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Issue: "What is art?," March 20, 2004

Critics' betrayal

The Passion of the Christ is not equivalent to Scripture, but strong evidence suggests that it is the gospel message, presented imperfectly but faithfully in Mr. Gibson's film, that has rubbed many critics the wrong way.

The critical response to ABC's Judas, the recent television movie on the life of Christ from the perspective of His betrayer, provides a telling contrast. Judas is the type of TV movie that critics almost universally revile. WORLD catalogued some of its most grievous missteps in a March 6 review ("Passionless dialogue"), and it seemed unlikely that the film would attract anything but negative and dismissive reviews.

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But this turned out not to be true: Judas received a shockingly positive response. Sure, many critics pointed out the ridiculous surfer dude accents of Christ and several of the disciples (matched incongruously to British accents of others in the cast). Others noted absurd scenes like the one in which Christ and Judas play wrestle while walking along a path late one night. But many worked hard to find ways to praise the film, and it's easy to see why. The Christ of Judas is much easier to accept (and put in a tidy box) than the Christ of Mr. Gibson's film.

Just to be clear, Judas really is that bad. Scenes abound that should not, but do, produce audible laughter. But The New York Times calls Judas a "balm to those who felt that Mr. Gibson gloried in the violence of the Crucifixion at the expense of Jesus' message of love and forgiveness." Despite the movie's faults, says Times critic Alessandra Stanley, "the filmmakers' honorable intentions eventually come through."

What makes the intentions of Judas' filmmakers honorable? Why do they get respect not afforded to Mr. Gibson? Because they've presented a neutered Christ, devoid of the gospel's true context of guilt and sacrifice and its possibility to offend. The Los Angeles Times calls Judas "fun to watch," unlike The Passion, which, says film critic Kenneth Turan, "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."

Tom Shales, the often reliable television critic for The Washington Post, provides perhaps the clearest contrast. He pits the two movies against each other through much of his review, calling The Passion a "gloomy gore fest," while describing Judas as an "attempt to deal in profoundly important concepts without dumbing them down excessively for network TV." (For Mr. Gibson, says Mr. Shales, a "parking space in hell has already been reserved.")

The Passion of the Christ is not above reproach. But Judas provides at least one valuable service: It makes clear the perspective with which many critics have approached The Passion, and which Christ they prefer.

Pony excess

Hidalgo can be forgiven for some of its clichés. It is, after all, an adventure tale reminiscent of Hollywood's golden age of movie serials-not a genre that relied heavily on subtle character development. No, it's not the stock bad guys or predictable plot lines that are particularly grating-it's the modern twist on the cliché, heavy-handed political correctness, that really sinks this film.

Hidalgo (rated PG-13 for adventure violence and some mild innuendo) recounts the tale of Frank T. Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen), legendary endurance rider and advocate for the wild mustang. His reputation is put to the test during a 3,000-mile race across the Arabian desert-"The Ocean of Fire." Hopkins, the first non-Arab rider to compete in the race, faces not only heat and water deprivation, but attempts to force him out of the race at every turn.

Recent scholarly research has undermined the historic Hopkins's claims. That's fine. Plenty of great tales are based more on legend than reality. But here the filmmakers remake Hopkins into an idealized modern man, Hollywood style. The film opens with Hopkins as a disillusioned drunk performing in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show. Hopkins witnessed the massacre of wise, peaceful American Indians by dumb, brutal white men at Wounded Knee, and now works for more dumb, brutal white men who further exploit Indians.

The film unsubtly returns to its anti-Western theme regularly, as Hopkins rejects his white identity in favor of his own Native American heritage. There are some conniving Arabs, but the driving force behind the evil perpetrated in the film is clearly identified as ... that's right, a Christian.

There are some fun action sequences (some of which are too violent for younger kids) and decent special effects in Hidalgo. But the flimsy (and poorly paced) story can't even come close to shouldering the weight of its own pretensions.

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