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Film Review Archive


Passion of the Christ &
The Japanese Story
by Dennis Morton

Aired on March 9, & 10, 2004

There’s no way to talk about Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ without ruffling someone’s feathers, probably a lot of someones and a lot of feathers. So I won’t tiptoe through this review imagining I can avoid offending some listeners.

But before I jump into the middle of the fray re: Gibson’s film – a very few words about a movie.

The Japanese Story, starring Toni Collette, is one of the best movies I’ve seen in recent years. Collette’s performance in The Japanese Story is on a par with Charlize Theron’s performance in Monster. Out of respect for a plot twist that jumps a good movie into the realm of near greatness, I will say nothing about this film except that I loved it. It took me several hours to decompress after I left the theatre. I was deeply moved. If you can tolerate a narrative that takes its time in the telling, I think you’ll be richly rewarded by The Japanese Story.

As for the Gibson movie, I know that many found it inspiring. But not me. I was raised as a Catholic. For years I bought the dogma, hook, line and sinker. I was in my late teens before the indoctrination began to wear off. Guilt is a powerful tool, and the hierarchy of the churches I grew up in was expert at wielding it. There may well have been kinder and gentler parishes around. I hope so. But I don’t miss the church I knew at all. And Gibson’s movie stirs not one nostalgic bone in my mortal body.

You’ve heard, no doubt, that the movie is violent. With the exception of a few brief flashbacks, the movie is indeed an almost unrelieved run of violence. The point, apparently, is that Jesus suffered mightily for our sins, and consequently, the gratitude of believers should be proportionate to the sadism inflicted upon his tortured body. But how the blood and gore that Gibson so energetically and obsessively splashes around his sets should be construed as inspiring is beyond me. Gibson’s reading of Christianity is hooked on violence. Is he suggesting that the suffering endured by the man named Jesus was a good thing - that Jesus was unmercifully whipped, flayed and nailed to a cross so we, millennia later, could get through heaven’s gate? That strikes me as a bit too easy Mel. It makes about as much sense to say that the sins of the fathers stain their children for all time to come. And who would say a preposterous thing like that?
But forget Gibson’s theology. Has he made an artful movie?

My answer is a resounding No. The acting in The Passion…is mediocre. The fellow who plays Pontius Pilot has a bit of charisma. He’s certainly more compelling than Jim Caviezel, the guy who plays Jesus. But Pontius gets only a few lines. And the character of Mary is a mystery. She looks more like Jesus’s sister than his mother. And her performance is as flat as unleavened bread. The background actors are mostly cartoons, especially the high priests of the temple. They sneer, they’re ethically challenged, and they’re dressed to the nines. They’re way over the top. Worse yet are those who play the sadists in the Roman torture squad. These guys are laughing all the way to Calvary. They’re so nasty that at times they had me laughing in disbelief. Now Satan is a moderately interesting character, a dead ringer for Golum, but better dressed.
The whole film is a mess. And the most ludicrous scene is saved for last. Gibson has the effrontery to have God shed a single, literally earth shattering tear at the moment of Christ’s death. The camera is on high, shooting through the tear as it crashes to earth. As absurd as it is, it’s easily the most imaginative moment in the film.

I did like one thing about the movie, though. The actors speak their lines in the ancient languages of Latin and Aramaic. This is supposed to provide verisimilitude. But that choice forces Gibson to use subtitles throughout the film. My fervent hope is that this will have the unintended effect of demystifying subtitles for the legions of film-goers who have previously avoided foreign movies. Perhaps it will open up a whole new world for tens of thousands of movie fans who have had to suffer through Gibson’s abomination.

For KUSP’s Film Gang, this is Dennis Morton.