When, if ever, has a movie review run on the front page of the Los Angeles Times? (Surely someone will know.) But I'm told that's where Kenneth Turan's take on Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ will be on Tuesday morning, ahead of most papers by at least a day.
Making comparisons to The Birth of a Nation and the sensation around The Blair Witch Project, Kenny acknowledges the film is a cultural milestone and writes that he was moved, though probably not in the ways Gibson hoped.
The film left me in the grip of a profound despair, and not for reasons I would have thought. It wasn't simply because of "The Passion's" overwhelming level of on-screen violence, a litany of tortures ending in a beyond-graphic crucifixion.
And it wasn't because of the treatment of the high priest Caiphas and the Hebrew power elite of Jesus' time — a disturbing portrait likely to give, I feel sure unintentionally, comfort to anti-Semites.
Instead, what is profoundly disheartening is that people of goodwill will see this film in completely different ways. Where I see almost sadistic violence, they will see transcendence; where I see blame, they will see truth.
In effect, aspects of Gibson's creative makeup — his career-long interest in martyrdom and the yearning for dramatic conflict that make him an excellent actor, coupled with his belief in the Gospels' literal truth — have sideswiped this film. What is left is a film so narrowly focused as to be inaccessible for all but the devout.
Those factors have made "The Passion" a film that will separate people rather than bring them together.
Turan accepts that Gibson was completely sincere in making the film, but in the end he doesn't see it fully working.
The problem with "The Passion's" violence is not merely how difficult it is to take, it's that its sadistic intensity obliterates everything else about the film. Worse than that, it fosters a one-dimensional view of Jesus, reducing his entire life and world-transforming teachings to his sufferings, to the notion that he was exclusively someone who was willing to absorb unspeakable punishment for our sins.
Despite brief flashbacks that nod to Jesus' other words and thoughts, no hypothetical viewer coming to this film absent any knowledge of Christianity would believe that this is the story that gave birth to one of the great transformative religions as well as countless works of timeless beauty.
And without belief, this film does not add up.
The L.A. Daily News also runs its review Tuesday, by Glenn Whipp. Earlier reviews: Richard Corliss in Time, David Ansen in Newsweek, Todd McCarthy in Variety, Kirk Honeycutt in The Hollywood Reporter, David Poland's Hot Button. A gazillion stories on the film are linked here at Movie City News. The film opens Wednesday on about 4,000 screens.