With an Oscar to his name for 1995’s Braveheart it would be nine years before Mel Gibson went behind the cameras again with The Passion of the Christ. That nine year gap had seen him star in box office hits Ransom, lethal Weapon 4, Payback, The Patriot, Signs and significantly 2002’s We Were Soldiers, a true life WWII film with Gibson already known for his Catholicism including overtly religious scenes of faith as his Colonel prays for his troops as they go into a harrowing theatre of war.
It was a hint of what would be his next directing gig which he would co-write, produce and direct – of course was the Passion of the Christ that took the four gospels plus a number of other devotional tracts as its basis for a film about the final 12 hours of the life of Christ on Earth before he was crucified.
Shot in Italy it would star John Caviezel as Christ with dialogue in Hebrew and Latin requiring subtitles. It would seem to be a box office disaster in the waiting. Critics could not have been more wrong. The film was an immense success earning $612m off a meagre $30m budget that Gibson and his production company had stumped up themselves and its extreme graphic brutality making it an R certificate but would become the most successful film of all time with such a certificate.
But despite this the film was beset with issues, some almost fatal. One of the assistant directors was struck by lightning whilst filming as was Caviezel when filming the crucifixion. In fact the actor really suffered for his art accidently whipped twice leaving a huge scar on his back and he would also dislocate his shoulder from being in the crucifixion position for so long. Added to this would be him being struck down by pneumonia and hypothermia too.
With the film released apparently with the blessing of the Pope the film was met with controversy about its violence which is relentless and utterly brutal and Christ is almost reduced to a bloody pulp from on screen whippings and beatings increasingly caked with blood. Allegations of anti-Semitism were levelled at the film – on of the reason that 20th Century Fox declined to distribute the film and even the Department of Inter-religious Affairs of the Anti-Defamation League expressed concern at some elements of the script. Despite this the hugely respected film critic Roger Ebert came out in defence of the film as did author Michael Medved and several rabbis and a Cardinal at the Vatican too.
Undoubtedly a brutal view (although Gibson’s edited some of the violence for a re-release) the film was regarded as a sincere and ultimately redemptive story and probably the most cinematic telling of the Crucifixion. But despite the success Caviezel’s career never took off as it should. Whereas for Gibson he took a major hit to his career with his 26 marriage falling apart after he had been caught drink driving and the revelation of a relationship with a Russian pianist. The divorce was the most expensive in Hollywood history costing the actor a reported $400m. A number of well documented outbursts and incidents further impacted catastrophically on his career which has taken many years to get back on track and in 2017 he would be nominated for a Best Director Oscar nomination for Hacksaw Ridge and he is currently rumoured to helm a fifth Lethal Weapon film after the death of franchise director Richard Donner.
The Passion of the Christ was nominated for 3 Oscars ( Cinematography, Score and Make-Up ) and a sequel to the film is to go in to production in 2024 that will focus on the three days between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection
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