The Goriest Story Ever Told

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A scene from Mel Gibson's The Passion

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Inspired as much by Renaissance iconography, the Stations of the Cross and the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary as by the Gospels' terse narratives, Gibson portrays Jesus' agony and death in acute and lavish detail. In the end, all that gore tends to blunt not only the story's natural power but even the sense of horror at what a god-man has to endure to save all men. The Passion may be unique in movie history in devoting most of its length to the torture of one man who doesn't fight back. He takes a flaying and keeps on praying. This is Gandhi as Rocky. It's Bloodheart.

What is the audience for this Passion? Many Christians — who would appreciate the message — may be repelled by the film's unrelenting bloodletting. The teen boys who make box-office winners every Friday night may like the blood, but they want their heroes to fight back and blow stuff up. Nor is this exactly a date movie. No, the audience profile for The Passion of the Christ is fairly narrow: true believers with cast-iron stomachs; people who can stand to be grossed out as they are edified. And a few movie critics who can't help admiring Mad Mel for the spiritual compulsion that drove him to invent a new genre — the religious splatter-art film — and bring it to searing life, death and resurrection.

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