The film primarily covers the final twelve hours of Jesus' life, beginning with the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, the insomnia and grievance of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the brutal scourge and crucifixion, ending with a brief depiction of his resurrection.
In the late hours of night at the forested garden of Gethsemane, Jesus Christ (Caviezel), at the height of his cause, prays while his disciples Peter, James, and John (James's brother) sleep. After he wakes them and tells them to pray, Jesus walks to a secluded portion of the forest wherein during his prayer, Satan appears in a hooded ghost-like androgynous, albino form, and tempts him with reasonable doubt, stating - "it is not right for one man to die for their (humanity's) sins." Ignoring it and praying on, Jesus' sweat turns into blood and drips to the ground while a snake emerges from Satan's guise. Jesus hears his disciples call out for him, and he rebukes Satan by crushing the snake's head with his heel, and Satan vanishes.
Meanwhile, Judas Iscariot, another of Jesus' disciples, having receiving a bribe of thirty pieces of silver, leads a group of temple guards to the forest and betrays Jesus (by confirmation of his identity) with a simple kiss on the cheek. As the armed guards move in to arrest Jesus, Peter draws his dagger and slashes off the ear of Malchus, one of the guards and a servant of the high priest Caiaphas. Jesus, in turn, heals the ear as he reprimands Peter for his actions. As the disciples flee, the guards secure Jesus, and beat him during the journey to the Sanhedrin.
John informs Mary, mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene of the arrest, while Peter follows Jesus and his captors at a distance. Caiaphas holds trial over the objection of some of the other priests, who are expelled from the court. When questioned by Caiaphas if he is the Son of God, Jesus replies, "I am". A horrified Caiaphas tears his robes in outrage and Jesus is condemned to death for blasphemy. Peter, secretly watching, is confronted by the surrounding mob for being a follower of Jesus, and he angrily denies this three times. But after cursing at the mob during the third denial, a sobbing Peter flees after remembering that Jesus had foretold this coping of a defense. At the same time, a guilt-ridden Judas attempts to return the money he was paid to have Jesus freed, but is refused by the priests. Tormented by demons, he flees the city, finds solitude. By sunrise, he hangs himself from a tree with a rope he finds on a decaying donkey corpse.
Caiaphas brings Jesus before Pontius Pilate to be condemned to death, but after questioning Jesus and finding no fault, a sympathetic Pilate instead relays him to the court of Herod Antipas, as Jesus is from Antipas' ruling town of Nazareth, Galilee. After Jesus is again found not guilty and returned, Pilate offers the crowd options for either him to chastise Jesus, or release him. He then attempts to have Jesus freed by the peoples' choice, between Jesus and a violent criminal Barabbas. To his dismay and anger, the crowd demands to have Barabbas freed and Jesus killed. In an attempt to appease the moment, Pilate orders that he simply be punished but not killed. Jesus is brutally scourged, abused, and mocked by the Roman guards as "king of the Jews" with a crown of thorns until Abenader, the general, angrily stops them. However, Caiaphas, with the crowds' verbal backing, continues to demand that Jesus be crucified as a heretic and Barabbas released. Admonished, Pilate washes his hands, takes no responsibility of the incident, and reluctantly orders Jesus' crucifixion. During the course of events, Satan watches Jesus' bloody sufferings with great interest. A dismayed Pilate watches the march, while his wife Claudia, who knows of Jesus' status as a holy man, comforts him.
As Jesus labors to carry a heavy wooden cross along the Via Dolorosa to Calvary, a woman avoids the escort of soldiers, and wipes Jesus' face with her veil. Jesus is beaten and pressed by the guards until the unwilling Simon of Cyrene is forced into carrying the cross with him. At the end of their travel, with his mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, and others witnessing, Jesus is crucified. The very act seems to affect the weather conditions of the earth itself.
