Credit: Newmarket Films
by Noel Oakshot Featured Film Kicking the Canon Kicking the Canon

The Passion of the Christ — Noel Oakshot

March 1, 2024

As Mel Gibson’s star was rising in the 1980s, he was becoming increasingly self-destructive. By the peak of his fame in the ’90s, he was at a personal nadir, engaging in violence and addictive behavior, and was reportedly a nightmare to work with. Like so many others, at his lowest point he embraced the redemptive message of the Christianity he was raised in. This return to faith planted the seed that would eventually germinate into The Passion of the Christ, a passion project Gibson spent a decade trying to get produced, only to be met with institutional rejection and unanimously discouraging advice. The film would dramatize the harrowing final 12 hours in the life of Jesus Christ, beginning with His moment in the garden of Gethsemane, through the betrayal by Judas, arrest, trial, torture, and ultimate crucifixion, interspersed with other iconic scenes from the life of Christ, like the last supper and the sermon on the mount, filmed entirely in Aramaic and Latin. Eventually, Gibson self-funded, produced, and directed the project through his company Icon Productions.

Arriving in 2004, at the height of new atheism and the Iraq war, the release and promotional cycle would prove chaotic in its own right. Gibson drew criticism for claiming inspiration from the Holy Spirit, then subsequently gave a series of eccentric interviews that were a little too unfiltered for TV audiences of the time. The Passion of the Christ quickly became heavily conservative-coded, and like the films of Michael Moore, was a primary cinema battleground in the culture wars. For many (self-)serious critics at the time, the controversy and crowds of low-status Evangelicals that drove its enormous box office success must have been a major turn off. Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review, for instance, is one of the laziest, most poorly conceived critical pieces this writer has ever read, absolutely champing at the bit to dismiss Passion for any reason at all. Now, 20 years since its release, The Passion of the Christ arguably remains the most divisive film of the 21st century. Other oft-cited examples are today diminished in their controversy, were not comparably famous, or, like The Last Jedi, were primarily a proxy for somewhat unrelated culture war issues. Passion and the reaction to it strikes at the heart of what you believe, and beliefs held by billions worldwide. So controversial is it that to even discursively engage the film, two major complaints must be addressed.

The first criticism many have is that the film is excessively violent. The depiction of Jesus Christ’s brutalization and execution is the central component of Passion, and it’s excruciating. We see Christ flayed, pieces of His skin flying off, his body covered head to toe in blood and lacerations as He struggles to walk under the weight of the Cross. Many have described it as a sadistic horror film and a work of exploitation cinema posing as a religious text. It is deeply uncomfortable to watch, but these criticisms misunderstand the ultraviolence. The Passion of the Christ is not a horror film in the typical sense of the genre. We aren’t asked to indulge in the violence, but are instead appalled by it. And the victim doesn’t flee in terror, but accepts His fate and forgives His tormentors. The Passion of the Christ requires of its audience both an understanding of the core of Christian theology and of how art functions beyond the immediacy of beauty and ugliness, and the way these two things interface in devotional art. The crucifixion is the actuating core of the Christian religion, and Jesus Christ’s suffering, humiliation, and death is the lode that bears the entire weight of all human sin, every transgression and wrongdoing, the thing that gives each of us the chance of redemption and entrance into heaven despite our failings, and our inability to abstain from sin and immorality. In the opening Gethsemane scene, during Christ’s temptation by Satan, who alleges that no individual can bear the full burden of sin, He is depicted at His most human. Christ is fully human as well as fully divine, and so he experiences the full spiritual and physical torment of shouldering all human sin through crucifixion as a mere man would. And this is the purpose of The Passion of the Christ — to depict the enormity of this sacrifice and thereby impart the core redemptive message of Christianity in direct and affecting terms.

The second complaint often levied is the charge of anti-Semitism. In the lead up to the film’s release, then chairman of Jewish advocacy group The Anti-Defamation League Abe Foxman led a highly publicized campaign questioning the film and its author’s attitude toward Jews and their relationship to Jesus Christ. This allegation is levied on the basis of The Passion of the Christ’s depiction of the Sanhedrin impelling the arrest and Crucifixion of Jesus. This is exactly what the Gospels describe. The logically proceeding charge that the New Testament (and therefore Christianity itself) is anti-Semitic is far too deep and treacherous a rabbit hole to descend into here, but in short: these advocacy groups don’t make that allegation, and Christianity is a religion advocating nonviolence and anti-racism with two billion adherents worldwide. Some critics also allege that many villainous characters are depicted as stereotypically Jewish, perpetuating anti-Semitism. But the film’s depictions are archetypal rather than caricaturish, and also extend to some of the film’s most of the sympathetic characters as well: Mary Mother of Jesus, the apostles, and Veronica, who wipes Jesus’ face while he carries the cross. With the benefit of hindsight (and recent high-profile reminders of what explicit anti-Semitism looks like), these criticisms were largely unwarranted and counterproductive. The ADL instigating a campaign to brand a Biblically accurate retelling of the Crucifixion anti-Semitic probably did far more to promote anti-Semitism — and specifically promote awareness of religious justifications for anti-Semitism — than the film ever could have ever done on its own. It also seems likely that this overzealous backlash to a work that was deeply personal and devotional for Gibson may have catalyzed his subsequent racist outbursts.

