Ten Years Later: The Passion of the Christ
Ten years ago this week, one of the most violent films ever produced was released into theaters. It came out fittingly enough on Ash Wednesday, and it went on to become the single most financially successful R-rated film of all time, as well as one of the most successful independent productions ever. On a budget of $30 million, the film has made about $370 million to date. It was hugely controversial, lauded by the Catholic church, beloved by many Christians, but often accused of antisemitism. It was lauded by a few critics (Roger Ebert gave it four stars), but many lambasted the film as being blunt and ugly and unpleasant. The film was The Passion of the Christ. The director was Mel Gibson.
The Passion of the Christ is perhaps one of the most ambitious film projects ever. It was more a religious polemic than a proper conventional Hollywood melodrama, which was daring, considering that most biblical epics from previous generations (think of the '50s and '60s) typically aimed for gigantic classical theatricality. Think of stuff like The Robe, Ben-Hur, and The Ten Commandments. The Passion was not stodgy or theatrical at all. It was somber, violent, dark, and painful. Filmed largely in Aramaic and partly in Latin to capture the verisimilitude of Christ's era, The Passion of the Christ – as the title implies – focused on the worst 12 hours in Jesus' life wherein he was apprehended by the Romans, brought before Pontius Pilate, and eventually flayed and crucified.
Jesus' teachings, his lessons, his moments of joy and peace were all relegated to a few brief flashbacks, leaving Gibson to make what many have called a Biblical snuff film, depicting Christ getting whipped and whipped and whipped and beaten and whipped some more and carrying a giant cross and having his shoulder dislocated and getting nailed down and having thorns jabbed into his head and whipped again and finally dying. Crucifixion is a nasty, nasty way to die.
To address the controversy right away, I will declare that The Passion of the Christ is not indeed antisemitic in itself. The “Give us Barabbas” passages (i.e., the scene most often referred to when one accuses The Passion of antisemitism) are more about the rabid groupthink of The Crowd than any sort of Jewish hatred. Has Gibson made antisemitic statements since he made this movie? Yes. And it's pretty much ruined his career as an A-list movie star. Does he really hate Jews? I'll try to give him the benefit of the doubt, and just say that he said some really, really stupid things while driving under the influence of God knows what. Do Gibson's antisemitic statements color The Passion of the Christ as actually being antisemitic? Most certainly.
The source material was also controversial. While the story was taken from The Bible (of course), many of the actual details from the movie were actually taken from an Italian book called The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ written by a poet named Clemens Brentano, which was, in turn, based on the religious visions of a German nun named Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824). The Catholic church has looked into the authenticity of that particular text (I couldn't find their conclusive results on it), but few Catholics abide by it revealing anything notable about the Passion that can't be found in The Bible. So like Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (which was also hugely controversial), this is an interpretive Jesus movie in many respects, despite being pretty straightforward otherwise.
The Passion of the Christ is one of the most aesthetically striking movies I have seen. It was made with, well, passion in mind, and the attention to detail is astounding. Most Bible stories committed to film tend to have a mealy-mouthed beatific quality. For the most part (with many notable exceptions, of course), Bible movies – especially those sponsored by Christian churches – tend to to be outright bland. Their drama is all contingent on whether or not their protagonist will convert to Christianity, or, in the case of historical epics, how perfectly peaceful Jesus Christ was. You have to go to something like the amazing The Gospel According to St. Matthew to see a feisty, grounded Christ. With something like The Passion of the Christ, though, we were treated to the first Bible film that was this detailed, this slick, and this professional. It may have been polemical at heart, but it was the most cinematic Christ story seen since the 1960s.
And what is the ultimate message of The Passion of the Christ? Here's where I have to tread lightly as to not step on any religious toes. The ultimate theme of the film seems to be that Jesus suffered – a LOT – for humanity. Jesus' crucifixion is such an important part of Catholic life, that all Catholic churches feature, well, crucifixes. Jesus' death is the center of much of Catholic belief, and that's what The Passion was evoking and vaunting. As a non-Catholic, however, this seems a little too specialized to capture Christ's message for me. Yes, the crucifixion was painful and horrible for everyone who went through it, but the film's aggressive fixation of death and violence begins to feel fetishistic after a while, undoing any sort of moral lesson we may glean. As I said above, many critics referred to The Passion as a snuff film, and “South Park,” in response to the movie, once spoofed Gibson as being a closet practitioner of extreme S&M.
The Passion is gorgeous, but it is still one of the single most violent films ever, and its tone is, as a result, relentlessly bleak. The Saw movies were more restrained than this. I would think that if you're trying to preach Christ's messages of loving thy neighbor to an audience of movie patrons, you would perhaps be better served by offering up a more detailed account of the man's philosophy, his parables, his lessons. In The Passion, Christ's actual words are reduced to what is essentially a highlights reel, while we focus wholly on his suffering. There is a balance between a relatable human Christ, a divine Christ, and a bloody pulp Christ. This film goes for the third and the third only.
Indeed, the film becomes so violent by the end (seriously, you can see Jesus' ribs!), that – when I first saw it – my asshole teenager horror movie gland began to kick in, and I started snickering at the unabashed bloodiness of it all. Worry not. God will forgive you if you, like me, were whistling “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” at the end. Or if you giggled profusely at this video.
But then, I think that was the point. Christ's actual suffering is seen as the most important part of many Christian churches, and it's what Gibson wanted to ensure people see. Christ was a martyr who was executed by a state who thought him to be dangerous. That he was killed lends a tragic edge to his message of peace.
Before I go, a few bits of trivia: On the set of the movie, at least two people working on the movie were converted (!). When delivering the Sermon on the Mount, actor Jim Caviezel was actually struck by lightning (!!). Mel Gibson, like Dario Argento, used his own hands to deal the death blow; the first shot of the nail going into Christ's hand was Gibson himself. Also, Son of God, another Christ tale, re-edited and expanded from last year's "The Bible" miniseries is being released ten years – almost to the day – after The Passion. Coincidence?
Happy anniversary, The Passion. May you continue to spark controversy.
Witney Seibold is the head film critic for Nerdist, and a contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles Trolling, and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.