Hanging from the cross, Jesus prays to God asking forgiveness for the people who did this to him, and redeems a criminal as a saint who is crucified beside him. Succumbing to impending death, Jesus gives up his spirit and dies. A single droplet of rain falls from the sky to the ground, triggering a sudden earthquake which destroys the temple and rips the cloth covering the Holy of Holies in two, to the horror of Caiaphas and the other priests. Satan is shown screaming in agonized defeat. Jesus' lifeless body is taken down from the cross, and entombed. In the end, the healed body of Jesus rises from the dead exits the tomb resurrected.
In The Passion: Photography from the Movie "The Passion of the Christ", director Mel Gibson says: "This is a movie about love, hope, faith and forgiveness. He [Jesus] died for all mankind, suffered for all of us. It's time to get back to that basic message. The world has gone nuts. We could all use a little more love, faith, hope and forgiveness."
According to Mel Gibson, the primary source material for The Passion of the Christ is the four canonical Gospel narratives of Christ's passion. The film includes a trial of Jesus at Herod's court, which is only found in the Gospel of Luke. Many of the utterances from Jesus in the film cannot be directly sourced to the Gospel and are part of a wider Christian narrative. The film also draws from other parts of the New Testament. The line spoken by Jesus in the film, "I make all things new," is found in the Book of Revelation.
The film also refers to the Tanakh. The film begins with an epigraph from the Fourth Song of the Suffering Servant from Isaiah. In the opening scene set in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus crushes a serpent's head in direct visual allusion to Genesis 3:15. Throughout the film, Jesus quotes from the Psalms, beyond the instances recorded in the New Testament.
Many of the depictions in the film deliberately mirror traditional representations of the Passion in art. For example, the fourteen Stations of the Cross are central to the depiction of the Via Dolorosa in The Passion of the Christ. All the stations are portrayed except for the eighth station (Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem, a deleted scene on the DVD) and the fourteenth station (Jesus is laid in the tomb). Gibson was also visually inspired by the representation of Jesus on the Shroud of Turin.
At the suggestion of actress Maia Morgenstern, the Passover Seder is quoted early in the film. Mary asks "Why is this night different from other nights?", and Mary Magdalene replies with the traditional response: "Because once we were slaves and we are slaves no longer".
The conflation of Mary Magdalene with the adulteress saved from stoning by Jesus has some precedent in tradition, and according to the director was done for dramatic reasons. The names of some characters in the film are traditional and extra-Scriptural, such as the thieves crucified alongside the Christ, Dismas and Gesmas (also Gestas).
Screenwriters Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald said that they read many accounts of Christ's Passion for inspiration, including the devotional writings of Roman Catholic mystics. A principal source is The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ the visions of the stigmatic German nun Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774–1824), as written by the poet Clemens Brentano. A careful reading of Emmerich's book shows the film's high level of dependence on it.
However, Clemens Brentano's attribution of the book The Dolorous Passion to Emmerich has been subject to dispute, with allegations that Brentano wrote much of the book himself; a Vatican investigation concluding that: "It is absolutely not certain that she ever wrote this". In his review of the movie in the Catholic publication America, Jesuit priest John O' Malley used the terms "devout fiction" and "well-intentioned fraud" to refer to the writings of Clemens Brentano.
Among the many elements taken from the Dolorous Passion are scenes such as the suspension of Jesus from a bridge after his arrest by the Temple guards, the torment of Judas by demons after he had handed over Jesus to the Sanhedrin, the wiping up of the blood of Jesus after his scourging, and the dislocation of Jesus' shoulder so that his palm would reach the hole bored for the nail.
