The Passion of the Christ (2004)

APRIL 1, 2018


When I was younger and attending Catholic school (for grades 1-8), during Lent we would go to Mass on I think Friday every week and get an abbreviated mass just for the students. Due to the younger crowd, the priest would cater the sermon to us a bit, and one time he delighted me by starting off with "Who has seen Friday the 13th 1, 2, 3, 4...", followed by other franchises (I remember being miffed he went up to 4 for Child's Play, which at the time, 1992 or 1993, didn't exist yet). His point was to explain how the acts of gory violence in those movies were nothing compared to what Jesus went through during his Crucifixion, so I always wondered what he thought of The Passion of the Christ, which is indeed gorier than all those films combined, and all directed at one poor guy (that'd be Jesus).

And I can assume he saw it, because pretty much everyone did in 2004 when it was released. I still remember the entire lobby being jam-packed when the film got out as another crowd waited for the next show, far more people than I had ever seen in the theater (the AMC Boston Common, for the record) even for the likes of Star Wars. The film's North American gross remains the highest for an R rated movie (non-inflated), and it was the worldwide champ until another movie about a guy who rises from the dead took its place (that would be Deadpool). It was a true phenomenon, something no one could have predicted and presumably got a few studio execs fired since every one of them turned Mel Gibson down even though it was a low budget ($30m) production, forcing him to bankroll the movie himself and release it independently. And this was before he was persona non grata, mind you.

Despite that huge success, he went back a year later and recut the film in order to soften the violence and hopefully get a PG-13, for the people who couldn't deal with it in its R-Rated form. This version, however, was a huge bust - just as the original form has box office records, the recut version is still floating high on the charts of worst opening weekends ever. No one wanted to see that version, and for good reason - watching every smack, every lash of the whip, every hammer blow to the nails in his hands and feet, was crucial to the movie's power. And it reinforces what my priest was trying to get across all those years ago - you truly feel the agony this guy went through every step of the way, and every time you feel it can't get much worse or that he couldn't possibly go on any longer, it does, and he does, and you realize you can't really complain about stubbing your toe or whatever ever again.

In a weird way it's also the only real reason to see the movie. The performances are great and it looks very nice (the cinematography got an Oscar nomination, in fact, despite being passed over for any of the more major awards), but as a narrative it's a bit of a misfire, as it requires you to know the story already in order to follow it. The first thing Jesus says in the movie, I think, is scolding Peter for not being able to stay awake for an hour, without informing us what he was referring to, who Peter is, etc. Judas' betrayal comes up shortly thereafter, and again it has almost no on-screen explanation for what is happening - you're just expected to know that Judas was a. one of Jesus' disciples (something we haven't seen or been told) and b. that these assholes weren't sure what he looked like or where he was (let alone why they were looking for him in the first place). And even though I DO know the story I still have no idea what's up with that freaky little baby that looks like the Man from Another Place cosplaying as Stewie Griffin, only that it certainly adds to my justification for making it an HMAD entry today.

Granted, it's a famous story, but a little more context would have gone a long way, especially for those who had trouble with the violence. What little we do get comes in the form of flashbacks, but even those tend to require a passing knowledge of the Bible to understand their significance. Almost no one in the movie is introduced properly (I'm not even sure if Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene has more than a line or two); I just checked against a transcription of the film's subtitles and names like Judas, Mary, and John are only spoken once in the entire two hour runtime, and even less time is spent explaining why they are important. The best flashback has nothing to do with a Bible story (at least, not a major one); it's a scene where Mary comes up to Jesus and tries to comfort him, and we are shown a quick scene of a young Jesus, maybe five years old, having taken a tumble or something and Mary cradling him to soothe him - it's heartbreaking to see the contrast. Whatever you choose to believe about the immaculate conception, his ability to turn water into wine, etc - there's no denying that this man went through several hours of grueling torture, and that his mother had to sit on the sidelines and watch, unable to help her child. As anyone with kids can tell you, your child is never too old to avoid being thought of as your baby that you must protect, so Mary's mental anguish is equal to the physical torture Jesus was enduring.

