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Dan Heller's Movie Review of Passion of the Christ


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James Caviezel as Jesus Christ
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Amid the huge controversy around Mel Gibson's film, "The Passion of the Christ," the cast of characters are set: Jewish Groups lament a new swell of anti-Semitism, the evangelical Christians praise the movie as an accurate portrayal of history, and non-religious commentary warns of the movie's ultra-violent and gory scenes. What's my view on this? As Shakespeare would say, "much ado about nothing."

The movie is essentially a slow-mo replay of the day Christ is sent to the cross. He's essentially lynched, taken to the Romans, beaten to near death, and forced to carry his cross to the top of a hill where he's nailed up. That's basically it. This is not a story with a plot, there are no characters—at least, none that are developed as people we care about in the traditional ways that stories go—and there is little context for how and where and why any of this is happening. Of course not, because all of this depends—no, demands—that you not only know the new testament by heart, but that you believe it as the Gospel Truth. That last part is critical, because unless you believe the King James Bible, which was written 1600 years after Jesus died, what you witness on screen probably won't move you very much. Thus, it's no wonder the extreme religious right is so exuberant about the film.

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Maia Morgenstern, James Caviezel
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However, I'm confused why the Jewish community feels threatened by it. Well, perhaps I'm not "confused," per se. I do understand, but only because the majority of them haven't seen it yet. True, the film does depict the Jews as those who sent Jesus to the Romans and virtually coerced them to crucify him, but the manner in which this is portrayed, as is the way everything in this film is done, is so over-simplified and without any context, that an objective viewer could not possibly extrapolate any emotions against the Jews. At least, none that they don't already have. The movie isn't interesting enough to "fan the flames" of anti-Semitism. At most, it'll be fanned by people who do enough of their own fanning, that this movie's contribution will be largely irrelevant.

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James Caviezel
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In the broader scope of the film's characters, the Jews were hardly more than a bunch of extras on the set. The only character that had appreciable screen time is, of course, Jesus. And the worst part of it is that I couldn't even find sympathy for Him! (Remember, I'm reviewing a film, not making statements against the man himself.) As a character in a movie, Jesus is not depicted in an inspirational way; the few words that he spoke were hardly compelling (and nothing we haven't heard quoted before), and we didn't witness any act or flashback that stirred emotion. Anyone who would feel for him, already did so before they entered the theater. For them, "The Passion of the Christ" may have filled missing visuals that, until now, were provided by copious paintings, drawings and statues throughout history. For the rest, the visuals here don't really mean much.

As for the gore and violence, yes, they are extreme, but I was mostly unmoved by it, since there was no context or character development to bond the audience to the event. Again, this doesn't apply to those who already feel a personal attachment to Jesus. The reason for the extremity is specific: in the beginning of the film, Jesus is told that carrying the weight of all mankind's sins is so overbearing that no one could possibly withstand the pain. The beatings in the film are supposed to
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James Caviezel, Mel Gibson (I)
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give the viewer a sense of this burden. Gibson's stated goal is to force the viewer to suffer as Jesus did. But the lesson that mature filmmakers have learned is that physical violence affects audiences in one of two ways: the horror of viewing someone being mauled (as depicted in common slasher films enjoyed by teens), and when the audience has a personal attachment to the character. In the first case, it's a cheap shot that just about anyone can do. Since "Christ" is not a slasher film, it's beneath Gibson to stoop to that level. Being "offended" by violence cannot be confused with "genuine" sympathy, which is only accomplished through character development, which doesn't exist in this film. Again, the exception is the group of people who already have a personal attachment to Jesus, but they did so before they saw the film. Clearly, they are the target audience for the film, so it isn't saying much that Gibson is preaching to the choir. (The cliché aptly applies here!) In the end, as an objective art form, Gibson should have made the film that could reach those who aren't already singing the Gospel, much the way Steven Spielberg affected non-Jewish audiences with "Schindler's List," a deeply disturbing movie about the Holocaust.

On the positive side, the film was extremely well-produced: the sense of place and time were unmistakable, the characters spoke the actual (and extinct) languages of the era (Aramaic and Latin; so there were subtitles in English, though the script is surprisingly brief), and the music was, as one might imagine, epically dramatic in the most Godly way.

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at Dinner
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Make no mistake, "The Passion of the Christ" can be extremely moving—especially the gore and violence—but only to a believer who considers the Bible a literal account of history. But, for the non-believer, or even one who regards the Bible as a story told with symbolism, this film isn't likely to hold much interest. For an armchair sociologist like myself, though, what intrigues me the most is watching how extremists on both sides of the religious spectrum react. If you find this movie worthy of hailing, or as a threat, check your religious meter: it may require turning it down a few notches.

You can find this movie on the internet database here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0335345/

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