The Gospel According to Mel – “The Passion” Ten Years Later and Bringing Scripture to the Big Screen

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Often we see a renowned filmmaker and/or a movie star step off the pedestal that the entertainment business has set them upon in order to make something that not only is risky, but could also jeopardize all the goodwill that they have earned in their career.  I put together a top ten list of these kinds of “passion projects” before, but one that certainly has left an impact over the last decade, on both the industry and on it’s creator, is Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004).  This year marks the 10th anniversary of this controversial film, which may be a milestone of celebration to some and a dark chapter for others who wish to forget.  No matter what your opinion is on the movie, you cannot deny that it is one of the most monumental films of the new century, and it’s legacy will probably be felt for a long time to come.  But, for the most part, that legacy centers more around the controversy surrounding it and less about how it stands as cinematic art.  No doubt Mel Gibson himself has been unable to shake away from the legacy of this film, and all the divisiveness surrounding it; and for better or worse, it will be the movie that defines his career in Hollywood.  Looking at the ten years since The Passion’s debut, we have learned a lot about how difficult it is to take holy texts and bring them to the big screen.  Did Mel Gibson’s film prove that biblical stories can indeed work in movie form, or did it show that it’s better to keep religion out of entertainment?
In order to understand why Mel Gibson would risk his reputation over a single movie, you have to understand the conditions that led up to it’s production.  Long before The Passion, Mel tried to segway his acting career into directing, starting off with 1993’s The Man Without a Face.  This was a modest production that earned Mr. Gibson some good praise, but considering that Mel was mentored in his early career by visionary and ambitious Australian directors like George Miller (The Road Warrior) and Peter Weir (Gallipoli), he had something much more epic in mind.  Naturally, his follow-up was the groundbreaking Braveheart (1995), which earned Gibson Oscars for both Best Picture and Best Director.  After Braveheart, Mel returned to acting regularly, until the early 2000’s, when he decided to bring a story near and dear to his heart to the big screen; the story of Christ’s crucifixion.  Raised in a ultra-traditionalist Catholic household, it was no surprise that Mel would look to scripture for inspiration, and while nobody doubted that he could pull it off cinematically, concerns about whether or not he should soon arose.  It wasn’t until the script was made public that the controversy around the film started, given that people interpreted it as anti-Semitic.  Mel’s project was dropped from all interested parties as a result and he ended up funding the project with his own money.  The movie eventually made it to theaters, and despite all the controversy, or perhaps because of it, The Passion of the Christ became a box office phenomenon, earning $83 million on opening weekend and $370 million overall.
Despite what Mel intended for the film, it’s aftermath took on a life of it’s own.  It became a focal point in what many people call the “culture war” in America, which in turn took the whole controversy surrounding the film and politicized it.  The “culture war” is basically a term created by news media to frame political arguments related to pop culture, and show a cultural divide between the left and the right in America whether there is one or not.  Given that The Passion was released in 2004, which was also an election year, the movie became sort of a rallying point for both political camps, with Christian conservatives seeing the movie as a powerful affirmation of their beliefs, while liberals were almost universally opposed to the movie, calling it religious propaganda.  There were people who did break ranks from ideology and judged the film on it’s own merits; Christianity Today, a faith-based publication, was sharply critical of the movie when it premiered, while left-wing film critics Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper both gave the movie two thumbs up, and stood by their reviews many years later.  Nevertheless, reactions to The Passion divided America, probably more so than it should have.  It became a political tool, which I believe is something that Mel never wanted it to be.  Though Mr. Gibson leans to the right politically, he’s never been exactly been a dyed-in-the-wool Republican icon; and for the most part, he’s been sharply critical of all political parties his whole career.  The movie becoming a lightning rod for this so-called “culture war” is probably the legacy that Mr. Gibson wishes the film had avoided.
But, regardless of intent, Mel Gibson had to have known that the movie was going to upset people no matter what.  This is the risk that comes with adapting scripture to film.  There always are skeptics out there who will dismiss biblical stories as nonsense, as well as others who take every word as, well gospel.  Naturally, if you make an earnest attempt at bringing the film to the big screen, it will be scrutinized, especially if it strays from expectations.  You see this in other modern attempts at adapting stories from the Bible.  Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ was sharply criticized by people of faith for it’s depiction of a “what if” scenario where Jesus chose life instead of sacrifice.  In the movie, Christ still dies for man-kind’s sins like he does in the Bible, but Scorsese let’s the film explore the idea of how Jesus might of struggled with that choice.  Opening up that dialog proved to be to much for traditionalist Christians, who condemned the movie as blasphemous.  A similar controversy is brewing right now over Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014), with Christians once again attacking a film over it’s revisions.  But despite all of the controversies, I believe that each of these films have more in common than people think.  Again, I believe that it’s all the nonsense about a “culture war” that has shaped the divided responses to these movies.  Overall, they each represent an expression of faith on the part of their respective filmmakers, and each shows how the cinematic medium can find stories that are interesting and complex in a source as widely familiar as the Bible.
