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No one thought "The Passion of the Christ" would be a hit. 20th Century Fox passed on the chance to distribute Mel Gibson’s ultra-violent adaptation of the New Testament, as did Miramax. It isn’t difficult to understand their hesitancy. While Biblical epics like "The Ten Commandments" and "The Robe" had been big business in previous decades, and the late 1990s saw a small boom in Jesus-centric miniseries on television, faith-based features were not at all in vogue, especially one that was excruciatingly gory, had few name stars, and was presented in (originally) un-subtitled, dead languages.
Without studio backing, Gibson bet on himself instead, pouring over $40 million of his own money and bringing stars Jim Caviezel, Monica Bellucci, Romanian actress Maia Morgenstern, and a cast of European and Middle Eastern unknowns to Italy for filming. The bet paid off handsomely; "The Passion of the Christ" was released on Ash Wednesday in 2004 and became an immediate cultural phenomenon.
Not only did the film gross over $600 million worldwide, but it has become a staple of Easter programming all over the world, particularly in majority-Catholic nations and among Evangelical Protestants in the U.S. It even moved a Texas man to confess to murder. In the nearly two decades since its release, the film has had as many detractors and admirers, with many critics and scholars calling it out for anti-Semitic and homophobic imagery — charges seemingly bolstered by Gibson’s own statements and behavior in the years since.
Despite that controversy, or perhaps because of it, the film remains one of the most significant films of the early 21st century. Here are some things you may not know about the unusual production and legacy of "The Passion of the Christ."
While doing press for the film ahead of its release, Gibson explained how he found himself at a particularly low point in his life more than a decade earlier — "the height of spiritual bankruptcy," as he described it in a TV interview with Diane Sawyer. Struggling with drug and alcohol addiction and contemplating self-harm, in this rock bottom moment he turned back to the Bible and the Catholic faith of his youth, finding new spiritual and artistic inspiration.
That faith is a subset of Catholicism known as Traditionalism, which among other things, rejects the reforms enacted by the Second Vatican Council, AKA Vatican II, in the 1960s. Gibson has long been vocal about his traditionalist beliefs, and even funded the founding of a private traditionalist church in Malibu. His father Hutton was an author who belonged to a sect within traditionalism that rejects the Pope’s authority, though Gibson does not publicly share his father’s anti-papal position.
Traditionalism and its more radical sects have long put forth anti-Semitic views; Hutton Gibson condemned Vatican II as a Jewish conspiracy in a 2003 interview with the New York Times, just months before "The Passion of the Christ" was released, further stoking concerns among Jewish and Christian leaders alike that the film would be a vehicle for racist propaganda.
Gibson’s film is a cinematic version of the passion play; dramatic interpretations of the crucifixion and resurrection have been performed as part of Easter ceremonies for centuries. But why is it called "The Passion?" For secular viewers, the use of the word might be confusing, and even religious audiences may be unclear on the origins of the phrase. Slate, in conjunction with the Oxford English Dictionary, published a brief explainer for the word and its archaic usage in the leadup to the film’s release in 2004.
In short, the Latin word passio, meaning "suffering," was used in Old English religious texts in relation to the crucifixion for hundreds of years. The French word passion, derived from the Latin and also used exclusively in relation to the crucifixion, entered into the English lexicon after the Norman invasion of the 11th century. From there, the word began to take on new connotations, no longer reserved solely to describe the physical suffering of Jesus, but rather the emotional suffering of anyone.
The first published use of "passion" in the modern, romantic sense may be in Shakespeare’s play "Titus Andronicus," and that soon became the default definition of the word outside of its original religious context.
Speaking in Ancient Tongues
Gibson and screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald wrote the script in English, but the intention was always for the characters on screen to speak in the languages of the time and place: Latin for the Roman soldiers, Hebrew for the Jewish leaders, and reconstructed Aramaic for Jesus and his disciples. For Gibson, the language barrier was both a matter of authenticity — not just seeing the world as it was, but hearing it as well — and of finding new power in an oft-told story. "If you hear the words spoken as they were spoken at the time, it can kind of stun you," he told zenit.org in 2003.
Originally, the plan was for the dialogue to not only be spoken in dead languages, but to be un-subtitled as well. "Caravaggio’s paintings don’t have subtitles, but people get the message," Gibson said before the film’s release.
