The passion of the critics
by Kevin Hurley
"Quid veritas?" Pontius Pilate asks several times during the film The Passion of the Christ. The truth is that after all the claims of anti-Semitism, degrading images, and historical inaccuracies, The Passion of Christ is the most financially successful domestic U.S. independent film of all time. It is also the least critically acclaimed film among the top ten domestic-grossing films of all time, according to the movie-rating website Rotten Tomatoes. (There are no rankings for E.T. at Rotten Tomatoes, but it seems likely that the film, given its original critical reception, would rate well above The Passion of the Christ if its reviews were reprocessed today.)
The Rotten Tomatoes site gathers and creates a numerical value from print and online film critics to generate a "fresh" or "rotten" score for each film. (A film is categorized as fresh if it surpasses a 60 percent positive rating from both print and online film critics). Hence, it is a good gauge of the critical reception of a film. With 222 reviews gathered and analyzed at the site, Passion is rated as a rotten film, with a 50 percent overall tally of positive reviews. According to the Rotten Tomatoes calculation, The Passion rated below such recent masterpieces as Hellboy, the remake of Dawn of the Dead, and even the lame comedy Starsky and Hutch. The Rotten Tomatoes rating places Passion at the exact same percentage that the critically panned movie Hidalgo received. This is particularly ironic because one of the main complaints concerning Hidalgo was its lack of historical accuracy.
As the Rotten Tomatoes rating makes clear, Frank Rich of the New York Times reflected a strong feeling among U.S.critics when he characterized The Passion as a religious "porn film," a violent and base work with little to no aesthetic or intellectual value, fit only for fanatical Christians from Alabama and others with similarly disturbed minds.
What is of serious interest here, well beyond the rhetoric, is how clearly The Passion exposes the severe cognitive dissonance that American film critics have been experiencing for the past decade or so. The role of film criticism is changing now that movies can be seen cheaply and easily at any time and place (including the ever-increasing DVD market) and filmmakers can create different versions of a film for different media, as when they add scenes for the DVD release. In such a situation, the film critic's role must become once again that of describing and explaining the motivations of a film's characters, divine the meanings of its situations, consider its place in aesthetic history, and the like, rather than simply declaring whether they think it worth checking out. In short, the role of the film critic is becoming once again that of a critic rather than a consumer reporter. Unfortunately, this is a skill that most current film critics sorely lack.
In the case of the Passion, once the critics move past the specious charges of historical inaccuracy, excessive violence, and anti-Semitism, they encounter a film that is extremely difficult for them to recommend but which they cannot safely pretend is anything other than what it is. Since it is an independently produced film, they need not give it a good or at least sympathetic review in order to continue receiving their usual benefits from the studios. On the other hand, The Passion is a film in which every piece of acting, special effects, score, and technical expertise is dedicated to a telling of the last twelve hours of the life of Jesus Christ--a subject about which audiences know a great deal more than most film critics. There is no way to separate the film into different levels; one has to accept the film as either a good film about Christ or a bad film about Him.
Contrast this to the recently released film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring, which is currently rated at a sterling 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. This is a Korean film that tells five stories taking place at a Korean Buddhist monastery. Although it is a mystical, deeply Eastern film, a great many of the reviews focus on the director's use of nature. For example, Jeanne Aufmuth of Palo Alto Weekly, wrote, "Lush and succinct images support the twists and turns of nature's natural terms and the rumination of man's evident shortcomings." Compare this to her quote concerning Passion: "Saturated with vengeance, betrayal, and melodrama, Mel Gibson's sadistic take on Jesus' final twelve hours screams bloody murder."
The positive critical response to The Return of the King, last year's Oscar winner and box office hit, shows the same effect. Although faithfully based on a consciously Catholic work by J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King was able to garner much critical success because critics could see the world of Middle Earth as nonreligious and hence unthreatening to their worldview. Thus they were able to enjoy the film by focusing on the special effects, acting, environmental themes, and the myriad of interesting ideas within the books and film itself.
The Passion, by contrast, allows critics no such comfort zone. Like Pilate, the critic must make a choice. The Passion of the Christ forces them either to admit that a good film can be made of Jesus Christ that is literal and truthful to the Bible, or to compose a hysterical screed condemning the film as excessively, pornographically violent (unlike their favored, presumably pacifist fare such as Dawn of the Dead, Hellboy, and Kill Bill Vols. 1 and 2). Gibson's cinematic effort to force audiences to look in the mirror and see their own faults has had an additional, probably unexpected bonus: it has exposed the utter inadequacy of most of the nation's film critics.