celluloid experience was far too real for his taste (Indianapolis
Movies are not reality,
On my way to the cinema last week, I drove by a billboard size neon sign
outside the local heating and air conditioning company. “The Passion
of The Christ….You Must See It.” Its red bulbs flashed the
message endlessly into the darkness.
Movies are not reality.
The afternoon that The Passion opened in cinemas nationwide, a college
student of mine raced into class a few minutes late, exclaiming she just
got back from seeing the film. “It was amazing,” she said.
“It was so real. You have to see it.”
Movies are not reality.
My wife and I put our two toddlers to bed, got our babysitter situated,
then headed off to the 9:20 pm screening of The Passion. We squeezed into
the cinema with sixty seconds to spare, searching for two seats before
the lights faded to black. I scanned the top of the theater. A trio of
10-to-12 year olds caught my eye, waiting anxiously in their cushy high
The place was packed. As a last resort, I headed for the front row where
nothing but a few footsteps stood between me and a 50-foot screen, backed
with some serious woofers and tweeters. Speakers loud enough to keep the
four year-old boy to my left awake three hours past his bedtime.
I was immersed in a celluloid experience. One I won’t soon forget.
The thousands of silver halide film grains danced in front of me, forming
the enormous close up images of actors playing the roles of the famous
Biblical story, retold by Aussie action hero-turned-director Mel Gibson.
This was not reality. It was filmmaking on the screen and movie watching
in the theater…and disturbing beyond belief.
Enough has been written about the film. No need to reiterate the theology.
But the experience of watching two hours of fake flogging, bludgeoning,
and torture drenched by gallons of red corn syrup- done in the name of
historical accuracy- was the angriest 120 movie-going minutes of my life.
Trying to stomach a ten-minute scene where Roman goons unleash a barrage
of barbaric tools on the ripped up skin of Jesus, I could only look to
the side and wonder how those sound effects were created. Were they created
using some advanced digital audio software, or was it the work of a talented
sound effects artist slapping a bamboo strip on wet pavement?
This wasn’t suffering. It was a pay-per-view professional wrestling
match taken way, way over the top. A mutilation in overblown close-ups
and Dolby THX surround sound. To defend such an onslaught with historical
documentation of Roman brutality dismisses the entire process of filmmaking.
As if there was no other artistic way to portray that violence.
Nothing in The Passion of The Christ is realistic. Nothing in any motion
picture is realistic. Filmmaking is an art form which, in the typical
Hollywood narrative, creates illusion. Defined in the American Heritage
Dictionary, illusion is the “erroneous perception of reality.”
The beauty of quality filmmaking is the ability of the director to suggest
a world outside the film frame and outside our own reality that we the
viewers allow ourselves to be sucked into for a couple hours. It is in
every sense, an imaginary world, filled with 50-foot close ups of gorgeously
lit actors, instantaneous jumps in space and time, and fully scored orchestral
Motion pictures are surreal. Not real. My experience of watching The Passion
was too real.
Why the rules of pornography in the US apply only to sexual imagery and
not to extreme violence is beyond me. This film is beyond NC-17.
It was a disgusting display of violent excess that I worry will have damaging
effects on many young people for years to come. Young people who may have
been part of a church group sold advance tickets to the show by the distributor’s
aggressive marketing team, or young people tagging along with their curious
but careless parents who missed the “R” rating on the bottom
of the movie ad.
I did get a lump in my throat once during the film…watching that
toddler to my left absorb with eyes wide open, the on-screen simulated
pummeling of a human being beyond recognition.
That was the sad reality I experienced.
Ted Mandell teaches in the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre
at the University of Notre Dame.
Copyright 2004 Ted Mandell.
fun informal home page>