Eventually, however, common sense won out and the film was released with subtitles. The task of translating the script for the actors and writing those subtitles fell to Rev. William Fulco, a Jesuit priest from Loyola Marymount University. Fulco worked to make the languages feel dynamic and alive, using more vulgar forms of Latin for the Roman soldiers’ dialogue than he used for an aristocratic figure like Pontius Pilate (Hristo Shopov). In an interview with the Chicago Tribune after the film was released. Fulco acknowledged that there are a few pockets of the world where Aramaic is still spoken, particularly among sects of Iraq-born Catholics, the form that would have been spoken in the 1st century CE is considerably different from its modern equivalent.
Though the film’s narrative and languages are steeped in the earliest days of the first millennium, the film’s visual style sought inspiration more than a thousand years into the future — specifically, the Catholic art of the Italian Renaissance. In an interview with Caleb Deschanel, the film’s Oscar-nominated cinematographer, he describes how he and Gibson were inspired by the art of the 16th century painter Caravaggio, not so much recreating specific images, but in the way the Italian master used light and composition, and his depiction of distinctive faces and bodies, an interest that Deschanel shares. "I’m drawn to the human face because it’s so powerful."
Renaissance art also provided a different kind of inspiration, by way of what it often did not depict: The physical violence at the heart of both Christ’s ordeal and Gibson’s film. While Deschanel notes that art made prior to the 13th century is more explicit, by Caravaggio’s era in the late 1500s and early 1600s, "the images become cleansed. The way the story has been represented is very interesting." That "cleansed" narrative, whether from the 17th century or the 21st, is what the film’s brutality is pushing back against.
When it came to casting the film’s central role, Gibson sought out actor Jim Caviezel, who at that point was known for his appearances in films like "The Thin Red Line," "Frequency," and the 2002 remake of "The Count of Monte Cristo." Gibson’s producing partner Steve McEveety reached out through Caviezel’s agent and arranged a meeting, ostensibly to talk about a film project titled "Mavericks." It was only after the meeting began, Caviezel later told the National Catholic Register (via Beliefnet), that he and Gibson’s conversation turned toward their shared Catholic faith and he realized he was essentially auditioning for the part of Jesus.
Though the part was Caviezel’s to lose, Gibson offered him a chance to refuse it the day after he accepted. "He said, ‘I want you to be aware of what you’re going to go through,’" Caviezel recalled in an interview with Christian Bible Network. "’You may never work again.’"
Both men understood that the character was not to be taken on lightly, and that the actor playing Jesus would by necessity become a spokesman for the film and its intentions, much like Willem Dafoe had (and faced controversies around) with Martin Scorsese’s "The Last Temptation of Christ." If the film were to fail or to offend its audience, the responsibility for that failure would fall not just on the director but, somewhat unfairly, on the star as well.
Caviezel, though "half exhilarated and half terrified" at the prospect of playing Jesus, had no qualms about taking the role. "I told Mel, ‘It’s eerie. My initials are J.C. and I’m 33 years old.’ That was it."
Meet Mary Magdalene
Jesus is, of course, the central character of the Passion, but not the only character. One of the most important characters in the story, and possibly the most important female character, is Mary Magdalene, stylized in the film as simply Magdalen, a figure whose importance has been cast and recast. Gibson’s choice for the role was Italian actress and model Monica Bellucci, a choice that may have seemed unusual. Bellucci, who became famous in her native country first as a beautiful fashion model, was best known to mainstream American audiences at the time for her roles in the first two "Matrix" sequels, and to arthouse audiences for Gaspar Noe’s brutal, sexually explicit 2002 revenge drama "Irreversible."
Surprisingly, though, Bellucci was the one who sought out the role and campaigned for it. "I did all I could to get an audition," she told the London Evening Standard in an interview promoting the film’s U.K. release, even as people around her cautioned against it. "People would say to me, ‘Nobody will see it, nobody wants to produce or distribute it, it’ll make no money and it will raise controversy. Why do you want to do it?’"
Her answer to that question, much like those of Gibson and Caviezel, is equal parts artistic and spiritual. "She was just a sinner like you and me. Her humanity and weakness touched me."
On Set Tribulations
Considering the spiritual nature of the film, a retelling of the Passion being filmed outside of Rome by a deeply Catholic director and star, it only makes sense that the set was a hotbed for matters of faith during production. Father John Bartunek, a Catholic priest and former actor, visited the set at Gibson’s request; he would later publish his observations in the 2005 book "Inside the Passion." Speaking to the National Catholic Register at the time of publication, he noted that though no one on set was pressured to participate, star Caviezel received the Eucharist every day before filming, and that the atmosphere was such that Luca Lionello, the actor playing Judas and a professed atheist, asked Fr. Bartunek to hear his confession at the end of production, and later baptized his children in the Catholic church.
