Pop Culture

'Passion' -- pornography for the whole family?

It was Saturday night at the AMC Century 14 complex in Century City at a little bit after 9, and the line for the 10:15 showing of “The Passion of the Christ” had already wound around the corner and down the stairs. By the time the theater finally let the line in at about 9:55, it had added a bonus showing of the film in an adjoining theater at 10:20 -- and the line had snaked onto Little Santa Monica Boulevard and back up to the theater.

Yes, we have lived long enough to have a deeply religious (and unfathomably violent) film with subtitles become the ultimate Saturday night date flick. The line was packed with young couples, the kind whom you might expect to populate, say, an Adam Sandler comedy instead.

Said one twentysomething woman in line: “It was either '50 First Dates’ or 'The Passion of the Christ,’ and 'Christ’ has all the buzz.”

Phenomena can be strange things, indeed. And Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” has to be just about the strangest yet.

Who would ever have thought that two hours of ceaseless, excruciating torture would come to represent such a potent slice of mass entertainment? The film is monumentally disturbing — not for its depiction of Christ dying for our sins but for its unbearably gruesome, gratuitously savage illustration of the final 12 hours of Christ’s life.

What it is is the most gut-piercing depiction ever of a man being beaten to death in all of its blood-spurting, flesh-pulverizing glory. The film is an orgy of gore, displayed for the seeming sake of gore. Take away the spiritual veneer and, in its way, the film is downright pornographic.

It concerns me that parents may be taking young (or even semi-young) children to see a film that is such a full-on visual assault simply because the graphic, unsparing viciousness can be justified as holy and pious. Talk about inducing nightmares. Yet I have heard little about any damage that being subjected to such epic brutality might induce.

Call me a member of the elite media if you please, but it befuddles me that a flash of a bare breast or a few misplaced naughty words can so polarize us politically while a film so wantonly sadistic, ferocious and nasty can be hailed for its accuracy, its reverence, its power.

I’ve struggled since seeing the film to come to terms with what I might have been missing, with how a film like this could be considered spiritually uplifting, enlightening, important. To my mind, it is simply over-the-top violence for its own sake, relentless bloodshed in the interest of shock and revulsion.

What good can come of a film like “The Passion of the Christ?” The significance and import utterly elude me. And that must be at the core of any argument, because otherwise all you have is crimson, super slo-mo torture in search of any understanding or perspective.

If the intent is to remind both the religious and secular multitudes why Christ had to die for our sins, the film fails on every level since it does virtually no explaining of who He was or what He did. That could have been served much better by reversing the movie’s chronology -- that is, telling the powerful story of His life and flashing in brief snippets on the crucifixion rather than vice versa.

Instead, as it stands, it is a film that goes to outrageous lengths to show the wrenchingly explicit depth of Christ’s suffering -- for reasons that have everything to do with exploitation and gratuitousness and nothing to do with illumination.

Yet the people have spoken to the tune of $125 million. So perhaps it behooves me to get in step with these violent times.