The Passion of the Christ (sometimes referred to as The Passion) is a 2004 American film directed by Mel Gibson and starring Jim Caviezel as Jesus Christ. It depicts the Passion of Jesus largely according to the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It also draws on other devotional writings, such as those disputedly attributed to Anne Catherine Emmerich.
The film covers the final 12 hours of Jesus’ life, beginning with the Agony in the Garden and ending with a brief depiction of his resurrection. Flashbacks of Jesus as a child and as a young man with his mother, giving the Sermon on the Mount, teaching the Twelve Apostles, and at the Last Supper are some of the images depicted. The dialogue is entirely in reconstructed Aramaic and Latin with vernacular subtitles.
The film has been highly controversial and received mixed reviews, with some critics claiming that the extreme violence in the movie “obscures its message.” Catholic sources have questioned the authenticity of the non-biblical material the film drew on. The film, however, was a major commercial hit, grossing in excess of $600 million during its theatrical release, becoming the highest grossing R-rated film of all time.
The film opens in Gethsemane as Jesus prays and is tempted by Satan, while his apostles, Peter, James and John sleep. After receiving thirty pieces of silver, one of Jesus’ other apostles, Judas, approaches with the temple guards and betrays Jesus with a kiss on the cheek. As the guards move in to arrest Jesus, Peter cuts off the ear of Malchus, but Jesus heals the ear. As the apostles flee, the temple guards arrest Jesus and beat him during the journey to the Sanhedrin. John tells Mary and Mary Magdalene of the arrest while Peter follows Jesus at a distance. Caiaphas holds trial over the objection of some of the other priests, who are expelled from the court. When questioned by Caiaphas whether he is the son of God, Jesus replies “I am.” Caiaphas is horrified and tears his robes and Jesus is condemned to death for blasphemy. Three times Peter denies knowing Jesus but then runs away sobbing. Meanwhile, the remorseful Judas attempts to return the money to have Jesus freed but is refused by the priests. Tormented by demons, he flees the city and hangs himself with a rope he finds on a dead donkey.
Caiaphas brings Jesus before Pontius Pilate to be condemned to death, but after questioning Jesus and finding no fault in Him, Pilate sends him instead to the court of Herod, as Jesus is from Herod’s ruling town of Nazareth. After Jesus is again found not guilty and returned, Pilate offers the crowd that he will chastise Jesus and then will set him free. He then attempts to have Jesus freed by giving the people an option of freeing Jesus or the violent criminal Barabbas. To his dismay, the crowd demands to have Barabbas freed and Jesus killed. In an attempt to appease the crowd, Pilate has Jesus brutally scourged and mocked with a crown of thorns. However, the crowd continues to demand that Jesus be crucified, and Barabbas released. Pilate washes his hands and reluctantly orders Jesus’ crucifixion.
As Jesus carries the cross along the Via Dolorosa to Calvary, Seraphia wipes Jesus’ face with her veil. Simon of Cyrene is unwillingly pressed into carrying the cross with Jesus. Jesus is then crucified. As he hangs from the cross, Jesus prays forgiveness for those who did this to him and redeems a criminal crucified next to him. After Jesus gives up his spirit and dies, a single drop of rain falls from the sky, triggering an earthquake which destroys the Temple and rips the cloth covering the Holy of Holies in two, to the horror of Caiaphas and the other priests. Satan is then shown screaming in defeat. Jesus is taken down from the cross. In the end, Jesus rises from the dead and exits the tomb.
In The Passion: Photography from the Movie “The Passion of the Christ”, Gibson says: “This is a movie about love, hope, faith and forgiveness. He [Jesus] died for all mankind, suffered for all of us. It’s time to get back to that basic message. The world has gone nuts. We could all use a little more love, faith, hope and forgiveness.”
The Passion of the Christ also refers to the Hebrew Bible. The film begins with an epigraph from the Fourth Song of the Suffering Servant from Isaiah. In the opening scene set in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus crushes a serpent’s head in direct visual allusion to Genesis 3:15. Throughout the film, Jesus quotes from the Psalms, beyond the instances recorded in the New Testament.
