By Nick Maylor
I believe that Biblical films often work best when they establish a mythical, fantastical or otherwise otherworldly setting or tone. I believe Mel Gibson’s passion project (no pun intended) about the final hours in the life of Jesus does this successfully via two mechanisms. The first is the ambience created by having the cast speak in dead languages. The second?
Uninhibited, ruthless, shocking violence.
I also think Mel Gibson could be completely insane. However, (as I mentioned in our Biblical film-themed podcast) that insanity works in a way similar to that of the Hulk within the context of an Avengers battle: it cannot be controlled but if you point it in the right direction, awesome shit can happen.
Mel Gibson is a lifelong Catholic. He wanted to make this movie for very personal reasons. He shopped it around to every major studio and no one wanted to touch it. Gibson wasn’t dissuaded and decided to finance the film himself.
When it was all said and done, Gibson retained over 90% of the box office and personally made several HUNDRED million dollars from The Passion of the Christ (2004), a film I now watch every Easter.
Gibson’s film aims to paint an honest portrayal of Christ’s tremendous suffering. Focusing the film on the events following Jesus being handed over to the authorities after Judas’ (Luca Lionello) betrayal, events from Jesus’ life are portrayed in some brief flashbacks. These include scenes from the Sermon on the Mount, the Last Supper and a charming little exchange between Jesus and his mother Mary while the former is making a table for a rich man.
Make no mistake though, this is not some kind of involved character story about Jesus’ life or teachings like Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Gibson’s film is a visceral and intense portrait of suffering. The overwhelming majority of screentime is dedicated to showing the brutal acts of torture inflicted upon the man. At first, Jesus is assaulted with mockery and ridicule. Shortly thereafter the injuries are inflicted by fists, feet and saliva. He is chained up and dragged around like a criminal. He is whipped and beaten with reeds and all manner of bludgeoning weapons. He is flogged. Skin and flesh are ripped from his body, exposing his ribs in the process. All of this long before he is nailed to a cross and left to die a slow death. The whole endeavour is painted with copious amounts of blood. It is a very tough film to watch for those with weak stomachs. The film is the most violent I have ever seen (not discounting “torture-porn” horror flicks). However, this is sort of the point.
They took children to see this movie. They took them in busloads.
That, I cannot defend. This movie is not appropriate for young children. It is, however, a masterfully crafted piece of art that delivers handily on its promise and was a bigger success than anyone expected.
It’s brilliantly shot. Mel Gibson is a fine director. The cinematography is haunting and rich. Is it well acted? It seems so. One of the perks of using dead languages for your dialogue is that no one can call you out if someone’s delivery isn’t on point. Jim Caviezel is stoic and triumphant as Jesus, despite not having much to do but gasp in agony. He is convincing enough in the flashbacks and the actor personally went through some very rough times while filming the role.
Gibson co-wrote the script with Benedict Fitzgerald, using the Biblical Gospels as the main source material. The film also draws inspiration from The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ the visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774–1824), as written by the poet Clemens Brentano. The film has received accusations of antisemitism but I believe that these issues are ones present in the problematic source materials rather than something conjured up by Gibson himself.
The film contains a haunting and masterful musical score composed by John Debney
I should state for the record that I am not a Christian. That does not prevent me from appreciating the spiritual influence the film has on others. To anyone offended by the film’s violence, I would suggest an idea presented by someone wiser than I: It is not advisable for anyone who believes in Christ to dismiss this film due to its graphic violence, for that violence and the suffering of the Christian Messiah is important to the very notion of the Christian faith.
Gibson is intent on making a sequel to the film that will focus on the Ressurection and themes surrounding the events following the crucifixion. In March 2020, Jim Caviezel said to Fox Nation that the film is on “Fifth draft and it’s going to be a masterpiece. It’s coming.”
For another perspective on the film from our namesake and head writer, please check out his revisit of the film from last year.
Nick is an actor/writer/comedian/musician from Hamilton, ON Canada. Having been a film nut since the early days of his life, Nick has had an obsession with cinema and popular entertainment. Nick has written for thecinemaholic.com and is the current Foote & Friends “expert” on all things geek/superhero/comic-book related. Nick is the host/producer of the official Foote & Friends On Film podcast. Nick met John when studying acting at the Toronto Film School, for which John H. Foote was director and Film History professor. The two have been arguing ever since.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickMaylor