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“The Passion of the Christ” 20 Years Later

“The Passion of the Christ” 20 Years Later

Joshua Swanson
The Passion of the Christ 20 Years Later Blog

In our January/February 2004 issue, Worship Leader Magazine was honored to present “One Man’s Passion – An Interview with Mel Gibson,” an intimate conversation that provided profound insights into the director’s spiritual journey and the creation of The Passion of the Christ. Celebrating its 20th anniversary, this film not only reshaped the landscape of Christian cinema but also left an indelible mark on Christian culture worldwide.

The Passion of the ChristMel Gibson shared with us that the impetus for creating the film stemmed from a deep, almost compelled need to bring the story of Christ’s passion to the screen. This need was reinforced by a series of serendipitous discoveries, including invaluable books and relics, which Gibson interpreted as divine signs urging him to undertake this project despite his initial hesitations. The film, for Gibson, was not just a project but a personal meditation and a means of grappling with his vulnerabilities and crises of faith. His intent was clear: to portray the crucifixion of Jesus Christ with unflinching honesty, aiming to deeply affect viewers, challenging them to confront the enormity of Christ’s sacrifice.

Gibson’s approach to the film anticipated controversy, especially given its raw portrayal of violence, designed to make the audience feel the profound and devastating impact of Christ’s suffering. This artistic choice, while polarizing, was crucial for Gibson to communicate the depth of Jesus’ sacrifice. Interestingly, Gibson aimed the film not just at believers but expressly at the unchurched, hoping to stir a deeper spiritual reflection across a broader audience.

The Passion of the Christ was a monumental success, both financially and culturally. It grossed over $600 million worldwide, making it one of the most successful independent films ever. The film’s reach extended far beyond the box office, with countless individuals around the globe experiencing its powerful message. Its impact on Christian movies has been transformative, paving the way for a new era of faith-based films that seek to combine artistic integrity with spiritual depth.

As we reflect on the 20-year legacy of The Passion of the Christ, it’s clear that the film’s influence extends beyond mere numbers. It has sparked conversations, inspired countless believers and non-believers alike, and contributed significantly to the evolution of Christian culture and cinema. Mel Gibson’s passion project not only showcased the power of faith-driven storytelling but also demonstrated the profound capacity of film to touch hearts and minds across generations.

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From the Archives: One Man’s Passion – An Interview with Mel Gibson

2004 Jan:Feb Worship Leader Magazine CoverFor the past several months, Worship Leader has been working on our annual Visual Arts issue, which includes extensive coverage of the highly anticipated and controversial film, The Passion of the Christ. In our efforts to provide you with well-rounded coverage, Worship Leader has convened several panels, conducted extensive research, and held both editorial and pastoral screenings of the movie, as well as spent time discussing the film with Mel Gibson and his staff at Icon Productions – all during a time of intense media scrutiny and coverage. In recent months there has been overwhelming editorial opposition to the film in many well-known and respected secular publications describing the film as fueling hatred and anti-Semitism – calling it the most offensive film ever made. The filmmaker, the film, and its artistic interpretation have literally been under fire since the day they began filming The Passion of the Christ, and that controversy is likely to continue up until and after the film’s debut. In many ways, Icon Productions can thank their opposition, as it has brought a tremendous amount of awareness to the film. According to industry insiders, films that are over three months from release rarely enjoy awareness ratings over 4%; conservative estimates put Gibson’s film at an awareness rating of 38%.

Either through its artistic interpretation or by its controversial content, the film tends to polarize viewers – they either love it or hate it. In our editorial quest, we discovered whether the response is positive or negative, nobody leaves this film unaffected. Rather than give you a simple thumbs up or down on this film, Worship Leader offers you these insights direct from the artist on his intention in making The Passion of the Christ. We hope in doing so, you can better understand more about the spiritual journey that the artist has traveled as he conceived, produced, directed and now markets his highly controversial and personally costly movie.

While much of what Mel Gibson thinks and feels is still a mystery, his film attests to the fact that he is a deeply spiritual man, who has taken on this project with the utmost respect and seriousness of its potential for impact. Gibson’s candid exchange reveals why this movie was so important for him to make, and exactly what audience he had in mind when he made it. We hope these insights will help you in serving your congregations as they wrestle with the tough emotions and personal impact of this deeply moving work of art.

WL: People are wondering what your intent for the movie was. Why did you make it?

Mel Gibson: Because I had to do it. I just had to do it. It wasn’t something that I had a choice about. A lot of things came together to have me do the film, and I resisted it for quite some time.

…Then there were all of these weird things that happened, I mean really weird things that convinced me, that I didn’t have a choice (gesturing like he was being pulled by the collar to make this movie).

WL: What did you study to prepare yourself for this endeavor?

Mel Gibson: Of course, I had to study up on the crucifixion…There was this convent that was going out of business and they were selling their library. They sold them to me for a dollar a piece, so I bought 1,500 of them. I was looking through the books and there were some really OLD books – you open them and “thump,” dust would be everywhere. One of them was from Father (Peter) Gallwey, The Watchers of the Sacred Passion. It was a meditation book on the passion of Christ. I used a lot of the book as preparation for the movie. The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ by Saint Anne Catherine of Emmerich (1774-1884) was another book that just popped out at me.

When I was shooting the movie Signs*, I was looking for this warehouse where there were thousands of books and antique items from the early church. I didn’t really think I was going to get there, but took down the address anyway. When I gave the address to the limo driver he pointed directly across the street. The warehouse was only around the corner from where I was filming! I kind of freaked the guy out when I showed up only moments later. He took me through the warehouse full of icons, artifacts, and relics. I bought a few things and on the way out, he handed me this other relic, a small piece of cloth. He said it was a free gift, and he wouldn’t sell it. He said, “You probably don’t know who this is, but it’s from a nun named St. Anne Catherine of Emmerich.” It made the hair on my arms stand up. I have it in my pocket right now.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about doing something like this for years, and I had every reason not to do it. God had to slap me in the face to finally do it. You come to a point in your life when you’ve made millions, you have a wife, and family, and a drinking problem and you come to an edge of a window and you want to jump, but you don’t, of course, but you want to, but something holds you back. And what held me back was this story – the story of Christ.

This was my meditation (pointing to the screen). I used His wounds to heal mine.

WL: Did you anticipate the controversy that would come as a result of doing this movie?

Mel Gibson: Yes, but anytime you make a movie about Christ, it’s going to create controversy. From day one, these people have been shooting arrows at me. But when you’re making this kind of movie, you don’t want to allow one bad thought in your head. It’s in my nature to want to strike back, but you can’t do that. I just had to look straight ahead and not look to the right or to the left; it was only by God’s mercy. He gave me the patience. During the making of this movie, I felt like I had to put on my armor, my shield, and my sword.

WL: Much has been said about the violence in this movie. Some have said your goal was to have people be “undone” by the violence. Was it?

Mel Gibson: Oh, yeah. I wanted people to be devastated, but keep their butts in their seats. That is part of the filmmaking role, and it’s a delicate balance. There was a scene in Braveheart where we had to make a small change because it went too far and people would get up and start to leave. By doing a minor tweak we were able to convey the same powerful message but keep them there. This movie, it had to be violent. Although I think that I just showed as much violence as people are able to bear, that the crucifixion was actually more violent than what I depicted. This could have been much more brutal, but I tried to go right to the edge of what I felt people could take, and still keep them in their seats.

I hope that people will understand the depth of what Christ did.

WL: Who did you make this film for, the church or the unchurched?

Mel Gibson: Oh, that’s easy, the unchurched.

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