Traditional iconography and stories
Many of the depictions in The Passion of the Christ deliberately mirror traditional representations of the Passion in art. For example, the fourteen Stations of the Cross are central to the depiction of the Via Dolorosa in The Passion of the Christ. All of the stations are portrayed except for the eighth station (Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem, a deleted scene on the DVD) and the fourteenth station (Jesus is laid in the tomb). Gibson was also visually inspired by the representation of Jesus on the Shroud of Turin.
At the suggestion of actress Maia Morgenstern, the Passover Seder is quoted early in the film. Mary asks “Why is this night different than other nights?”, and Mary Magdalene replies with the traditional response: “Because once we were slaves and we are slaves no longer”.
The conflation of Mary Magdalene with the adulteress saved from stoning by Jesus has some precedent in tradition but according to the director was done for dramatic reasons. The names of some of the characters in the film are traditional and extra-Scriptural, such as the thieves crucified alongside the Christ, Dismas and Gesmas (also Gestas).
Catholic devotional writings
Screenwriters Mel Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald said that they read many accounts of Christ’s Passion for inspiration, including the devotional writings of Roman Catholic mystics. A principal source is The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ the reported (yet disputed) visions of the stigmatic German nun Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774–1824), as written by the poet Clemens Brentano. A careful reading of Emmerich’s book shows the film’s high level of dependence on it.
However, Clemens Brentano’s attribution of the book The Dolorous Passion to Emmerich has been subject to dispute, with allegations that Brentano wrote much of the book himself; a Vatican investigation concluding that: “It is absolutely not certain that she ever wrote this”. In his review of the movie in the catholic publication America, Jesuit priest John O’ Malley used the terms “devout fiction” and “well-intentioned fraud” to refer to the writings of Clemens Brentano.
Among the many elements taken from the Dolorous Passion are scenes such as the suspension of Jesus from a bridge after his arrest by the Temple guards, the torment of Judas by demons after he had handed over Jesus to the Sanhedrin, the wiping up of the blood of Jesus after his scourging, and the dislocation of Jesus’ shoulder so that his palm would reach the hole bored for the nail.
Differences from traditional Passion story
Certain elements of The Passion of the Christ do not have precedent in earlier depictions of the Passion. In the Garden of Gethsemane scene at the beginning of the movie, Satan appears and attempts to distract Jesus while he is praying. Jesus then crushes a serpent beneath his heel (this is a reference to the protoevangelium, Genesis 3:15 – a prophecy of Messiah); this does not occur in any of the gospels. In another example, Judas Iscariot is tormented by demons who appear as children to him. The film gives focus to the fragile relationship of Tiberius Caesar with Pontius Pilate through Pilate’s discussion with his wife about imperial orders to avert further Judean revolts. The movie clearly identifies Simon of Cyrene as Jewish, although the Synoptic Gospels provide only his name and place of origin. In the film, a Roman soldier derides Simon (who helps Jesus bear the cross) by derisively calling him Jew. In contrast, Simon is described as a pagan in The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Other scenes unique to The Passion of the Christ include the one in which the crucified thief who taunted Jesus has his eye pecked out by a crow, and the flashback of the carpenter Jesus building an elevated, four-legged table for a Roman. The scene of Satan carrying a demonic baby during Christ’s flogging has been construed as a perversion of traditional depictions of the Madonna and Child. Mel Gibson described this scene as follows:
“…it’s evil distorting what’s good. What is more tender and beautiful than a mother and a child? So the Devil takes that and distorts it just a little bit. Instead of a normal mother and child you have an androgynous figure holding a 40-year-old ‘baby’ with hair on his back. It is weird, it is shocking, it’s almost too much – just like turning Jesus over to continue scourging him on his chest is shocking and almost too much, which is the exact moment when this appearance of the Devil and the baby takes place.”
