Possessed by an inexplicable urge to see some of last year’s most important films, I watched Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 yesterday, and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ today. The next time I decide to catch up on movies I missed, remind me to stick to fluff pieces.

I didn’t have high hopes for The Passion of the Christ, and it surprised me by being even worse than expected. I was counting on lots of heavy-handed imagery and dull literalism, but watching it gave me so much more. Sadly, try as I might, I can’t give it back.

Gibson disingenuously shielded himself from accusations that he was kindling anti-Semitic sentiments by hiding behind the screen of realism: he was trying to paint the most realistic portrait of Christ’s last day as possible, and if that happened to take place in Jerusalem, well that wasn’t his concern. I could always pull out the counter-argument that true realism is impossible in film and doubly impossible in a dramatization of past events, but one doesn’t need to resort to abstractions to recognize that Gibson is full of it. He doesn’t even take the Gospels as gospel, choosing at every turn to embellish the action and dialogue, even adding new characters to shore up his anvilicious screenplay. I’m not against embellishment in principle: the Bible is actually a pretty terse text, and it’s only natural to want to fill in some gaps. If you do that, though, you need to stand up and defend your choices, not pretend that your tremendously overproduced spectacular is some kind of intimate cine-verité piece.

What’s even more frustrating is that the embellishments don’t really add anything to the movie; they just stretch out its running time. Like most of the film’s intended audience, I’ve read all four Gospels dozens of times — ok, I haven’t read them recently, but it’s not like I forgot everything that went on. Passion adds no new insights into the thoughts or feelings of Jesus, or John, or Pontius Pilate, or either of the Marys, or anyone at all. The film doesn’t tell me anything about these people that I didn’t already get in Sunday School, which makes much of the time spent watching it feel boring and repetitive.

The parts of Passion that didn’t make me roll my eyes in irritation or close them in sleepy boredom made me avert them in disgust, and those parts made up a distressingly large portion of the movie. Passion carried an “R” rating for “extreme violence,” and it was more than deserved. The film gets so swept up in its desire to communicate the physicality of Jesus’s torture and death that the event begins to lose any cathartic or redemptive qualities. After watching James Caviezel’s stuntman get beat and whipped and beat some more, growing bloodier and bloodier with each strike, I became unable to remember the rest of the story and could only see the gruesome tableau laid before me; according to Mel Gibson, Christ didn’t suffer and die for my sins: Christ just suffered and suffered and suffered and died. Like Fight Club, Passion is so seduced by abjection that its violence overwhelms any other themes or morals it might have. So focused is Gibson on the horror of people hurting Dear Baby Jesus that he ends up wallowing in that hurt; Passion is a religious snuff flick, and that, to put it mildly, bugs me.

Hm, that was a lot more than I thought I’d write. I guess I’ll get to Fahrenheit 9/11 later.