Certain elements of The Passion of the Christ do not have precedent in earlier depictions of the Passion. In the Garden of Gethsemane scene at the beginning of the movie, Satan appears and attempts to distract Jesus while he is praying. Jesus then crushes a serpent beneath his heel (a reference to the protoevangelium, Genesis 3:15 – a prophecy of Messiah); this does not occur in any of the gospels. In another example, Judas Iscariot is tormented by children who appear as demons to him. The film gives focus to the fragile relationship of Tiberius Caesar with Pontius Pilate through Pilate's discussion with his wife about imperial orders to avert further Judean revolts. The movie clearly identifies Simon of Cyrene as Jewish, although the Synoptic Gospels provide only his name and place of origin. In the film, a Roman soldier derides Simon (who helps Jesus bear the cross) by derisively calling him Jew. In contrast, Simon is described as a pagan in The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Another major difference that passes most unnoticed is the INRI titulus on Christ's cross which is written only in two languages (however occupying three lines), instead of three as mentioned in the Gospels.
Other scenes unique to the film include the one in which the crucified thief who taunted Christ has his eye pecked out by a crow (in some Catholic iconography a crow is represented above the bad thief and a dove or angel above the good thief) and the flashback of Christ at an earlier time building an elevated, four-legged table for a Roman. The scene of Satan carrying a demonic baby during Christ's flogging has been construed as a perversion of traditional depictions of the Madonna and Child, and also as a representation of Satan and the Antichrist. Gibson described this scene:
Gibson originally announced that he would use two old languages without subtitles and rely on "filmic storytelling". Because the story of the Passion is so well-known, Gibson felt the need to avoid vernacular languages in order to surprise audiences: "I think it's almost counterproductive to say some of these things in a modern language. It makes you want to stand up and shout out the next line, like when you hear 'To be or not to be' and you instinctively say to yourself, 'That is the question.'" The script was written in English by Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald, then translated by William Fulco, S.J., a professor at Loyola Marymount University, into Latin and reconstructed Aramaic. Gibson chose to use Latin instead of Greek, which was the lingua franca of that particular part of the Roman Empire at the time, since there is no source for the Koine Greek spoken in that region. The street Greek spoken in the ancient Levant region of Jesus' day is not the exact Greek language used in the Bible. Fulco sometimes incorporated deliberate errors in pronunciations and word endings when the characters were speaking a language unfamiliar to them, and some of the crude language used by the Roman soldiers was not translated in the subtitles.
The film was produced independently and shot in Italy – primarily at Cinecittà Studios in Rome, in the old city of Matera, and in the ghost town of Craco (Basilicata). The estimated US$30 million production cost, plus an additional estimated $15 million in marketing costs, were fully borne by Gibson and his company, Icon Productions. According to the DVD Special Feature, Martin Scorsese finished up his film entitled Gangs of New York. For this reason, Gibson and his Production Designers, constructed part of the set with Scorsese's set. This saved Gibson a lot of time, and money. Gibson's Film was released on Ash Wednesday, February 25, 2004. It was rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "sequences of graphic violence". Icon Entertainment distributed the theatrical version of the film, and 20th Century Fox distributed the VHS/DVD/Blu-ray version of the film.
Gibson consulted several theological advisers during filming, including Fr. Jonathan Morris. During filming, assistant director Jan Michelini was struck twice by lightning. Minutes later, Jim Caviezel was also struck.
Three albums were released with Mel Gibson's co-operation: (1) the film soundtrack of John Debney's original orchestral score conducted by Nick Ingman; (2) The Passion of the Christ: Songs, by producers Mark Joseph and Tim Cook, with original compositions by various artists, and (3) The Passion of the Christ: Songs Inspired By. The first two albums each received a 2005 Dove award, and the soundtrack received an Academy Award nomination of Best Original Music Score.
A preliminary score was composed and recorded by Lisa Gerrard and Patrick Cassidy, but was incomplete at film's release. Jack Lenz was the primary musical researcher and one of the composers; several clips of his compositions have been posted online.
Although Mel Gibson wanted to call his film The Passion, on October 16, 2003, his spokesman announced that the title used in the United States would be The Passion of Christ because Miramax Films had already registered the title The Passion with the MPAA for the 1987 novel by Jeanette Winterson. Later, the title was changed again to The Passion of the Christ for all markets.
