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The Passion of the Christ 15 Years On

February 25, 2019

When The Passion of the Christ was released in February 2004, the reaction was overwhelming. The film writer-director Mel Gibson described as a potential “career-killer” was, in fact, a phenomenal hit, becoming the then-highest grossing R-rated release of all time and accumulating over $600m (£463m) in total worldwide box office receipts.

The passion of the christ

The film’s most immediate talking point, for many viewers, was the gratuitous brutality. After sitting through two and a half hours of almost uninterrupted bloodshed, including the protracted torture of Jesus Christ (played by Jim Caviezel), audiences uniformly left The Passion in a state of shock. For the faint of heart The Passion was not.

The punishment of Christ took a physical toll on the film’s lead. Filmed in Italy during winter, The Passion left Caviezel with bouts of pneumonia and hyperthermia. A couple of errant lashes during the extended flogging scene gave the actor a 14-inch scar on his back. Caviezel was even struck by lightning while shooting the Sermon on the Mount.

The passion of the christ

Jan Michelini, the first assistant director, was also struck by lightning – twice. If these unlikely injuries were intended as warnings from above, Gibson certainly didn’t see them as such. The director claimed that "the holy ghost was working through me on this film... I was just directing traffic."

Gibson and The Passion’s marketing team were incredibly savvy about how to get their product seen. Identifying a host of influential Christian figures, the Lethal Weapon star personally visited them and showed them rough cuts. He sought their endorsements, as well as their input on the film and its marketing strategy.

Cynical or not, the tactic worked. The Passion’s PR team supplied churches across America with DVD marketing kits that included advice on how to incorporate the film’s themes into sermons and teaching. Many churches encouraged their congregation to attend the film in groups. Arch Bonnema, a church-going Texas businessman, bought 6,000 tickets to opening-week screenings of The Passion and gave them away to his local community.

The most egregious of The Passion’s sins – the alleged antisemitism – had become a point of contention even before the film hit cinemas. Film studio 20th Century Fox revealed they had passed on the chance to distribute The Passion – which Gibson had independently funded – because of pre-emptive protests by Jewish groups. The Anti-Defamation League released a statement that concluded by saying: “The Passion could likely falsify history and fuel the animus of those who hate Jews.”

Many reviewers and Jewish pundits reiterated, and expanded on, these claims after seeing the finished product. Some prominent Jewish voices, mostly American conservatives, disputed the accusations, suggesting that the many Jewish and Hebraic characters in the film reflected the full spectrum of human morality, rather than any one derogatory stereotype.

Mel Gibson The Passion of the Christ

In one infamous scene from the film, the Jewish high priest Caiaphas states that “his blood [is] on us and on our children”, a line from the Gospel of Matthew. Gibson poured oil on the fire with a pre-emptive defence of the scene, saying: “I wanted it in. My brother said I was wimping out if I didn’t include it. But, man, if I included that in there, they’d be coming after me at my house. They’d come to kill me.”

A long-rumoured sequel to The Passion, titled The Resurrection of the Christ, was confirmed by Caviezel a year ago, with Gibson expected to be involved again. Since 2004 he has dedicated much of his time to his religion, often speaking at Christian events. The sequel might not capture the world’s attention in the same way as the original. But this won’t deter Gibson. After all, the original film was never engineered for traditional creative success. 

Source: Independent

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