Script and language
Gibson originally announced that he would use two old languages without subtitles and rely on “filmic storytelling.” Because the story of the Passion is so well known, Gibson felt the need to avoid vernacular languages in order to surprise audiences: “I think it’s almost counterproductive to say some of these things in a modern language. It makes you want to stand up and shout out the next line, like when you hear ‘To be or not to be’ and you instinctively say to yourself, ‘That is the question.'” The script was written in English by Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald, then translated by William Fulco, S.J., a professor at Loyola Marymount University, into Latin, reconstructed Aramaic, and Hebrew. Gibson chose to use Latin instead of Greek, which was the lingua franca of that particular part of the Roman Empire at the time, so that the audience could easily distinguish between the sound of Italianate Latin and Semitic Aramaic. Fulco sometimes incorporated deliberate errors in pronunciations and word endings when the characters were speaking a language unfamiliar to them, and some of the crude language used by the Roman soldiers was not translated in the subtitles. The pronunciation of Latin in the film is closer to ecclesiastical Latin than to so-called “classical” Latin. (Clear instances of this can be heard when Pontius Pilate says “veritas” and “ecce”.)
The Passion of the Christ received support and endorsement from most known evangelical leaders and representatives of USA’s conservative church organizations: Billy Graham, James Dobson, Mission America Coalition, Salvation Army, Promise Keepers, National Association of Evangelicals, Campus Crusade for Christ, Focus on the Family, Pat Robertson, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Trinity Broadcasting Network, Rick Warren, Southern Baptist Convention, Jerry Falwell, Max Lucado, Young Life, Tim LaHaye, Chuck Colson, Lee Strobel, Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS), Seventh-day Adventist Church. The United Methodist Church stated that many of its members, like other Christians, felt that the movie was a good way to evangelize non-believers. As a result, many congregations planned to be at the theaters, some of whom set up tables to answer questions and share prayers.
They feel the film presents a unique opportunity to share Christianity in a way today’s public can identify with.—Rev. John Tanner, pastor of Cove United Methodist Church, Hampton Cove, Alabama
An unofficial sequel to The Passion is being produced to portray the rest of the story of Jesus as described in the Bible, including him coming out of the tomb and the forty days that lead up to his ascension into Heaven. The film is titled The Resurrection and is slated for release on Easter 2015.
Allegations of antisemitism
Before the film was even released, there were prominent criticisms of perceived antisemitic content in the movie. 20th Century Fox told New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind they had passed on distributing the film in response to a protest outside the News Corp. building. Hikind warned other movie companies that “they should not distribute this film. This is unhealthy for Jews all over the world.”
A joint committee of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Department of Inter-religious Affairs of the Anti-Defamation League obtained a version of the script before it was released in theaters. They released a statement, calling it
one of the most troublesome texts, relative to anti-Semitic potential, that any of us had seen in twenty-five years. It must be emphasized that the main storyline presented Jesus as having been relentlessly pursued by an evil cabal of Jews, headed by the high priest Caiaphas, who finally blackmailed a weak-kneed Pilate into putting Jesus to death. This is precisely the storyline that fueled centuries of anti-Semitism within Christian societies. This is also a storyline rejected by the Roman Catholic Church at Vatican II in its document Nostra Aetate, and by nearly all mainline Protestant churches in parallel documents . . . . Unless this basic storyline has been altered by Mr. Gibson, a fringe Catholic who is building his own church in the Los Angeles area and who apparently accepts neither the teachings of Vatican II nor modern biblical scholarship, The Passion of the Christ retains a real potential for undermining the repudiation of classical Christian anti-Semitism by the churches in the last forty years.
The ADL itself also released a statement about the yet to be released movie:
For filmmakers to do justice to the biblical accounts of the passion, they must complement their artistic vision with sound scholarship, which includes knowledge of how the passion accounts have been used historically to disparage and attack Jews and Judaism. Absent such scholarly and theological understanding, productions such as The Passion could likely falsify history and fuel the animus of those who hate Jews.
Rabbi Daniel Lapin, the head of the Toward Tradition organisation, criticized this statement, and said of Foxman, the head of the ADL, “what he is saying is that the only way to escape the wrath of Foxman is to repudiate your faith.”
