With all the fuss directed at Mel Gibson's The Passion Of The Christ, potential viewers might suspect he'd done something unprecedented, instead of adding cinematic bells and whistles to the centuries-old tradition of Passion plays, which portrayed Jesus' persecution and crucifixion in excruciating detail, inviting the faithful to contemplate each wound suffered because of their sins. With its focus on Christ's final hours, punishing attention to the brutality of His punishments, CGI effects, rapid-fire editing, and in-your-face sound design, The Passion more or less pretends that the years between the 14th century and our own don't matter. Had Michael Bay shared an era with Geoffrey Chaucer, he probably would have worked on this movie. In some respects, though, The Passion does succeed: Gibson wants to immerse his viewers in the full horror of Christ's suffering, and he does. Anyone with human skin should find it impossible not to respond to the unsparing violence. But how hard is that to pull off? Though the film is clearly an act of devotion, its narrow focus removes much of its effectiveness. Gibson never bothers to place his story in a religious or historical context, and while it's understandable to expect viewers to know a thing or two about Jesus going in, The Passion doesn't let its Jesus come to life as a character. As played by Jim Caviezel, he's all blood and guts (almost literally) and no spirit. In the few moments that flash back to his earlier life, Caviezel offers a callow interpretation, looking like too smug a savior. As for the charges of anti-Semitism that have dogged the film, they're overstated (which happens when people judge a work they haven't seen, and when creators only fan the flames of controversy), but they're also impossible to wave off. With little to frame it, The Passion becomes a story of bad guys putting a good guy—for believers, the good guy—up on a cross, and when the temple curtain tears at the moment of Christ's passing, Gibson keeps shaking the earth until the temple practically falls. That kind of overkill characterizes the entire film. No movie about Christ's crucifixion needs to be subtle, but cranking up the slow-motion lashings to the speed of life would probably shave off a healthy portion of The Passion's running time. Gibson makes sure that no blow remains unfelt, and his approach can't help but stir the body, but he never touches the soul.
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