The blood, the outrage and The Passion of the Christ: Mel Gibson's biblical firestorm, 15 years on

When it was released in 2004, the retelling of Jesus's death was controversial for its gory violence and alleged antisemitism. After the director's subsequent scandals, The Passion makes for even more uncomfortable viewing, finds Louis Chilton

Monday 25 February 2019 09:49 GMT

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.

But with the success came controversy. The Passion, an earnest retelling of the final days in the life of Jesus, was attacked in some quarters for its alleged antisemitism and lurid violence – the venerable critic Roger Ebert deemed it “the most violent film I have ever seen” – and disputed its historical accuracy. Gibson’s antisemitic soundbites and battery charge since the film’s release seem to validate that criticism – and viewed today, it’s a problematic exercise in unpleasantness, rooted in one man’s particular faith.

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.

Two separate incidents were reported of people suffering fatal heart attacks during the crucifixion scene, one being a Brazilian pastor. The news helped to sensationalise the debate surrounding The Passion’s release – and, no doubt, invigorated ticket sales.

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.

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.

Controversy reared its head when the Pope was reported to have seen The Passion, proclaiming, “it is as it was”. Contradictory information coming from the Vatican both confirmed and denied the apparent papal endorsement, leading to a public back and forth over whether the quote had been fabricated for commercial purposes.

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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.

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.”

Gibson’s script borrowed heavily from extra-biblical sources, including, prominently, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, an account of the visions of Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich, an 18th-century German nun, written – and possibly embellished – by the poet Clemens Brentano. Andrew Gumbel noted in The Independent in 2003 that the hypnotic visions of [Brentano’s] Passion included many frankly antisemitic details missing from the Gospels”.

It is impossible to separate the racial politics of The Passion from Gibson’s own history of antisemitic behaviour. In 2006, Gibson was caught driving while intoxicated, and ended a rant at the arresting officer by saying: “F***ing Jews... the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world. Are you a Jew?”

His father, Hutton Gibson, has made many public antisemitic remarks and has been accused of denying the Holocaust. He was largely responsible for his son’s branch of faith, as both are part of the Traditionalist movement, a small, ultra-orthodox sect of Catholicism known for its rejection of modernist church reforms.

After Gibson’s antisemitic rant in 2006 and a series of scandals in 2010 involving a misdemeanour battery charge and a leaked recording of another racist tirade, Gibson worked on the fringes of Hollywood for a few years – a far cry from the days when he was earning over $20m per film. But his career survived, and he received a best director Oscar nomination in 2017, for Hacksaw Ridge.

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, Caviezel’s career has failed to live up to his early box-office return, and he has dedicated much of his time to his religion, often speaking at Christian events. His highest-profile recent role was a five-year stint on CBS crime drama Person of Interest, for which he won scant praise.

Caviezel’s slump, combined with Gibson’s ignominious decline, means the supposed sequel is unlikely to 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. The Passion exists as pure evangelical sensationalism, a uniquely incendiary realisation of Gibson’s dogged religious beliefs.

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