20 Years With ‘The Passion of the Christ’

FILM: Lyrical imagery adds so much theological meaning to meditative movie.

‘The Passion of the Christ’ is sacred cinema for Holy Week, offering a theological vision of Christ’s suffering and death.
‘The Passion of the Christ’ is sacred cinema for Holy Week, offering a theological vision of Christ’s suffering and death. (photo: Icon Productions)

A  call came to my home one night in late June 2003: “Do you want to see The Passion?” Of course, I did. Everybody in Christendom did.  

Already that summer, opposing voices in the Catholic Church, in Hollywood and in the media were hotly debating a project that practically nobody had seen. Rumor was the film was all in biblical languages without any subtitles.  

Rumor was the movie was a bloody spectacle based on the visions of some obscure Catholic mystic. Rumor was Mel Gibson had bankrolled the entire project to the tune of $25 million. Rumor was the movie was overtly anti-Semitic. The film wouldn’t be released to the public for eight more months, but the rumors had already made The Passion of the Christ the biggest cultural Sign of Contradiction in generations.

Looking back now, it’s hard to believe how the political fuss pretty much overwhelmed any discussion of the artistic merits of the movie. No one could have fathomed in that moment that Gibson would be the first victim of the cancel impulse, as his stunning and very personal movie about Jesus arguably destroyed his career, even as it made him the wealthiest man in Hollywood. 

Twenty years on, with all the culture-war dust settled, a clear-eyed consideration of The Passion of the Christ is that the film is indisputably the greatest work of sacred cinema ever made. 

Back in 2004 when the movie was finally released in February, I was not ready for The Passion  of the Christ as a work of sacred cinema. It was worlds away from any biblical movie that we had ever seen. Unlike most  prior biblical  films, it wasn’t hokey, affected  or surreal. 

But I was also not ready for the theological vision of Christ’s suffering and death that spooled out on the small screen over Gibson ’s  desk that June afternoon.  No one was ready for The Passion — neither in the Church, nor in Hollywood, and certainly not in the community of film critics. Rotten Tomatoes, the aggregate movie-review site, has the top critics on record as giving the film a “Rotten” rating of 40%. That’s even lower than Tim Burton’s creepy failure Alice in Wonderland (51%) and Man of Steel, the lamest comic-book movie ever made (56%).  

Probably because of the politics, the critics couldn’t really see The Passion in 2004. Today, all but the most anti-Christian critics would have to begrudgingly admit that the film has stood the test of time.  What I wrote in a review the day after I saw the rough cut is established consensus today: “The Passion is a miracle.” 

In terms of movies dealing with the sacred, The Passion of the Christ raised the bar almost too high. While the film should have become a new standard for faith-based films, it seems to have been too brilliant and ended up paralyzing religious filmmakers instead of becoming their template. 

Few faith-based filmmakers have any idea what makes The Passion the GOAT (Greatest of All Time). Evidence for this is in the spate of generally uneven, albeit earnest, Christian melodramas that have followed in its wake. There is nothing in the 21st-century library of Christian movies — evangelical or Catholic — that comes close to delivering what Gibson did in the work he told me was meant to be “less of a movie and more of the Stations of the Cross.” 

Lessons from the film about what makes for great sacred cinema have largely gone unlearned. Lessons like, you don’t make a great work of art by watering down the more esoteric points of Scripture or theology, but rather by pushing them. Or that great sacred art is characterized by the mysteries it offers  and not in earnest truisms. Or that showing the intersection of grace and sin is probably going to require R-rated truths, which Christian artists should always prefer to G-rated lies. Finally, The Passion should have taught the Church of our era that great sacred art is first and foremost beautiful, but not necessarily pretty; it is profound not through didactic verbiage, but through imagery.

Part of the greatness of The Passion of the Christ is reflected in an astounding argument that broke out in Gibson’s office after the chosen few of us had screened the rough cut of the film.  