Gibson began production on his film without securing outside funding or distribution. In 2002, he explained why he could not get backing from the Hollywood studios: "This is a film about something that nobody wants to touch, shot in two dead languages. In Los Angeles they think I am insane, and maybe I am." Gibson and his Icon Productions company provided the film's sole backing, spending about $30 million on production costs and an estimated $15 million on marketing. After early accusations of anti-Semitism, it became difficult for Gibson to find an American distribution company. 20th Century Fox had a first-look deal with Icon and passed on the film in response to public protests. In order to avoid the spectacle of other studios turning down the film and to avoid subjecting the distributor to the same intense public criticism he had received, Gibson decided to distribute the movie in the United States himself, with Newmarket Films.
Gibson departed from the usual film marketing formula. He employed a small-scale television advertising campaign with no press junkets. The Passion of the Christ was heavily promoted by many church groups, both within their organizations and to the public. The United Methodist Church stated that many of its members, like other Christians, felt that the movie was a good way to evangelize non-believers. As a result, many congregations planned to be at the theaters, some of whom set up tables to answer questions and share prayers. Rev. John Tanner, pastor of Cove United Methodist Church, Hampton Cove, Alabama has said: "They feel the film presents a unique opportunity to share Christianity in a way today's public can identify with."
The Passion of the Christ received enthusiastic support from the American evangelical community. Prior to the film's release, Gibson actively reached out to evangelical leaders seeking their support and feedback. With their help, Gibson organized and attended a series of prerelease screenings for evangelical audiences and discussed the making of the film and his personal faith. In June 2003 he screened the film for 800 pastors attending a leadership conference at New Life Church, pastored by Ted Haggard, then president of the National Association of Evangelicals. Gibson gave similar showings at Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church, Greg Laurie's Harvest Christian Fellowship, and to 3,600 pastors at a conference at Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in Lake Forest. From the summer of 2003 to the film's release in February 2004, portions or rough cuts of the film were shown to over eighty audiences—many of which were evangelical audiences. Gibson received numerous public endorsements from evangelical leaders, including Billy Graham, Robert Schuller, Darrell Bock, and David Neff, editor of Christianity Today. In an open letter published prior to the film's release, James Dobson, the founder and chairman of Focus on the Family, endorsed the film and defended it against its detractors. Similar public endorsements of the film were received from evangelical leaders Pat Robertson, Rick Warren, Lee Strobel, Jerry Falwell, Max Lucado, Tim LaHaye and Chuck Colson.
The Passion of the Christ opened in the United States on February 25, 2004 (Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent). It earned $83,848,082 in its opening weekend, ranking it fourth overall in domestic opening weekend earnings for 2004. It went on to earn $370,782,930 overall in the United States, and remains the highest grossing R-rated film in the domestic (U.S. & Canada). The film sold an estimated 59,625,500 tickets in the US in its initial theatrical run.
In Malaysia, government censors initially banned it completely, but after Christian leaders protested, the restriction was lifted, but only for Christian audiences, allowing them to view the film in specially designated theatres. In Israel, the film was not banned. However, it never received theatrical distribution because no Israeli distributor would market the movie.
Despite the various controversies and refusals of certain governments to allow the film to be viewed in wide release, The Passion of the Christ earned $611,899,420 worldwide. The film was also a relative success in certain countries with large Muslim populations, such as in Egypt, where it ranked 20th overall in its box office numbers for 2004. The film remains the highest grossing non-English-language film of all time.
An edited version titled The Passion Recut was released on March 11, 2005, with five minutes of the most explicit violence deleted to broaden the audience. Gibson explained his reasoning for the new version of the film:
Despite the attempt to tone down the content, the Motion Picture Association of America deemed the film too violent to rate PG-13, so Gibson released it as unrated. The re-release showed for three weeks.
