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The Price of Playing the Passion

Updated: Nov 16, 2020

Mel Gibson's 2004 The Passion of The Christ was a powerful phenomenon. It is a painful and provocative watch on Easter weekend yet Jim Caviezel's efforts as the tormented Jesus demand you keep watching

The story of the Passion of the Christ is not just the telling of the Easter story, the behind the scenes testimony of the film is itself a powerful and disturbing experience. To listen to Jim Caviezel, the actor who played Jesus, speak of being struck by lightening on set, being accidentally scourged during shooting, suffering pneumonia and hypothermia, having his shoulder separated, actually suffering asphyxiation on the cross and then undergoing heart surgery after filming; is to be spellbound by the commitment he had to the role. He confesses to not wanting to deliver "the passion of the mediocre"; but as you sit in your comfortable chair wincing at the visceral and vindictive violence on the screen, Jim might be forgiven for asking you to stare it down.

The brutality of the film has been divisive, even amongst Christian critiques. I myself on first watching thought the film verged on near pornographic preponderance on the horror. Caviezel has a poignant and simple message in response to the criticisms. He likens it to the medal winner feeling the tears well up as the anthem is played. That emotion is not because they know they will get a super sports manufacturer contract, it is the reward of the hard work and sacrifice that went before. There is no resurrection without death.

It is an exhausting watch, and possibly the most violent film many of us will ever endure. Even using those words sounds pathetic, if you are of a Christian background, you should be reminded of the price you believe was paid on your behalf. Beyond the well known debate on the violence, if there is a failing, it is that the film gives us very little of the teachings of Jesus, we are treated to flashbacks of snatches of the Sermon on the Mount and the Last Supper. Mel Gibson clearly did not wish to provide a narrative that explains a philosophy, he wanted to explore the herculean price of the sacrifice. Many cannot bear it, which in itself is a reinforcement of the power of the passion, both the film and the actual event. Caviezel says that the repellence from the violence is critical, it is to turn away from the guilt of our own sin, understanding that this horrendous abuse is something we are all responsible for.

Despite Caviezel making impassioned defence of the film against accusations of anti semitism, such recurring accusations have been raised, Mel Gibson has found himself in complicated territory on that subject away from this film. As with other portrayals of the Passion, it is difficult to escape the facts. The Jewish high priests wanted Jesus killed, there is often a grey area in interpretation which is down to the viewer. Did Ciaphas act out of self interest for his power and position or to maintain order and resist a potential rebellion which would cause the death of many more than just one man? Does this film give us enough room in the interpretation to consider the quandary of the priesthood? A story has it's villains and it's heroes, there are characters who show love and empathy and others who show less tasteful qualities. The Easter story takes place in a nation of Jews, whilst the Priest class conspire against Jesus, Simon of Cyrene carries his cross, Veronica wipes his face, the penitent thief asks for forgiveness. The Jews are not responsible for the death of Jesus, certain people who were Jews wanted him dead, just as the Romans are not all responsible for the execution, the men who gave the order or carried it out, happened to be Romans. Jesus himself asks God to forgive them all, in what is still one of the most miraculous and endlessly profound utterances of human history, and one which is a truly powerful moment in this film. To watch the horror of what is endured and still as he is taunted in the process of horrendous and painful death, he prays for the forgiveness of those responsible is what is at the heart of the mystery of the passion.

The Passion of the Christ is an astonishing portrayal of the human brutality required to birth one of the most endearing messages of human history. On a technical level it is an epic masterpiece on celluloid canvas, filmed at above the normal 24 frames per second to give so much of the action on screen an other worldy slow motion feel, it is not a primer for Christian teachings, but a solid demonstration of where the wonder of Christian faith emerges, and why it is a yardstick we all fail so consistently to achieve. In preparation for the role, Caviezel admits to a great deal of prayer. To try to understand the motivation of a character that forgives his tormentors is a tough task, to put it mildly. He spoke of people looking up at him on the cross and seeing Jesus where all he felt was Satan, as vile profanity and anger constantly welled up inside him. He talks in interviews of the hypothermia inducing cold making it near impossible to speak the lines and the relentless stabbing pain of the cold exaggerated as he watched crew and cast huddle in warm coats and drinking hot coffee below him. There is unexpected levity in his experience too. He met with Pope John Paul II prior to filming and recounts how he told the Pope he thought Jesus was Italian. The Pope exclaimed incredulity at the statement and Caviezel quickly responds by saying that Jesus stayed at home until he was thirty, hung around with the same bunch of guys all his life and his mother thought he was God. The persistent talk of a sequel covering the resurrection would perhaps give Caviezel the chance to show us the warmth and strength of his portrayal beyond the blood soaked, ravaged suffering of the last twelve hours of the life of Jesus. His career has suffered for his choices and his open Catholic position. It seems he may well get the chance to play his career and life defining role once again. After accepting the role in the first place, Mel Gibson begged him to reconsider, claiming it would mean he would never work in Hollywood again. Caviezel said that we must all embrace our own cross, and that he has.

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