it’s a sin of which nearly every movie is guilty at one time or another. If I might make a suggestion to the world: Soaring music is not a filmmaking tool, it is a filmmaking crutch. If you need melody to make your point then either your point isn’t worth making or you’re just not very good at making it.
As for the charges of anti-Semitism? I’m not going to go there. Of course the work isn’t exactly stellar PR for the Jewish faith – but the portions of the Bible on which the work is based are the real culprit for that, not Gibson. And since I’m already berating Gibson for his unwillingness to let the Bible alone, it would be a bit hypocritical of me to suggest he erase the strong bias inherent in the source material. If anything, Gibson should be praised for trying to lessen the blow; the film hinted strongly the Caiphus was leading a minority of the high council in actions that the majority would not allow.
In the final analysis, the film is more in line with The Prophecy than The Ten Commandments. It’s disappointing, really; the film could have been so much more. But as it stands I would recommend Jesus Christ Superstar over The Passion of the Christ any day of the week.