On August 31, 2004, the film was released on DVD, VHS, and later D-VHS in North America by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. As with the original theatrical release, the film's release on home video formats proved to be very popular. Early reports indicated that over 2.4 million copies of the film were sold by the middle of the day. The film was available on DVD with English and Spanish subtitles and on VHS tape with English subtitles. The film was released on Blu-ray in North America as a two-disc Definitive Edition set on February 17, 2009. It was also released on Blu-ray in Australia a week before Easter.
Although the original DVD release sold well, it contained no extra materials other than soundtrack language selections. The no-frills edition provoked speculation about when a special edition would be released. On January 30, 2007, a two-disc Definitive Edition was released in the North American markets, and March 26 elsewhere. It contains several documentaries, soundtrack commentaries, deleted scenes, outtakes, the 2005 unrated version, and the original 2004 theatrical version.
The British version of the two-disc DVD contains two additional deleted scenes. In the first, Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem (at the eighth station of the cross) and falls to the ground as the women wail around him, and Simon of Cyrene attempts to hold up the cross and help up Jesus simultaneously. Afterwards, while both are holding up the cross, Jesus says to the women weeping for him, "Do not weep for me, but for yourselves and for your children". In the second, Pilate washes his hands, turns to Caiaphas, and says: "Look you to it" (i.e., the Pharisees wish to have Jesus crucified). Pilate then turns to Abanader and says: "Do as they wish". The scene next shows Pilate calling to his servant, who is carrying a wooden board on which Pilate writes, "Jesus of Nazareth king of the Jews", in Latin and Hebrew. He then holds the board above his head in full view of Caiaphas, who after reading it challenges Pilate on its content. Pilate replies angrily to Caiaphas in non-subtitled Hebrew. The disc contains only two deleted scenes in total. No other scenes from the movie are shown on disc 2.
On February 7, 2017, 20th Century Fox re-released the film on Blu-Ray and DVD featuring both cuts. Only the original theatrical version is dubbed in English,Spanish this marks the first time the film has ever been dubbed in another language.
On April 17, 2011 (Palm Sunday), Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) presented a world television premiere of the film at 7:30 pm ET/PT, with multiple showings scheduled. The network has continued to air the film throughout the year, and particularly around Easter.
On March 29, 2013 (Good Friday), as a part of their special Holy Week programming, TV5 presented the Filipino-dubbed version of the film at 2:00 pm (PST, UTC+8) in the Philippines. Its total broadcast ran for two hours, but excluding the advertisements, it would only run up for approximately one hour instead of its full run time of two hours and six minutes. It ended exactly at 4:00 p.m. It has been rated SPG by the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB) for themes, language and violence with some scenes censored for television. TV5 is the first broadcast network outside of the United States and dubbed the Vernacular Hebrew and Latin language to Filipino (through translating its supplied English subtitles).
The Passion of the Christ polarized critics: Jim Caviezel's performance, the musical score, the sound, the makeup, and the cinematography were praised, while the film's graphic violence and alleged antisemitic undertones were singled out for criticism. The film has a "rotten" rating of 49% on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 268 reviews with an average score of 5.9 out of 10. The consensus states "The graphic details of Jesus' torture make the movie tough to sit through and obscure whatever message it is trying to convey." The film's Metacritic score of 47 out of 100, based on 43 critics, indicates "mixed or average reviews". CinemaScore reported that audiences gave the film a rare "A+" grade.