In The Nation, reviewer Katha Pollitt said, “Gibson has violated just about every precept of the (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) conference’s own 1988 “Criteria” for the portrayal of Jews in dramatizations of the Passion (no bloodthirsty Jews, no rabble, no use of Scripture that reinforces negative stereotypes of Jews, etc.) … The priests have big noses and gnarly faces, lumpish bodies, yellow teeth; Herod Antipas and his court are a bizarre collection of oily-haired, epicene perverts. The “good Jews” look like Italian movie stars (Italian sex symbol Monica Bellucci is Mary Magdalene); Mary, who would have been around 50 and appeared 70, could pass for a ripe 35.” Jesuit priest Fr. William Fulco, S.J., of Loyola Marymount University – and the film’s Aramaic dialogue translator – specifically disagreed with that assessment, and disagreed with concerns that the film accused the Jewish community of deicide.
One specific scene in the movie perceived as an example of anti-Semitism was in the dialogue of Caiaphas, when he states “His blood [is] on us and on our children!”, a quote historically interpreted by some as a curse taken upon by the Jewish people. Certain Jewish groups asked this be removed from the film. However, only the subtitles were removed; the original dialogue remains in the Aramaic soundtrack.
When asked about this scene, Gibson said, “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.” In another interview when asked about the scene, he said, “It’s one little passage, and I believe it, but I don’t and never have believed it refers to Jews, and implicates them in any sort of curse. It’s directed at all of us, all men who were there, and all that came after. His blood is on us, and that’s what Jesus wanted. But I finally had to admit that one of the reasons I felt strongly about keeping it, aside from the fact it’s true, is that I didn’t want to let someone else dictate what could or couldn’t be said.”
In the New Republic, Leon Wieseltier said: “In its representation of its Jewish characters, The Passion of the Christ is without any doubt an anti-Semitic movie, and anybody who says otherwise knows nothing, or chooses to know nothing, about the visual history of anti-Semitism, in art and in film. What is so shocking about Gibson’s Jews is how unreconstructed they are in their stereotypical appearances and actions. These are not merely anti-Semitic images; these are classically anti-Semitic images.”
Asked by Bill O’Reilly if his movie would “upset Jews”, Gibson responded, “It’s not meant to. I think it’s meant to just tell the truth. I want to be as truthful as possible.” In a Globe and Mail newspaper interview, he added, “If anyone has distorted Gospel passages to rationalize cruelty towards Jews or anyone, it’s in defiance of repeated Papal condemnation. The Papacy has condemned racism in any form… Jesus died for the sins of all times, and I’ll be the first on the line for culpability”.
Conservative columnist Cal Thomas also tried to dispel the allegations of anti-Semitism, saying “To those in the Jewish community who worry that the film … might contain anti-Semitic elements, or encourage people to persecute Jews, fear not. The film does not indict Jews for the death of Jesus.” Two Orthodox Jews, Rabbi Daniel Lapin and conservative talk-show host and author Michael Medved, also vocally rejected claims that the film is anti-Semitic. They have noted the film’s many sympathetic portrayals of Jews: Simon of Cyrene (who helps Jesus carry the cross), Mary Magdalene, the Virgin Mary, St. Peter, St. John, Veronica (who wipes Jesus’ face and offers him water), and several Jewish priests who protest Jesus’ arrest during Caiaphas’s trial of Jesus.
Bob Smithouser of Plugged in Online believed that film was trying to convey the evils and sins of humanity rather than specifically targeting Jews, stating “The anthropomorphic portrayal of Satan as a player in these events brilliantly pulls the proceedings into the supernatural realm – a fact that should have quelled the much-publicized cries of anti-Semitism since it shows a diabolical force at work beyond any political and religious agendas of the Jews and Romans.”
Moreover, Senior Vatican officer Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, who has seen the film, addressed the matter so:
Anti-Semitism, like all forms of racism, distorts the truth in order to put a whole race of people in a bad light. This film does nothing of the sort. It draws out from the historical objectivity of the Gospel narratives sentiments of forgiveness, mercy, and reconciliation. It captures the subtleties and the horror of sin, as well as the gentle power of love and forgiveness, without making or insinuating blanket condemnations against one group. This film expressed the exact opposite, that learning from the example of Christ, there should never be any more violence against any other human being.
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