There was an evangelical pastor in the room who had been brought in to also give feedback. He was nearly jumping out of his seat by the end of the piece. He addressed  himself to Gibson in the chastening tone of someone speaking to a naughty child: “You must lose everything in this movie that isn’t in the Bible!” Gibson was taken aback. “What in my movie isn’t in the Bible?” The pastor waved his hand dismissively, “So many things! Like for example, the snake as Satan in the Garden of Gethsemane. That is unbiblical!”  

 I remember Gibson being perplexed and asking, “Don’t you think Satan was there?” The pastor replied, “It doesn’t matter what you or I think. You are not allowed to add anything that isn’t in the Bible.” I remember interjecting in the film’s defense that the presence of Satan in Gethsemane is certainly in the spirit of the Scriptures, to which the pastor blinked rapidly.

That kind of flourish, what the pastor thought unscriptural, but which I would call super-scriptural, is part of what makes The Passion so great. In the long-standing tradition of sacred art, Gibson prayerfully used his imagination to serve the biblical text. It’s the same thing as Fra Angelico setting the Annunciation in an Early Renaissance portico. Or Juan de Flandes styling the temptation of Jesus in the desert with the devil sporting a clerical habit, a kindly face and, you know, huge horns. Classically, sacred artists rarely felt the need to be scriptural literalists. They understood their job was to reverently unpack the word for every new age as people of that age. 

Some of these wondrous creative highlights in The Passion include the mock Madonna at the scourging. Gibson noted to me that the scary baby in the scene was primarily meant to add to the rising darkness in the tone. He was eager to know, “Didn’t you think it was creepy?” Secondarily, he thought the moment manifested visually Satan’s enjoyment in the torture of the Son of God, noting, “He brought a friend to share it with.”

Another super-scriptural flourish is the incredible madness of the Judas sequence, which culminates in an image of a dead  donkey — literally Beelzebub, the lord of the flies — offering his poor stooge the only thing Satan has to give: a rope for the Lord’s betrayer to hang himself. There is also the stunning moment that Mary, guided by the power of love, finds her Son through the floor. There is the juxtaposition of the uncovering of the Passover bread with an abrupt cut to Christ being stripped of his clothes on Calvary. The film holds many more of these moments which make it breathtaking in its metaphors, and hence, unequaled in sacred cinema. Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth is well done, but it lacks the lyrical imagery that adds so much theological meaning to The Passion.

Mother Mary finds Jesus in ‘The Passion of the Christ.’
Mother Mary finds Jesus in ‘The Passion of the Christ.’(Photo: Icon Productions)

Other key aspects to The Passion’s power are the penetrating snapshots of so many of the central players in the drama of Christ’s last hours. We just have brief moments with so many characters, but they are searing and resonant. The effeminate corruption of Herod. The apathy and then distress of the “every-bureaucrat” Pilate. The putrid revelry of Barabbas. The virulent play-acting of Caiaphas. The bewildered horror on the faces of Magdalene and John. Again, all these characters are profound in what they demonstrate and brilliant in their execution.

We have to say something about the key metaphor of the film, for which Gibson probably earned the most criticism from Christian viewers. That metaphor is,  of course, violence.  

The violence inflicted on Christ in The Passion is terrible to behold. I remarked to Gibson that the violence was perhaps too much. He shook his head at me and said, “Still not as bad as one venial sin.” He was right, of course. Sin is what did violence to the body of Christ. It still does violence to the Mystical Body of Christ. The point of meditation on the Passion is mainly to stir up horror at the violence of sin. Gibson did it his way in his movie. It’s hard watching, but somehow a G-rated movie about the salvific death of the Savior should offend us more.

I recall being amazed at that first screening in 2003, that God had granted our sleepy, self-satisfied Church of the 21st century this great gift to call us back. The movie was everything Pope St. John Paul II meant when he called for a restoration in the Church of the “prophetic voice of the arts.” The Passion was placed before us in these dark times as revelation, preparation and meditation. We’ve been warned. 

As I drove home from the screening, I found myself quietly weeping, “Oh, Jesus, I’m so sorry. I forgot.” 

Compunction is the focus of the Triduum. The Passion of the Christ deserves a grateful place in our Holy Week devotions.