You may be wondering what I actually think of Mel Gibson’s The Passion, especially looking back on it now over ten years.  To put it simply, it’s an easy film for me to respect than to admire.  I do think that it is a triumph of film-making; showing Mel Gibson’s unparalleled talent as a director.  I am amazed that the movie was self funded and completed on just a $30 million dollar budget.  It was released around the same time as big-budget epics like 2004’s Troy and Alexander, and yet feels more authentic to it’s time period than those two ever did, even with their $200 million plus budgets.  The film is also gorgeously crafted, and shot by one of the world’s greatest cinematographers, Caleb Deschanel.  Actor Jim Cavizel shines in the role of Jesus, bringing new meaning to the phrase “suffering for his art.”  Where the film is at fault though is in it’s story.  I know it’s odd for me to critique the “greaest story ever told,” but my problem has more to do with Mel’s interpretation.  Like Mr. Gibson, I was raised Catholic (albeit in a less traditionalist church), so I know all the important points of the story by heart.  Where the movie loses me is in how it’s all focused.  Mel just lets the events of Christ’s crucifixion play out without grounding it in a narrative.  Pretty much the story just goes through the paces, indulging more in the grim details than explaining exactly why they are happening.  This leads to a lack of character development that sadly makes most of the supporting players feel less interesting.  The only standouts in terms of character are Cavizel’s Jesus, actress Maia Morgenstern’s outstanding portrayal of the virgin mother Mary, and a chilling interpretation of Satan by Italian actress Rosalinda Celentano, who taunts Christ by taking the form of a mother figure.
I do remember seeing the movie with family back when it first premiered, as well as the hours long conversation we had about it afterwards.  While we were moved by the movie, I don’t think it had any kind of effect on our religious beliefs.  To be honest, I’ve moved further away from the Catholic church in the years since, but not as a result of this movie.  I still respect the risk Mel took to make it, and I’m glad the movie exists.  As far as the anti-Semitic undertones that people claim the movie promotes, I have a hard time seeing them.  Sure, there are people who see the depictions of the Hebrew high priests in the movie as problematic, but to me the priests depicted in the film are so far removed from modern day Jews that I don’t even see the two as even remotely comparable.  Not only that, but the movie does go out of it’s way to portray the Roman guards as the true villains in Christ’s story.  If there is any criticism that’s leveled against the film that has any merit, it’s in the way the Gibson indulges in the suffering of Jesus in his final hours.  The movie shows you every cut, gouge, and impaling that is inflicted onto Jesus during his execution, and it literally is the focus of the entire movie.  It could be argued that Mel is obsessed with portraying suffering and torture on film in gruesome detail, much like he did with the ending of Braveheart, and that this misses the point of Christ’s teachings in the first place.  While I don’t think Mel intentionally misinterpreted Biblical passages in order to indulge his own cinematic passions, the film nevertheless is defined more by it’s gruesome elements than by it’s uplifting message.
In the ten years since, people have been trying to interpret exactly what was meant by Mel Gibson’s film, and what it means for the future of scriptural film-making.  Unfortunately, Mel’s personal life problems have clouded the reputation of the film, and Mel’s drunken rants have given weight to the claims of antisemitism.  Because of the sharply divided responses from people due to the ongoing “culture war,” faith-based films have once again been marginalized into a niche market; choosing to preach to the faithful rather than have their movies appeal to all audiences.  The recent success of the Christian film God is Not Dead (2014) is something that I see as being a negative result of the “culture war” division, because it portrays a “straw-man” argument that all Christians are morally right and that atheists are using education to corrupt people.  The same argument can be made on the other side, when Hollywood adapted The Golden Compass (2007) to the big screen, which itself was a atheistic fantasy story that portrayed religion as an evil force.  Religious films are best when they don’t insult the intelligence of the viewer and actually challenges their beliefs, no matter what their faith is.  Back in the Golden Age of cinema, Hollywood found a way to make movies that faithfully adapted scripture, while still maintaining a sense of entertainment.  Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) has stood the test of time because people of all faiths enjoy the spectacle that DeMille put into his production, while William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959) is still beloved because of it’s universal story of adversity against hatred.  Like these films have shown, Biblical stories can work in cinema if one knows how to reach their audience correctly.
So, while Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ may have taken on a life of it’s own beyond what the filmmaker intended, it nevertheless is still one of the most monumental films in recent memory.  You bring this movie up in conversation and even 10 years later this movie will still stir up passionate feelings in people.  While Mel has his own moral issues to deal with, I don’t believe that he created this movie out of a need to condemn, but rather to explore his own feelings about his faith.  I think he felt like there was a lack of worthwhile religious themed films out there and he sought to fill that gap in some way.  I think the movie stands up over time, especially compared to the lackluster, church-funded movies that have come in it’s wake.  It’s not the best faith-based movie I’ve seen, and certainly not one of Mel Gibson’s best either; I still look at Braveheart as his masterpiece, and his Passion follow-up Apocalypto (2006) is an underrated gem.  Even still, the best legacy this film could have made is that it sparked a renewed interest in making unique and personal Biblical films once again, which cinema has been severely lacking in.  It took a while, but Aronofsky’s Noah seems to be that film the first film since The Passion to actually make good on that promise, though of course time will tell if it lasts.  As for The Passion of the Christ, as flawed as it may be, it nevertheless changed the way Biblical movies are seen in our modern culture and showed that taking a big risk has it’s rewards in Hollywood; a legacy that I think serves the movie well over time.

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