Still, those daily Eucharists weren’t quite enough to protect Caviezel from some awfully symbolic injuries during filming. He was famously struck by lightning while in costume, while another member of the production, assistant director Jan Michelini, was struck twice. Caviezel was whipped for real while filming the infamous scourging scene when one of the stunt performers missed his aim. Later, he dislocated his shoulder while carrying his prop cross, and contracted hypothermia while filming the crucifixion scene in frigid temperatures.
What’s in a Name?
The name of the film was always intended to be simply "The Passion," but that changed in October 2003, just a few months before the film’s projected release date. Miramax Films objected to the use of the name, as they owned the film rights to Jeanette Winterson’s 1987 novel "The Passion" and had already registered that title with the Motion Picture Association of America. Winterson’s novel is a metafictional take on the Napoleonic wars, and while the word "passion" here is used in a more antiquated, expansive sense, it has no direct connection to the crucifixion story. A film adaptation has yet to be produced.
Gibson changed the title of "The Passion of the Christ." The word Christ is translated from the Greek christos, which is in turn derived from the Hebrew word mashiach, meaning "messiah" or "anointed one." Though modern English usage of Christ makes it sounds as if it were Jesus’ last name, it is actually a title or designation. Gibson’s use of the article the reinforces this more literal definition of the word Christ, which also gives audiences a clue about the tone of the devout film they are about to see.
When the film began screening for critics shortly before its February 2004 release, reception was mixed.
Roger Ebert was moved by the power of the film’s brutality, calling it the most violent movie he’d ever seen in his four-star review, and reflected on his own Catholic upbringing, serving as an altar boy but giving little thought to the significance behind the ceremony. "What Gibson has provided for me, for the first time in my life, is a visceral idea of what the Passion consisted of." Ebert concedes that the intensity of the film will alienate some audiences, but counters that Gibson’s violence is not meant to be thrilling, but endured. "If it grosses millions, that will not be because anyone was entertained."
Many critics besides Ebert certainly fell on the "not entertained" side of the divide, finding the film’s vision and intention to be excessive and distasteful. "I hope I will never be obliged to see something as dreadful again," wrote Geza Vermes in The Guardian, while Jonathan Rosenbaum was dismayed at how little the film values Jesus’ teachings and miracles, focusing only on the sickening violence.
"Its general disgust for humanity is so unrelenting that the military-sounding drums at the end seem to be welcoming the apocalypse," he wrote in the Chicago Reader. Ian Nathan in Empire magazine felt the film’s "undeniable power," even as he conceded a hokeyness to the film’s depiction of evil, "deformed dwarves, mutilated children, and storm clouds bloom[ing] daftly at the film’s ropier fringes."
Charges of Anti-Semitism
Concerns about the film’s content were expressed long before the film was released, with Jewish leaders fearing that its stereotypical depictions might spur anti-Semitic violence. A protest led by New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind in August 2003 sought to convince 20th Century Fox not to distribute the film; Fox ultimately did not distribute it, though it is unclear what effect (if any) Hikind’s protest had on that decision. New York Times columnist Frank Rich published a number of stories blasting the film and what he saw as its bigoted intentions in the months leading up to its release. Gibson, for his part, vigorously denied that he and the film were anti-Semitic.
Things came to a head in February 2004, shortly before the expected release, when a leaked copy of the script wound up in the hands of a scholarly group made up of members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Anti-Defamation League. This cross-faith group released a statement denouncing the film, calling the leaked script "one of the most troublesome texts relative to anti-Semitic potential that any of us had seen in 25 years." They especially called out the way that the script has the Jewish high priest (Mattia Sbragia) blackmail Pontius Pilate (Hristo Shopov) into condemning Christ to death, an interpretation of scripture that has fueled anti-Semitic violence for centuries and was rebuked by Vatican II.
Gibson similarly drew fire for including a line of dialogue from the book of Matthew, "His blood be on us and on our children," that has long been used as justification for Jewish persecution and violence in the Christian world. After agreeing to remove the line, Gibson instead chose to leave it in the finished film, spoken in Aramaic but without a subtitle.
