The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s film about the last 44 hours of Jesus of Nazareth’s life, opens in theaters across the United States on this day in 2004. Not coincidentally, the day was Ash Wednesday, the start of the Catholic season of Lent.
The star of action-packed blockbusters like the Lethal Weapon series and Braveheart, Gibson was earning more than $20 million per movie at the time he decided to direct The Passion of the Christ, for which he received no cash compensation. Largely based on the 18th-century diaries of Saint Anne Catherine Emmerich, the film was a true labor of love for Gibson, who later told Time magazine that he had “a deep need to tell this story…The Gospels tell you what basically happened; I want to know what really went down.” He scouted locations in Italy himself, and had the script translated from English into Aramaic (thought to be Jesus’ first language) and Latin by a Jesuit scholar. Gibson’s original intention was to show The Passion of the Christ without subtitles, in an attempt to “transcend the language barriers with visual storytelling,” as he later explained. With dialogue entirely in Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic, the film was eventually released with subtitles.
A year before The Passion of the Christ was released, controversy flared over whether it was anti-Semitic. Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) went on record saying that Gibson’s film “could fuel hatred, bigotry and anti-Semitism.” Specifically, its opponents claimed the movie would contribute to the idea that Jews should be blamed for the death of Jesus, which has been at the root of much anti-Jewish violence over the course of history. For his part, Gibson categorically denied the allegations of anti-Semitism, but they continued to haunt him years after the film’s release. (In July 2006, he was arrested for driving under the influence; a leaked police report of the incident stated that Gibson made anti-Semitic remarks to the arresting officer. Gibson later acknowledged the report’s accuracy, and publicly apologized for the remarks.) Meanwhile, Christian critics of the film’s story pointed to its departure from the New Testament and its reliance on works other than the Bible, such as Emmerich’s diaries.
Gibson, who put millions of his own money into the project, initially had trouble finding a distributor for the film. Eventually, Newmarket Films signed on to release it in the United States. Upon its debut in February 2004, The Passion of the Christ surprised many by becoming a huge hit at the box office. It also continued to fuel the fires of controversy, earning harsh criticism for its extreme violence and gore–much of the film focuses on the brutal beating of Jesus prior to his crucifixion–which many saw as overkill. The film critic Roger Ebert called The Passion of the Christ “the most violent film I have ever seen.” Gibson’s response to similar charges was that such a reaction was intentional. In an interview with Diane Sawyer, he claimed: “I wanted it to be shocking. And I wanted it to be extreme…. So that they see the enormity, the enormity of that sacrifice; to see that someone could endure that and still come back with love and forgiveness, even through extreme pain and suffering and ridicule.”