Mel Gibson's Tremendous Passion

Today is the second anniversary of the release of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, one of the most controversial, misunderstood, lambasted, graphic, and thought-provoking films of all-time.

As you know, the film was beset by rumors of extreme violence and anti-Semitic context in the months before it opened: as a result of the controversy, the film grossed $125 million in its first five days of release. I was one of the millions who saw the movie the first week it came out; I was struck by the film’s artistry, its intelligence, its technical virtuosity, and its strong performances, particularly James Caviezel as the tortured Jesus.

Yes, the film was tremendously violent, but the violence had a theological point: to demonstrate the extent to which Jesus suffered to redeem the sins of mankind. The film could not exist without such violence. The attacks on the film’s violence were, quite frankly, pointless (Black Hawk Down was far more bloody).

As for the film’s alleged anti-Semitism? While I recognized that the scene in which Satan walked amongst the Jews calling for Christ’s crucifixion was open to misinterpretation, to say the least, I did not find the film to be either intentionally or unintentionally anti-Semitic. It was humanity as a whole, not Jews in particular, who were responsible for Christ’s temporary death—a point Gibson emphasized in his film.

As you also know, the film was attacked in such newspapers as the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, the New York Times, the New York Daily News, and the Washington Post. (However, USA Today and the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert did give the film affirmative reviews.) I can’t help wondering if the serious financial problems many of these newspapers are now experiencing have something to do with those who supported Passion (to the tune of $370 million domestic!) refusing to buy publications whose critics went so far over the edge in condemning Gibson’s tribute as trash.

Despite the vituperative assaults by PC critics, the attacks on Gibson’s character by the same, and the film’s failure to receive significant recognition by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2005, the Passion is already a classic. It’s a textbook example of the power of cinema to galvanize, to change hearts and minds, to spark a national conversation. It’s fitting that a motion picture about a man whom even death could not conquer is, in its own way, immortal.