These fervent objections aside, few will deny the power of The Passion of the Christ. It’s a spiritual ordeal that lays siege to the viewer, gradually accumulating power, majesty, and horror. Gibson locks audiences in with an emotionally resonant close- to medium-distance cinema verité approach, framing us from the vantage point of collective Christianity, all humbled and powerless beneath the cross, yet frequently stepping out into the mode of great religious paintings with raw and singular force. The anamorphic photography and epic scale of the production superficially mirrors 1950s and ’60s Biblical epics, but the fluid spatial direction strips away the characteristic artifice and detachment of those films while still irradiating viewers with powerful imagery even in its most serene moments. Gibson has cited the New Hollywood era and leading lights like Sam Peckinpah among his greatest creative inspirations, and few films this century better exemplify that countercultural-meets-mass-cultural energy and the American new wave directorial philosophy of that period better than The Passion of the Christ in form and in content. While also organically congruent to the aesthetic and religious aims of the film, the gritty violence and the masculinization of Christ are unmistakably drawn from Gibson’s preoccupation with that kind of filmmaking.

The Passion of the Christ is perhaps the most influential work in living memory when it comes to the aestheticization of the life of Christ. Its visual language has imprinted itself on Christian culture, superseding the wooden and detached visual depictions of Christ on the Cross that sought reverent distance in fear of treading the territory of graven images. This aesthetic conundrum extends back a millennium or more in church history. Few Christian paintings and devotional artworks sought to aestheticize the true brutality of crucifixion, and perhaps none in as graphic a way as Gibson. One of the strongest image-making moments comes in the transposition of the Stations of the Cross into a fully temporally realized sequence that preserves the integrity of each station in stark and recognizable terms, while building a coherent sequence that naturally progresses through them. For those who appreciate the aesthetic lineage, it will doubtless be deeply impactful. In the later scenes, as the torture grows more brutal, Christ’s tormentors grow agitated, vacillating from anger to insecurity. They seek security and catharsis in increased violence and the finality of crucifixion, but the self-doubt only grows, while His forgiveness and compassion remain absolute and unshaken. Gibson captures Christ in the most powerful and Godlike terms in His final moments on the Cross, immobile, dying, but imminent over everything such that his assailants are rendered impotent and defiant, like the sinner who removes himself from the infinite glory of God’s kingdom for fleeting corrupt worldly pleasures. Over the course of the film, the visual language accelerates, with faster whirling camerawork. With Jesus’ death, this building pressure explodes into apocalypse — a digital drop of water falls through the camera lens, the earth quakes and the devil screams in hell. Throughout the film, there is incredible and luminous aesthetic work by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, who cited work by Caravaggio and Gericault as his inspiration. The Passion of the Christ plays to his strengths as a master of lighting and soft texture, also seen in his Carroll Ballard collaborations. The primordial earth/sky colors and tones struck are deeply immersive, and employed distinctively in a calculated progression that accentuates the stages of the Gospel narrative.

A few flaws still stand out. The Aramaic is at times awkwardly performed by the cast, none of whom were native speakers. The androgynous Satan, designed so to capture the seductive and disgusting nature of sin, does not work and sticks out like a sore thumb. There are a few disjointed edits and some poorly conceived slow motion, particularly in the film’s opening scene. Though mostly used to great effect, the flickering candlelight and oriental score at times feel a bit “prestige TV.” But in aggregate, The Passion of the Christ is as immerse a piece of popular cinema, a functional dramatization of the central event in Christianity, as it is exploration of the iconography surrounding Christ’s sacrifice. It has also proved to be a foundational work in the American Christian/conservative alternative cultural stream. Its success both financially and artistically legitimized a dramatic expansion of conservative Christian media enterprises, and its controversies reinforced the sense of embattlement endemic to modern-day conservatism. In the current decade, the crowning jewel of the alternative conservative Christian ecosystem is Daily Wire+, which was able to self-produce a semi-competent facsimile of a David Zucker film with the subtlety of a Ben Shapiro compilation — if only The Passion of the Christ had provided artistic lessons in addition to the financial ones. One can only hope Mel can save us with Passion 2: The Resurrection, supposedly coming this year (though pushed back many times already). If the production difficulty is anything to go by, this could be just as good as the first one!

Part of Kicking the Canon — The Film Canon