Accusations of anti-Semitism weren’t the only controversy that greeted the film. Many critics found fault with what they considered to be sexist and homophobic undertones, particularly in the film’s depiction of Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) as a haunting woman with androgynous features cradling a hideous, deformed baby.
Gibson defended his vision of evil in a 2004 interview with Christianity Today, calling it "almost normal, almost good — but not quite. That’s what evil is about, taking something that’s good and twisting it a little bit." Critic Michael Carden, writing in the Australian Religious Studies Review, called out this "queer Satan" as "instantiating primal male heterosexist fears." Celentano’s Satan is not just a mirror inverse of Jesus’ mother Mary (Maia Morgenstern) but of Jesus himself; "Jesus must be unambiguously straight not enmeshed in queer affections."
Carden and other critics also found homophobia lurking in the incessant violence inflicted upon Jesus’ (and Caviezel’s) body, emphasizing an American masculine ideal — "Jesus the suffering hunk" — while shying away from the historical eroticism often found in depictions of the crucifixion. The late Christopher Hitchens, no fan of the film at all, called Gibson a "queer-basher." Playwright Doug Wright, meanwhile, took issue with Hitchens’ and Frank Rich’s view that the film was homoerotic, rather than homophobic; in a letter to the editor in the New York Times, he wrote "To suggest that the film is homoerotic because it fetishes the lurid, slow-motion mutilation of a hapless, near-naked man is to stigmatize gay desire as base, aberrant and predatory."
Box Office Success
Despite critical misgivings, an R rating, and the lack of a major distributor, the film was an immediate massive success when released on February 25, 2004, earning over $125 million in ticket sales during its first five days. The film would go on to gross $370 million in the U.S., plus another $241 million overseas. Most Hollywood blockbusters spend millions of dollars on publicity and marketing campaigns, and while "The Passion of the Christ" had a slick, dramatic trailer playing in theaters, its gargantuan box office haul was due in no small part to unpaid, grassroots marketing from churches and Christian groups.
Many American churches, particularly those practicing Evangelical Protestantism, embraced this thoroughly Catholic treatment of the gospels as a way to witness to and convert nonbelievers. Icon Productions held advance screenings of the film for select congregations around the country and provided marketing materials for those churches to distribute. A still-extant fan site even hosts maps showing areas of the country that were most interested in the film, and discussion guides for Bible study groups are still available for sale, nearly two decades after the film’s release. For this religious, conservative fan base, the film was not just a well-made or entertaining feature, but an inspirational vehicle for saving souls, and neither the film’s anti-Semitic controversy nor its graphic violence was seen as a barrier to its greater purpose.
The Passion Recut
Still, however, it was an extremely violent, gory film. And as much as that violence was very much the purpose, and was widely embraced and lauded by its fan base, there were some fans or would-be fans that simply found the film too intense to bear. With that in mind, Gibson released "The Passion Recut" in 2005, just in time for Easter. The recut version trimmed down some of the most explicit moments of gore, cutting shots of a Roman whip breaking open Jesus’ skin, for instance, and replacing them with far away or otherwise less bloody shots. "Recut" also made edits to the film’s sound design to try to lessen the impact of the on-screen violence.
Altogether, "Recut" removed about six minutes of film from the runtime. Gibson and Icon Productions had hoped that their edits would be enough to earn an PG-13 rating from the MPAA, but when the ratings board gave it an R nonetheless; the decision was subsequently made to release it as unrated. Bob Berney, president of the film’s distributor Newmarket Films, told USA Today that the Easter release date was chosen in an effort to establish an annual tradition of re-releases, as the film’s extreme violence (even in "Recut" form) would likely preclude it from becoming a perennial television event a la Cecil B. DeMille’s "The Ten Commandments."
An Easter Tradition
Berney’s belief that the film would never become seasonal television viewing turned out to be premature, however. In 2011, the religious network Trinity Broadcast Network (TBN) began a tradition of annual airings of the film during Easter week. In 2022, the Fox News streaming app Fox Nation made the film available to its subscribers at the end of March, just a few weeks before Easter, along with a recent interview between Caviezel and Fox News personality Raymond Arroyo. Over the years, the film has also been shown in the Philippines during Holy Week.
