If you do not have an adequate grasp of the Bible and, in particular, the story of the Passion, before entering the theater to see Mel Gibson’s big-screen rendition, be prepared for one of the most perplexing and eventually frustrating moviegoing experiences of your life.
For me, sitting through “The Passion of the Christ” was, in almost every way, pure audience torture. I felt like I had stumbled into a much-hyped sequel without having seen the first film, only this film didn’t bother to clue its viewers in to what the hell happened before.
See, I’m one of those freakish rarities wandering amongst you all – one of those untouched souls devoid of religious knowledge for the most part, unfamiliar with the rituals and histories tied to any particular religious affiliation. Sure, I’ve taken religious studies while at UCSB, but any knowledge I had before was obtained through an odd Sunday spent with a childhood friend whose family dragged me to church, or when I informed my freshman year roommate she had something “gross and ashy” on her forehead one Wednesday. It’s not that I take pride in my religious ignorance, just that it exists in my world much like astrophysics or Cantonese; interesting, but not quite my cup of tea.
For this reason, I almost looked forward to seeing “The Passion.” What with all the hubbub brewing around the film, I looked at it as the perfect opportunity to be proven wrong about my disinterest in religion and even – gasp! – spark some newfound zeal for the subject. After all, I’m a film studies major and many a film has rocked my inner depths, oftentimes the films I would least expect. Yet, “The Passion” would not be the occasion on which my religious tide would turn.
From the first step into the theater, my stomach began to tighten into knots. Before me sat rows of grinning filmgoers, many with young tykes in tow, eager to endure a film described as “relentlessly focused on the savagery of Jesus’ final hours,” by New York Times film critic A.O. Scott. As the lights slowly dimmed, I heard a mother lean toward her young son and quietly joke, “We’d better get all this popcorn down fast because I’ve heard this isn’t a film you want to be eating in!” What? This already feels wrong.
It took only moments for me to become lost, begging the filmmakers to explain why Jesus was hysterically shaking and sweating in some garden while an androgynous albino meant to be the devil (judging by the maggots crawling from nostril to nostril) berated him with questions. From there, the film spiraled into two hours and 15-some-odd minutes of coded dialogue and curious characters, with no sort of back story ever given.
Of course, I knew the basics: Jesus is sentenced to crucifixion, carries his cross up to a hill, is crucified, dies on the cross and rises from the dead a few days later. Instead of offering a more fleshed-out story concerning the world’s most talked and written-about hero, the film stayed utterly fixated on bringing the camera inside every oozing whip wound covering his skin, closing-up on gunky blood droplets as they drip from Jesus’ eyes. I’ve sat through many a horror-flick marathon, but this was almost more than my innards could stand to bear.
By the film’s end, my knuckles were white and my ears raw from the bawling of theatergoers seated around me. I had wanted to feel the intensity of this film in some small way, and felt more left out than I had 2 1/2 hours previous. Had it not been for a friend who had also seen “The Passion” who patiently detailed every step of the film afterward, it would have remained one notch more confounding than David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive.” When starting our conversation, I remarked, “Well, I was clear on the first scene with Jesus and the three wise men in the garden.” His response? “Actually, those were his apostles.”
Clearly, Gibson’s filmmaking scope did not include me, thus begging me to ask, who is this film for? Even the most devout Catholic has likely never before sat through the unprecedented bloodbath spattered all over the celluloid in “The Passion.” With the phenomenal box office force this film has, Gibson had a crystal moment when wide-eyed religious ignorants like myself could have potentially been swayed to flip through a few verses of the ol’ Bible. Instead, he seems to have pushed all but the most devout (and iron-stomached) religious zealots to the sidelines in an effort to further alienate rather than unite. Personally, I’d rather pick up “Dummy’s Guide to Astrophysics” than bother learning more about this blood- and guilt-soaked tale.