In a positive review for Time, Richard Corliss called The Passion of the Christ "a serious, handsome, excruciating film that radiates total commitment." New York Press film critic Armond White praised Gibson's direction, comparing him to Carl Theodor Dreyer in how he transformed art into spirituality. Roger Ebert from the Chicago Sun-Times gave the movie four out of four stars, calling it "the most violent film [he] ha[s] ever seen" as well as reflecting on how the film personally impacted him as a former altar boy saying "What Gibson has provided for me, for the first time in my life, is a visceral idea of what the Passion consisted of. That his film is superficial in terms of the surrounding message -- that we get only a few passing references to the teachings of Jesus -- is, I suppose, not the point. This is not a sermon or a homily, but a visualization of the central event in the Christian religion. Take it or leave it." In a negative review, Slate magazine's David Edelstein called it "a two-hour-and-six-minute snuff movie", while Jami Bernard of the New York Daily News felt it was "the most virulently anti-Semitic movie made since the German propaganda films of World War II". Writing for the Dallas Observer, Robert Wilonsky said he found the movie "too turgid to awe the nonbelievers, too zealous to inspire and often too silly to take seriously, with its demonic hallucinations that look like escapees from a David Lynch film; I swear I couldn't find the devil carrying around a hairy-backed midget anywhere in the text I read."
The June 2006 issue of Entertainment Weekly named The Passion of the Christ the most controversial film of all time, followed by Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971). In 2010, Time listed it as one of the most "ridiculously violent" films of all time.
A number of independent websites such as MyLifeAfter.com and Passion-Movie.com were launched to promote the film and its message and to allow people to discuss the film's effect on their lives. Documentaries such as Changed Lives: Miracles of the Passion chronicled stories of miraculous savings, forgiveness, new-found faith, and the story of a man who confessed to murdering his girlfriend after authorities determined her death was due to suicide. Another documentary, Impact: The Passion of the Christ, chronicled the popular response of the film in the United States, India, and Japan and examined the claims of antisemitism against Mel Gibson and the film.
WinsNational Board of Review – Freedom of Expression (tie)People's Choice Awards – Favorite Motion Picture DramaSatellite Awards – Best DirectorMoviefone Moviegoer Awards – Best PictureEthnic Multicultural Media Academy (EMMA Awards) – Best Film Actress – Maia MorgensternMotion Picture Sound Editors (Golden Reel Awards) – Best Sound Editing in a Feature Film – Music – Michael T. RyanGolden Knight Film Festival – Grand Prix – Mel Gibson; Best Actor – Hristo ShopovShoWest / USA Today / Coca-Cola – Consumers Choice for Favorite Movie AwardAmerican Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers – ASCAP Henry Mancini Award – John DebneyHollywood Film Festival, USA – Hollywood Producer of the Year – Mel GibsonCatholics in Media Associates – Film Award – Mel GibsonCinema Writers Circle Awards – Spain – Best Foreign FilmGMA Dove Award, The Passion of the Christ Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, Instrumental Album of the Year
NominationsAcademy AwardsBest Cinematography – Caleb DeschanelBest Makeup – Keith Vanderlaan, Christien TinsleyBest Original Score – John DebneyAmerican Society of Cinematographers – Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Theatrical Releases – Caleb DeschanelBroadcast Film Critics Association Awards – Best Popular MovieIrish Film and Television Awards – Jameson People's Choice Award for Best International FilmMTV Movie Awards – Best male performance – Jim Caviezel
Other honors The film was nominated in the following categories for American Film Institute recognition:2006: AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers – Nominated2008: AFI's 10 Top 10: – Nominated Epic Film
Despite criticisms that Gibson deliberately added additional material to the historical accounts of first-century Judea and biblical accounts of Christ's crucifixion, some scholars defend the film as not being primarily concerned with historically accuracy. Biblical scholar Mark Goodacre protested that he could not find one documented example of Gibson explicitly claiming the film to be historically accurate. Gibson has been quoted as saying: "I think that my first duty is to be as faithful as possible in telling the story so that it doesn't contradict the Scriptures. Now, so long as it didn't do that, I felt that I had a pretty wide berth for artistic interpretation, and to fill in some of the spaces with logic, with imagination, with various other readings."
When asked about the film's faithfulness to the account given in the New Testament, Father Augustine Di Noia of the Vatican's Doctrinal Congregation replied: "Mel Gibson's film is not a documentary... but remains faithful to the fundamental structure common to all four accounts [of the Gospels]" and "Gibson's film is entirely faithful to the New Testament".
