What ‘The Passion of the Christ’ Proved Then and Proves Now

Gibson's landmark film of 13 years ago opened far more doors than the industry ever anticipated

On Ash Wednesday exactly 13 years ago, director Mel Gibson introduced audiences to “The Passion of the Christ,” a self-financed project that told of the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus Christ, including His crucifixion. Receiving no traditional Hollywood financing, Gibson funded the $30 million movie himself.

It would go on to have a profound effect on moviegoers and break box office records. It remains the highest grossing R-rated movie in the United States and the highest grossing non-English-language film of all time.

It remains the highest grossing R-rated movie in the United States and the highest grossing non-English-language film of all time.

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Before “Passion,” Hollywood had all but abandoned faith-based movies — despite so many classic films carrying faith heavy themes like “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur.” Gibson’s “Passion” was an immediate resurgence for the genre.

Since its success, numerous faith-based movies have hit it big at the box office, including “God Is Not Dead,” “Heaven Is For Real,” and Gibson’s newest venture, last year’s “Hacksaw Ridge” — a movie that pushed the genre forward even further when it landed six Academy Award nominations (and won two).

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“This isn’t a movie about performances, although it has powerful ones, or about technique, although it is awesome, or about cinematography (although Caleb Deschanel paints with an artist’s eye), or music (although John Debney supports the content without distracting from it),” wrote the since-deceased film critic Roger Ebert 13 years ago for the Chicago Sun-Times in his review of “Passion.” “It is a film about an idea. An idea that it is necessary to fully comprehend the ‘Passion’ if Christianity is to make any sense. Gibson has communicated his idea with a singleminded urgency.”

Ebert also wrote in that review in Feb. 2004: “This is the most violent film I have ever seen.”

That fact notwithstanding, it was a film that appealed to believers and nonbelievers alike. Beyond attracting audiences and opening the doors for films of faith in Hollywood, “Passion” was also a personal spiritual journey for Gibson.

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“I would get addicted to anything, anything at all. OK? Doesn’t matter what it is … drugs, booze, anything. You name it — coffee, cigarettes, anything. All right? I’m just one of these guys who is like that. That’s my flaw,” Gibson told ABC News’ Diane Sawyer, in an interview promoting “Passion,” about his life before his dedication to faith.

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Gibson eventually reached such a low point, he considered throwing himself out of a window. “I was looking down thinking, ‘Man, this is just easier this way,'” he said. “You have to be mad, you have to be insane, to despair in that way. But that is the height of spiritual bankruptcy. There’s nothing left.”

Instead of giving in to his demons, Gibson turned to the Bible — and his fascination with the story of Jesus Christ led to “The Passion of the Christ,” a film of enduring importance and popularity, even 13 years after its release.

So strong is the support for the movie that Gibson has announced he is developing a sequel — about the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

“It’s called ‘The Resurrection,'” Gibson told Greg Laurie at the SoCal Harvest last year. “Of course, that’s a very big subject and it needs to be looked at because we don’t want to just do a simple rendering of it — you know, read what happened.”

Related: After Hollywood Elites Rejected Gibson — He’s Back

It’s hard to believe a film an A-list filmmaker was forced to make outside the Hollywood system would go on to have such success and now be in the process of being sequelized. However, “Passion” proved something when it was released: It proved there was an audience pop culture was not speaking to, one desperate for stories that touched on their lives and their beliefs. “Passion” bucked the system by specifically playing to that audience — and it’s still paying off.

The decision to release “Passion” on Ash Wednesday was a very purposeful move by producers. It may have seemed like an exploitative play to some, but it was a significant time to release the film, a time when believers feel all should have Christ on their minds.

Asked about the Ash Wednesday release of “Passion” by The Washington Post, past president of The Catholic University of America, Rev. David M. O’Connell, said, “It is obviously intentional. But Ash Wednesday is not really a religious ‘holiday’ … it is a liturgical commemoration that begins the season of Lent, a time when we focus on our own sinfulness and on Christ’s redeeming sacrifice. In that respect, putting ‘The Passion of Christ’ before our minds seems rather appropriate.”

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