While it’s true that "The Passion" will likely never have the mainstream perennial broadcasts of Bible epics from previous generations, such as "The Ten Commandments" or "The Robe," church screenings of the film remain common throughout the country and massively popular across denominations, from Catholic churches to the now-defunct Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando. Second-run film distributor Swank provides broadcast licenses for the film to churches, and interestingly, by the listed running time it appears that the version they make available is the full uncut edition, rather than the less-violent "Recut."
Parodies of the Christ
A film so immediately controversial, so beloved and reviled, so self-serious yet over-the-top in its violence and theatrics, "The Passion" was ripe for parody.
Seth MacFarlane’s animated comedy "Family Guy," a show with its own history of anti-Semitic controversies over the years, has parodied Gibson’s film a number of times, most notably in the Season 4 premiere, which aired in 2005. Titular patriarch Peter Griffin (voiced by MacFarlane) finds himself in hot water with Gibson after stealing a copy of "The Passion of the Christ 2" from Gibson’s hotel room. According to the show, Gibson’s sequel, subtitled "Crucify This," is a modern day action comedy in the vein of "Rush Hour" or Gibson’s own "Lethal Weapon" series, this time starring Jim Caviezel and Chris Tucker.
The final satirical word on the film, ironically, was arguably the first. "South Park" aired its Season 8 episode "The Passion of the Jew" just five weeks after the film premiered in theaters. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone satirize not just the film, in their usual sledgehammer style, but the culture war attitudes that had already sprung up around it, as well as Gibson’s own perceived passion (in the modern sense) for ultra-violence and masochism.
When the show’s quartet of nine-year-olds — Stan, Kyle, Kenny, and Cartman — sneak into a screening, each of them has their own powerful reaction. Stan and Kenny hate the film so much that they travel to Los Angeles to get their money back from Gibson himself, only to find him bouncing off the walls a la Daffy Duck, begging to be tortured. Kyle, who is Jewish, is so horrified by the film’s Jewish characters that he converts to Christianity. Cartman, meanwhile, uses the film’s legitimacy to indulge his fascist tendencies, going full Nazi.
A Real Sequel?
"Family Guy" jokes aside, talks of a potential sequel to "The Passion of the Christ" have been ongoing for years. Few concrete details have emerged, however, other than that the film would depict in some way or another the resurrection of Christ three days after the crucifixion. In 2016 Mel Gibson confirmed that a sequel was in the works, and would take place both on the mortal plane as well as the spiritual, with Jesus battling demons in Hell, but when Express.co.uk reached out to Gibson’s publicist in April 2022 for an update, all that could be divulged is that the film is still in development.
Other than an IMDb page, the film appears to not yet exist except in the minds of those attached to the project: Gibson, his "Braveheart" screenwriter Randall Wallace, and star Jim Caviezel, who would reprise the role of Jesus despite being in his early fifties. In 2020 Wallace confirmed to Polygon that he and Gibson were still very much in the planning stages of what the film would be. However, that same year Caviezel appeared on Breitbart News Daily claiming that Gibson had already sent him the third draft of the script, subtitled "Resurrection," and that it would be "the biggest film in world history."
Faith-Based Films, Back from the Dead
Whether or not an official sequel actually happens, Gibson’s film and its incredible success has spawned an entire industry of spiritual (pun intended) sequels, faith-based films that borrowed liberally from the "Passion" aesthetic and marketing tactics, if not necessarily its craft or clarity of purpose. One of the first out of the gate was 2005’s "The Nativity Story" (which faced its own uphill battle of controversy) a prequel of sorts starring Keisha Castle-Hughes and Oscar Isaac as Mary and Joseph, respectively. In 2016, Joseph Fiennes and "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" director Kevin Reynolds made "Risen," a Biblical detective story about a Roman centurion sent to investigate claims of Christ’s resurrection.
But while there have certainly been an uptick in Bible-based, sword-and-sandals films in the past two decades, perhaps the real legacy of "The Passion of the Christ" and its grassroots church campaigns is the blossoming of an entire shadow film industry dedicated to the Evangelical Christian audience, fueled by the red state/blue state cultural divide that Gibson’s film so effectively tapped into in 2004.
The faith-based film production company Pinnacle Peak Pictures (formerly Pure Flix) was founded in 2005 and struggled with a slate of post-apocalyptic dramas and family comedies before striking box office gold with the Kevin Sorbo-starring "atheism on college campus" polemic "God’s Not Dead" and its sequels. Many such films bypass theatrical runs entirely, showing up instead on streaming services, cable channels, and in churches across the country.