Flustered film critics and 'The Passion'

Posted: Mar 05, 2004 12:00 AM

The residents of Gypsum, Colo., were in for a surprise the other day. Someone hit the wrong button in the county's communications center, triggering an automatic broadcast over four radio stations warning residents to evacuate immediately on account of the tsunami headed their way. That's an interesting weather development for this landlocked community, 6,334 feet above sea level.

It's not often screaming alarms are so demonstrably false, and the wise course of action at times like this is simply to turn them off and publicly recognize the error.

So why, then, won't the false-alarm-clanging critics leave "The Passion of the Christ" alone? After all the trashing of the film (and its creator), and all those warning bells about potential anti-Semitic violence, what's happened? Only this: The movie's $150 million take after only one week makes this one of the most successful films in the history of Hollywood. And the anti-Semitic backlash? Zero. Zilch.

But still they won't stop their attacks. Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post complained first not about the artistry but the history. The film "engages in some troubling assumptions, for starters, by treating the Bible's four Gospels as literal eyewitness accounts of Jesus' arrest, torture and crucifixion."

A reader might wonder: If critics like Hornaday were so tremendously concerned with historical accuracy, what would she have said about "The Last Temptation of Christ," Martin Scorsese's Christ-mangling film of 1988? That Christ figure fantasized about fornicating with Mary Magdalene; claimed he was not divine and sinless; even said he was a bit satanic, had "Lucifer inside him"; and as a carpenter, he callously constructed crosses for the Romans so they could crucify Jews with them.

Sadly, you don't even need a database to find out. Four days after the debut of "The Passion," Hornaday recommended "Last Temptation" to Post readers with great enthusiasm -- and equal loathing of the Gibson film: "But now that 'The Passion of the Christ' is, with any luck, on its way out of theaters, it's a good time to reassess Scorsese's movie, whose lyricism and meaning and spiritual heft have grown with time. ... The film is one of the most provocative, haunting and devout meditations on spiritual sacrifice and commitment ever made."

Only a film critic could find something "devout" about a movie with the snide, scabrous and completely unbiblical portrait of Jesus.

In 1988, Newsweek critic David Ansen similarly claimed that Scorsese had made "one of the few truly religious movies Hollywood has bothered to finance in the past decade." He added that "most moviegoers may have more doubts about the esthetics than the theology."

So what does he think of "The Passion"? Ansen can't find the "truly religious" angle in it: "Others may well find a strong spirituality in "The Passion" -- I can't pretend to know what this movie looks like to a believer -- but it was Gibson's fury, not his faith, that left a deep, abiding aftertaste."

Time critic Richard Corliss' review carried the offensive (and trite) headline "The Goriest Story Ever Told." (Compared to what? The remake of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre"?) Corliss, who received exclusive looks at the film before its debut, mildly honored Gibson's passion and artistry, but advised Time readers to avoid the theatre, suggesting it's only for "true believers with cast-iron stomachs; people who can stand to be grossed out as they are edified."

But in 1988, Corliss lauded Scorsese's "masterpiece" on Lucifer Christ. Scorsese's screen violence "is emetic, not exploitative. The crowning with thorns, the scourging at the pillar, the agonized trudge up Calvary show what Jesus suffered and why. (Willem) Dafoe's spiky, ferocious, nearly heroic performance is a perfect servant to the role. He finds sense in Jesus' agonies; he finds passion in the parables."

In 1988, the New York Daily News found in Scorsese's film "integrity, reverence and a good deal of cinematic beauty." But this time around, critic Jami Bernard could only smear Gibson's film as "the most virulently anti-Semitic movie made since the German propaganda films of World War II." If Ms. Bernard is concerned with real anti-Semitism, she needs to read Joel Rosenberg's recent article for National Review Online discussing the Syrian miniseries "Al-Shatat," which features Jews slaughtering a Christian boy and spilling his blood into Passover matzoh bread.

Films like Gibson's "Passion" remind us that film critics see themselves as far more than advice columnists. They view themselves as the (don't laugh) moral arbiters of the popular culture. But in the case of "The Passion," the harshest critics are dead wrong, and every day's tidal wave of tickets washes away their disbelieving, deconstructing attempts to ruin its powerful effect on American hearts and minds.

Never in history has the chasm between the critics and their public been deeper.