Feature by: Jack Foley
MEL Gibson said his intention, when making The Passion of the
Christ, was to create a lasting work of art and to stimulate
serious thought and reflection among diverse audiences of all
I doubt even he could have predicted the groundswell of opinion
which has subsequently resulted. The Passion of the Christ is
nothing short of a cinematic phenomenon, the type of which comes
along all too rarely.
It has been accused of being dangerously anti-Semitic, one of
the most hate-filled films of all time, and an overly violent
depiction of the final 12 hours of Christs life. Yet it
has had audiences flocking to see it, breaking box office records,
in America, and being credited with reviving what had been a pretty
lousy year so far.
Gibson first began to research the scriptures and events surrounding
The Passion more than 12 years ago, when he found himself in the
midst of a spiritual crisis which led him to re-examine his own
faith, and, in particular, to meditate upon the nature of suffering,
pain, forgiveness and redemption.
He states: "My ultimate hope is that this storys message
of tremendous courage and sacrifice might inspire tolerance, love
and forgiveness. Were definitely in need of those things
in todays world."
Having undertaken to make the movie, Gibson quickly realised
he had a unique opportunity to put his art where his heart resided,
and imagined bringing the full power of modern motion picture
technology to the subject of The Passion.
He subsequently co-wrote a screenplay, with Benedict Fitzgerald,
that drew faithfully from the Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark,
Luke and John as the scripts main sources, but which also
included some artistic embellishments from the director, himself.
He knew from the start that he was venturing into largely unexplored
artistic territory - into an arena where art, storytelling and
personal devotion would meet.
"When you tackle a story that is so widely known and has
so many different pre-conceptions, the only thing you can do is
remain as true as possible to the story and your own way of expressing
it creatively," he maintains. "This is what I tried
And commenting on his decision to highlight the physical realism
of the events, he continued: "I really wanted to express
the hugeness of the sacrifice, as well as the horror of it."
In order to accomplish this, he paid particular attention to
the work of renowned Italian artist, Caravaggio, who was equally
as unflinching in his depiction of the events surrounding Christs
"If you go round the churches in Rome, his art is everywhere,
in the cathedrals and its tremendous. Hes pretty dark,
and pretty violent and it is kinetic.
"The way its lit, the sense of light in his imagination
when he did these pictures is just amazing. Its beautiful.
We emulated that where we could."
His film is not merely about the suffering, however, as he states:
"I also wanted a film that has moments of real lyricism and
beauty and an abiding sense of love, because it is ultimately
a story of faith, hope and love. That, in my view, is the greatest
story we can ever tell."
Not that everyone has agreed, however, given the backlash which
has met the film, in certain quarters.
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops, for instance, published
a 128-page document, reaffirming its objections to the movie,
following its release, while the Anti-Defamation League has persistently
accused Gibson's vision of threatening 'to undo four decades of
positive Catholic-Jewish relations'.
A Vatican sermon, by Father Raniero Cantalamessa, said that if
the film spread the belief that all Jews were responsible for
Christ's death, it should be criticised. But if it restricts
itself to showing an influential group of Jews were to blame,
then it could not.
He added: "The Jewish people, as such, are not responsible
for the death of Christ, and The Passion is a film to be criticised
if it seeks to advance the belief that all Jews, at the time and
in succeeding generations, are responsible for the death of Christ.
"But it cannot be accused of betraying the real story if
it restricts itself to showing an influential group of Jews at
the time playing a determining role in the death of Jesus Christ."
The controversy surrounding the film has merely served to heighten
peoples interest in it, however, and there is no doubting
that it has helped to turn the worlds focus back onto religion,
at a time when mans inhumanity to man has seldom seemed
The film broke the five-day box office record, held by The Lord
of the Rings: The Return of the King, raking in a staggering $125.2
million (£68.2m), following its release, in America, on
Ash Wednesday, and has been just behind Peter Jacksons Oscar-winning
epic in terms of box office performance ever since.
It is also now sixth in the all-time list of films' first weekend
takings, which is no mean feat for a movie that, when first announced,
struggled to find a distributor in the United States, due to the
fact it was filmed in the dead languages of Latin
As for Gibson, himself, who is said to have invested £25m
of his own fortune into realising the project, he has admitted
to being overwhelmed by the response to it, especially from those
who have sought to criticise without even seeing it.
At one point, he responded to the continued claims of anti-Semitism,
by arguing that he had been 'subjected to religious persecution
as an artist, as an American and as a man'.
But he added: "I forgive them all. But enough is enough.
We will always have demented bigots around. But I don't believe
that we can let those people dictate how we live, how we believe,
how we make art."