When the movie The Passion of the Christ debuted in theaters 10 years ago, on Feb. 25, 2004, it was described by many as a cultural phenomenon. Millions liked the film as a whole; others were offended by it.
It was the highest-grossing R-rated film (so rated because of its graphic depictions of the cruelties inflicted on Jesus) in the United States, grossing in excess of $600 million during its theatrical release. Because only the biblical languages of Aramaic, Hebrew and Latin were used, it also became the highest grossing non-English language film of all time.
Beyond the numbers of the Mel Gibson production were the lives that were profoundly changed for the good because of the film.
Award-winning filmmaker Jody Eldred produced a TV documentary called Changed Lives: Miracles of The Passion and wrote a book by the same title. In both works, Eldred captured real-life stories of miracles.
“It’s hard to nail down which was my favorite,” Eldred told the Register. “It is like answering, ‘Which of your children is your favorite?’ I love them all in different ways and for different reasons — but also for many of the same reasons. I was astounded that a person who murdered someone and had gotten off scot-free would later turn himself in and face a life in prison after being convicted by the Holy Spirit from seeing The Passion of the Christ.”
As he completed his documentary, Eldred, a Pentecostal Christian, had a chance to show it to Gibson, in order to obtain approval of film clips that he used. Not too long after Gibson saw Eldred’s production, the two of them had a lengthy phone conversation. During that conversation, Gibson asked Eldred how many other stories were out there that were similar to the ones he had documented. Eldred replied, “70,000.”
Gospels Come Alive
Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colo., remembers seeing The Passion with then-Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver.
“It was one of the few times that I had been to a movie theater in years,” Bishop Sheridan said. “I found the film to be real and engaging. It draws one into the Gospels.”
He thought that the fact that the movie was in Aramaic, Hebrew and Latin would be a distraction, so he was pleasantly surprised by the movie-going experience.
“I wasn’t looking forward to ‘reading’ the movie; but because we know the story so well, it was not a distraction.”
Since 2004, the Colorado Springs bishop has seen the film a number of times on DVD. He knows of a number of parish groups that used the movie as a tool for faith studies following the release of the DVD.
“The movie made a very big impression on Catholics and [other] Christians alike,” he told the Register. “There was definitely an ecumenical element to it. I think that that is its legacy: that, here, we have such a strong and accurate account of the New Testament and the Gospels.”
Eldred says seeing the film is a personal faith journey for him. “I feel like I need to see it every year or so to keep fresh the reality of what Jesus did for me. Like everyone, I had never seen an accurate portrayal of what Jesus willingly went through to buy salvation for me personally. He could have stopped the horror at any moment, but he chose not to.”
Sister Rose Pacette of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, Calif., remembers the horrific aspects of the film.
“It is filmed with fear, isolation, violence and no control,” said the popular movie reviewer for a variety of Catholic outlets.
Catholic media commentator Barbara Nicolosi Harrington noticed the unique quality of the film, too. She saw a rough cut with Gibson in his office the summer before the movie was released.
“Certainly, sitting next to Mel and hearing his thoughts about it after [we saw it] added to the impact of the film. It struck me that I had never quite seen Catholic theology put on the screen in that way before.”
At the time, Nicolosi was the executive director of the Act One program, whose mission is to create a community of Christian professionals for the entertainment industry who are committed to artistry, professionalism, meaning and prayer, so as to witness to Christ and the truth. Today, she is a partner at Catharsis, a story- and script-consulting business for film writers, producers and investors headquartered in Hollywood.
She said that while she has only seen The Passion of the Christ twice all the way through, she has, over the years, used clips and sequences from it in her classes and speeches.
“The Passion was influential in helping people in the Church see the potential for good in the cinema,” she reflected.
“People have to understand that it is, first and foremost, an experiment in making sacred art,” she said. “Mel was intent on doing the Stations of the Cross in his art form, the cinema.”
Sister Rose agrees.
“The film showed that there is an audience for biblical films, and it opened up the Christian genre,” she noted.
Son of God and Noah are the latest such efforts.
Added Sister Rose, “Biblical films have the potential to create a space for audiences to encounter or re-encounter God.”
Steven Greydanus, film critic for the Register and creator of the website Decent Films Guide, said The Passion has certainly had an impact on Hollywood.
“Hollywood figured out quickly after The Passion that its success wasn’t something that could be simply replicated. This wasn’t another Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark,” he said.
He added that the success of the movie might have had a hand in the production of The Nativity Story, The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Soul Surfer.
Over the last decade, Greydanus has seen The Passion eight to 12 times. He says that he continues to be overwhelmed, moved and troubled by the power of the film. “I consider The Passion high on the list of must-see movies,” he said.
As a professor and co-chair of the School of Communications Media at John Paul the Great University in San Diego, Chris Riley trains students, most of whom are Christian, to make film and television for a wide variety of audiences.
“Because The Passion of the Christ told with such artistry and power the central story of the Christian faith, I tell students that they can feel free to tell other stories,” said Riley. “These are stories made possible by the Crucifixion, stories that explore the breadth of human experience, of our struggles, of the possibility of redemption, of the authenticity of love and hope and life.”
Eddie O’Neill writes from Rolla, Missouri.