Luckily, I did know the story quite well thanks to the aforementioned Catholic school upbringing. In fact during Lent the mass would include "The Stations of the Cross", which was a reenactment of this story played out around the church, where the fourteen stations were marked with pictures of each event - the sentencing, the carrying of the cross, the nailing, etc. Of course, this is a little "play" put on by Church volunteers, so when you're a kid it's hard to really comprehend the brutality of what really happened when you see a guy being kinda brushed with a small length of rope, carrying a cross that weighed approximately 10 pounds. "This doesn't look so bad," seven or eight year old me would think, assuming that the Church was presenting it exactly as it happened (though I knew they weren't really killing the guy at the end, because I saw him do it a dozen times).

I'm not sure if it ever really clicked until I saw Mel Gibson's take, in fact; somehow I thought whipping just meant he'd get a lot of red abrasions and bruises on his (clothed) back, and that he was more or less undamaged until the nails went in as he was hung on the cross. But if anything it's a wonder he even had any blood left in his body by the time they got to that point, as they whip his BARE back with "cat o nine tails" over and over, and when you think the commanding asshole is about to put a stop to it, he instead asks his men to turn Jesus over so that they can continue ravaging his front as well. Just as my priest suggested, it was indeed more brutal than anything I've ever seen Jason or Michael do - the most horrifying moment being when one of the "tails" wraps around to his face and swipes his eyelid. The power of the weapon is demonstrated on a wooden table, showing chunks of splintered wood being torn away before they turn their attention to this man's skin, and even in the cut form it's agonizing to watch.

On that note, Jim Caviezel was truly robbed of a nomination. Not only was he speaking a foreign (and dead!) language, he also went through plenty of physical trauma (including a dislocated soldier) and sold every second of his agony, something that's even more powerful in the cut version* as it holds on his face rather than cut to the lashings. In the few flashbacks you get the impression he would make a terrific Jesus in a movie about his usual day to day, and even though I was familiar with him already thanks to Frequency and Thin Red Line and such, he completely disappears in the role. Ironically, one of the actors who stole his rightful nomination was Leonardo DiCaprio (for The Aviator), who would ultimately win the award a decade or so later for The Revenant, primarily because he put himself through a lot of physical agony for it. Even the actual Jesus probably would have been like "This is some bullshit".

Long story short, it's a powerful film if you're well versed in the history, otherwise it's just the longest torture scene in film history that only relents to give some flashbacks that may not make total sense to you. Granted, I'm not sure who would be seeing the movie unless they had at least some idea about it (rabid Mel Gibson fans? People who saw "Rated R for sequences of graphic violence" on the trailer or poster and thought it was part of the mid-00s torture horror wave?), but I think Gibson could have at least offered up a few Cliff's notes to bring those who had let their Sunday school lessons retreat to the back of their memories along with algebra and frog dissection. And it's certainly not the kind of film you'd want to watch over and over (I bought the DVD nearly a decade ago and just opened it for this viewing; I hadn't seen the film since opening night, fourteen years ago), but I highly recommend watching or rewatching it now, with so-called Christians delivering messages of intolerance and hate (indeed, our so-called Christian president tweeted "HAPPY EASTER!", then went into a three part rant about how much he hates minorities). Even if you literally know nothing about Jesus, the film shows a guy going through unimaginable torture and yet still showing mercy and forgiveness to those who wronged him, and how it's not helpful to only love those who love you. Maybe some of these people, most of whom have never experienced more than a paper cut, can learn a thing or two about the guy they supposedly follow.

What say you?

*For the record I watched the theatrical one, then went back and watched a couple of key scenes in their "PG-13" form.


  1. To be honest, I never saw or will see this film. I'm afraid to do so. I was raised a Catholic and even if I'm not one anymore, and not a believer in God, I still believe in the unique person that was Jezus. As a child the story of his suffering, for us, and crucifixion horrified me, and I cried with films like Ben Hur (the scene where Jesus carries his cross and following scenes).
    Jim Caviezel is a great actor, so to see him portray so much suffering most likely is too realistic for me to watch.
    Excellent review!

  2. So, when this movie originally came out, I didn't realize how big of a deal it was or would be. I had heard about some controversy surrounding it, and some strange stuff during shooting like Jim Caviezel being struck by lightning or something.

    Big picture, I wanted to see it due to the hype.

    I was surprised at how many people were in the theater. I had assumed this would be boycott by the religious similarly to The Last Temptation of Christ. Instead, it was a packed theater. I think I was the only atheist in the audience.

    I loved it. The movie definitely hit all of my gorehound buttons just right. It's strange to think abut the whole thing even now.


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