It has now been ten years since Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was released. The movie remains in many ways a cultural barometer of the way Christianity is perceived in America, for better and worse.
From the moment Gibson announced his intention to make The Passion, his personal life was investigated, religious beliefs mocked, and sincerity as a filmmaker questioned. As a “traditionalist Catholic,” it was assumed he held outdated, if not erroneous, beliefs about Jewish-Catholic relations. Rabbi Daniel Lapin and radio host Michael Medved defended Gibson against charges of anti-semitism. While Gibson’s later anti-semitic tirade permitted many to dismiss the film, it still merits consideration on its own terms.
When a group of academics acquired a copy of his screenplay, they accused Gibson of sanctioning prejudice, ignoring biblical scholarship, and violating the teaching of his own Church. The campaign against The Passion of the Christ climaxed when the New Republic published “Mad Mel” warning of dire consequences if the film went forward as planned: “When violence breaks out, Mel Gibson will have a much higher authority than professors and bishops to answer to.”
Ironically, many of the same people appealing to Mel to act responsibly were the first to ignore their own counsel.
But the vast majority of those attracted to The Passion weren’t following these controversies that closely. What they knew was that a much-discussed film on Jesus was about to appear from a major star. Gibson did not disappoint. The evocative scenery, moving score, and use of biblical languages all bring the Gospel vividly to life. But the success of the film owes even more to its exceptional acting, particularly by the two leads.
Portraying Jesus on screen convincingly is a daunting task, but James Caviezel accomplishes just that. His intense and controlled performance seeks to capture the dual nature of Christ: From the moment we see him praying at Gethsemane, to the Sermon on the Mount, to the Last Supper, to his exchanges with Pilate, Christ’s divinity is memorably conveyed. At the same time, his humanity shines through in his tender interactions with his mother, his apostles, the downtrodden, and above all, in the sufferings he undergoes during his Passion.
Gibson’s depiction of the latter is searing, relentless, and difficult to watch. Understandably, some thought it too intense. But this is made bearable by the performance of Maia Morgenstern as Mary, Mother of the Lord. Like us, she is devastated at the suffering Jesus must endure, but at the same time realizes it is the will of God to redeem humanity of its sins, and so accepts it.
Her love and empathy for her son, as a mother, is something we can identify with, and takes us that much closer to Christ and his Mother. At one point, after Jesus falls, under the weight of the cross, there is a flashback to him falling as a child, with Mary comforting him: During his Passion, Mary similarly comes to his aid, embracing him“I’m here! I’m here!” whereupon Jesus rises and says, “See, mother, I make all things new.” The scene is overwhelming, and highlights the redemptive hand of God, even amidst the terrible violence.
Throughout the film, Christ’s struggle against eviland by extension, humanity’s struggle against sin and temptationis represented by the recurring appearance of Satan. Thus Gibson makes clear that the major conflict going on in the film is supernatural, transcending any earthly agendas among Romans, Jews, and the followers of Jesus. At the outset of the film, Isaiah 53 is referenced as Gibson reminds us of our shared responsibility for Christ’s suffering:
But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
The massive responsibility that we all share for the sufferings and death of Christ is communicated throughout the film, and this is why many remain in a hushed, remorseful silence at the film’s end. That the film reduced prejudice among those who saw it, and transformed many lives including criminals who came forth to confess unsolved crimesis a testament to its value.
The film continues to arouse controversy, however, because of its uncompromising message: One cannot be indifferent to Jesus. Belief in him as the Son of God, the true Messiah, and the Redeemer of mankind requires a fundamental yes or no. That decision must be freely made, of courseand Catholic teaching affirms that non-believers of good will and conscience can certainly be saved, through the special graces of Christ. But the universal importance of the question cannot be minimized. That is the movie’s lasting value, and continuing challenge.
While The Passion of the Christ has held up, Mel Gibson’s career has not. As has been well-documented, his personal life has broken apart. He has acknowledged and sincerely apologized for his behavior, but the damage has been severe. Hollywood has largely ostracized him, and withdrawn its previous support. But it’s encouraging to learn that some once highly critical of him have asked he be forgiven; and prominent friends have always pointed to his noble side. Among his most loyal is actor Robert Downey, Jr. who overcame his own serious struggles because of Gibson’s personal intervention. At the twenty-fifth American Cinematheque Awards, at which he was honored, Downey took the occasion to offer an emotional appeal for Mel:
I humbly ask that you join me, unless you are completely without sin, and in which case you picked the wrong industry, in forgiving my friend his trespasses and offering him the same clean slate that you have me and allowing him to continue his great and ongoing contribution to our collective art without shame.
God often works wonders through flawed vesselswhich we all are, to some degreeand never was that truer than in the case of Mel Gibson. Shortly before his remarkable film appeared, he said: “Jesus died for the sins of all times, and I’ll be the first on the line for culpability.”
As we begin Holy Week, and recall The Passion of the Christ, one hopes the loving spirit which guides us is also extended to Mel, and heals all his remaining wounds.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.