About 20 years ago, I was reading how Mel Gibson was working on a movie called at the time The Passion. This was after I had seen him in Signs, a part in which he played a grieving farmer and former pastor going through spiritual doubt after his wife was killed in a traffic accident. It was a great performance and one that should’ve earned Gibson more accolades.
Gibson hadn’t been quiet about his more conservative views throughout the 1980s and 1990s especially those in regards to the LGBTQIA community. But for the most part, it was easy to ignore it back then. Gibson had won two Oscars for Braveheart for directing as well as producing. He had a very impressive filmography going into the 2000s.
But the $64,000 question was why would Gibson put up $30 million of his own money to make a Biblical movie? Well, this wasn’t the Biblical movies that Gibson and many others had grown up on. And I think this is why The Passion of the Christ, released on Feb. 25, 2004, which was Ash Wednesday, is so controversial.
Movies such as The Greatest Story Ever Told and King of Kings often portrayed Jesus’ life from birth to crucifiction to the resurrection. The Passion takes place over the last 12 hours of his life with only two flashback sequences. The first is between Jesus (Jim Caviezel) and his mother, Mary (Maia Morgenstern). The other is when Jesus saves Mary Magdalene (Monica Belluci) from a stoning, despite some beliefs she was never threatened with stoning.
But most of the movie is so loaded with violent and bloody images, mostly of Jesus being whipped, punched, hit, slapped, and even whipped so hard with a cat o’ nine tails it breaks open his skin causing him to bleed. And that’s just the first hour of this two hour movie.
The second hour consists of him being forced to carry his cross, falling several times, and then being nailed to the cross by Gibson himself (as a Roman soldier). Historically, it’s been theorized the Romans probably just tied Him to the cross as nailing people actually could cause their skin to go through the nails as disgusting as that sounds.
Also, to add insult to injury, Romans would humiliate those crucified by leaving them naked as a jaybird. So, Jesus was more or less naked on the cross. Of course, Gibson leaves Jesus’ gentilalia covered up. Gibson actually does portray some accuracy in how the Romans would break the crucified person’s legs if they were growing bored and wanted them to die sooner. This was even more torture as it would affect their diaphragm and breathing.
But Gibson grows way overboard with the violence to the point that what you’re really watching isn’t entertainment but an endurance contest on you as the viewer. At one point, when Jesus is stabbed, he inadvertently gives everyone at his feet a bloodbath bukkake. It’s no wonder people reported being nauseated. I heard other people say they went to the bathroom to throw up. Others had to walk out of the theaters.
The film was met with a lot of criticism. Roger Ebert, despite praising it, called it the most violent movie he had seen and also the most violent movie ever made. He also questioned whether the movie would have received an R rating if it’s subject matter was different. I think other filmmakers use The Passion as a reference for when they wanted to push the envelope in movies, ushering in the “gorno” era with movies like the Saw, Hostel and Purge franchise. All they had to do was point to The Passion. This along with Kirby’s Dick’s expose of the double standards of the MPAA in This Film is Not Yet Rated led to some changes.
But taking into account the violence, this movie is really boring. It’s violent for the sake of being violent. There is no substance. The acting is not good either. Caviezel practically sleepwalks through the role. Belluci and Morgenstern aren’t given much to do but react. The actors playing the people of Jerusalem are wooden as well as the Romans. King Herrod is portrayed as an effeminate wimp, stirring up past incidents of Gibson’s homophobia.
The only character the movie does seem to portray as three-dimensional is Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov) who is struggling with a crisis of conscience over how to handle Jesus as the High Priests want him punished but the people actually like him. Other media have portrayed Pontius as either a coward and/or villain. Gibson’s sympathetic view of him calls into question a lot of issues.
The movie was already awashed in controversy for what some alleged was a strong anti-Semetic sentiment. Some dialogue was cut. Gibson’s own religious have been scrutinized with some reports saying he doesn’t think anyone but Roman Catholics are going to Heaven. This has later been backtracked. The portrayal of Pontius, I think, is an attempt to make the Pagan Romans look like they were just forced to follow orders of their emperor. Since Gibson (who also co-wrote the script with Benedict Fitzgerald) chose to make Pontius the only character with any depth, his absence in the second half destroys the movie.
The Passion went on to become a big success grossing over $600 million world wide but it wasn’t without a lot of controversy. While many church and religious groups praised it, some felt the movie sent the wrong message. In a popular South Park episode “The Passion of the Jew,” the cultural impact was discussed as showing that Jewish people alone were responsible. It also went after criticism that saying the movie is bad is saying that Christianity is bad.
And that’s where I think a lot of people who didn’t like The Passion felt scrutinized. Just because a movie is about a religion that most of the world’s population DOESN’T follow, it doesn’t mean criticism of it is a condemnation of Christianity. I personally don’t care for the movie because of the way it’s presented. It doesn’t mean I’m saying Christianity is bad. But the movie seems to focus on Jesus’ crucifiction and resurrection as the only two important things in His life.
Even some admitted Christians have come out and spoken against the movie’s violence and gore. Crucifiction was the preferred form of capital punishment by the Roman Empire at the time. A lot of people were crucified all over the place. Also, by not focusing on Jesus’ teaching and just His deaths, it turns his sacrifice into exploitation.
While the movie was nominated for three Oscars and enjoyed some success on the home video market, Gibson’s behavior since then has pretty much led to its disappearence from pop culture. In 2006, he had the infamous “sugar tits” comment during a DUI stop followed by a mug shot where he looks glazed that went viral. Gibson has actually said more anti-Semetic and racist remarks and some are questioning why Hollywood still employs him.
His movies Apocalypto and Hacksaw Ridge (which also have a Christian theme) are loaded down with over the top violence and gore that includes human sacrifices and beheadings. It makes people wonder if Gibson is as obsessed with extreme violence and gore like Quentin Tarantino and Rob Zombie.
But like some other popular films of the 2000s, such as Chicago, Crash and Avatar, The Passion has lost a lot of its luster. With Christianity suffering a huge numbers crisis as conservatives and the Republican Party seem to have it in a stranglehold, less people are really gathering around to watch it for Movie Night. The rise of the God’s Not Dead franchise as well as the very biased movies directed by the Kendrick Brothers show there is an audience for Christian-based movies. But what does this audience say about Christianity?
At the same time, the people praising The Passion were condemning movies like The Golden Compass. There’s still a push by Christians and conservatives to turn America into a theocracy. It’s not a good sign when the Oklahoma legislature takes a day off their session to go see a movie like The Passion of the Christ, especially since it has a very biased view.
I’m not saying Christianity is bad. I don’t follow any religion. I think Christianity and The Bible are supposed to be open to personal intepretation. But if people like Gibson feel Jewish people alone were responsible for Jesus’ death, it sends the wrong message. This comes as their a battle in the Methodist denomination on what to do next as some people want stricter regulations and others feel there should be more inclusiveness.
While Good Friday and Easter are very important dates in the Christian faith, it’s pointless to only focus on those to if you truly celebrate Jesus’ life. Most of what Jesus taught (love of people, inclusiveness, foolishness for hoarding wealth, etc.) are now considered “wokeness” by the same people who are so quick to scream “Jesus died for your sins!” if you say you’re not a Christian and force you to follow a narrow path of religion.
And just like The Passion, there might come a day in which Christianity is forgotten and not spoken about as it once was.
What do you think? Please comment.