In early December 2003, Passion of the Christ co-producer Stephen McEveety provided the film to Archbishop Stanisław Dziwisz, the pope's secretary. Archbishop Dziwisz returned the film to McEveety and said he had watched it with John Paul II. On December 16, Daily Variety reported that the pope had seen the film, and on December 17, The Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan reported that John Paul II had said: "It is as it was," sourcing McEveety, who said he heard it from Dziwisz. National Catholic Reporter journalist John Allen published a similar account on the same day, quoting an unnamed senior Vatican official. The following day, Reuters and the Associated Press each independently confirmed the story, citing Vatican sources. On December 24, an anonymous Vatican official told Catholic News Service, "There was no declaration, no judgment from the pope." On January 9, John Allen defended his earlier reporting, saying that his official source was adamant about the veracity of the original story. In a January 18 column, Frank Rich interviewed the Italian translator who quoted Dziwisz as saying that the pope called the film "incredible" and said "it is as it was." Rich attacked the marketing of the film and suggested Dziwisz wielded too much influence over the pope. The next day Archbishop Dziwisz told CNS, "The Holy Father told no one his opinion of this film." This denial resulted in a round of commentators who accused the film producers of fabricating a papal quote to market their movie.
However, the Icon Productions spokesman stood by the story, and a source close to the situation said McEveety had asked for and received Vatican officials' permission to repeat the "It is as it was" statement before speaking to Noonan. Journalist Rod Dreher reported that McEveety had received an e-mail from papal spokesman Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls on December 28, backing the Noonan account and ending: "I would try to make the words 'It is as it was' the leit motive [sic] in any discusion [sic] on the film. Repeat the words again and again and again."
Peggy Noonan had also received e-mail confirmation of the quote from Navarro-Valls before writing her December 17 column. Complicating the situation, Navarro-Valls told Dreher that the e-mail sent to McEveety was not genuine, suggesting it was fabricated. However, Noonan later verified that all of the Navarro-Valls e-mails came from the same Vatican IP address. The Los Angeles Times reported that they had previously confirmed the accuracy of the quote from Navarro-Valls when the story first broke. On CNN, John Allen reported Vatican sources who claim to have heard Dziwisz on other occasions affirm the accuracy of the quotation.
On January 22, Navarro-Valls released the following official statement:
The film is a cinematographic transposition of the historical event of the Passion of Jesus Christ according to the accounts of the Gospel. It is a common practice of the Holy Father not to express public opinions on artistic works, opinions that are always open to different evaluations of aesthetic character.
Before the film was released, there were prominent criticisms of perceived antisemitic content in the film. 20th Century Fox told New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind they had passed on distributing the film in response to a protest outside the News Corporation building. Hikind warned other companies that "they should not distribute this film. This is unhealthy for Jews all over the world."
A joint committee of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Department of Inter-religious Affairs of the Anti-Defamation League obtained a version of the script before it was released in theaters. They released a statement, calling it
one of the most troublesome texts, relative to anti-Semitic potential, that any of us had seen in twenty-five years. It must be emphasized that the main storyline presented Jesus as having been relentlessly pursued by an evil cabal of Jews, headed by the high priest Caiaphas, who finally blackmailed a weak-kneed Pilate into putting Jesus to death. This is precisely the storyline that fueled centuries of anti-Semitism within Christian societies. This is also a storyline rejected by the Roman Catholic Church at Vatican II in its document Nostra aetate, and by nearly all mainline Protestant churches in parallel documents. ... Unless this basic storyline has been altered by Mr. Gibson, a fringe Catholic who is building his own church in the Los Angeles area and who apparently accepts neither the teachings of Vatican II nor modern biblical scholarship, The Passion of the Christ retains a real potential for undermining the repudiation of classical Christian anti-Semitism by the churches in the last forty years.
The ADL itself also released a statement about the yet-to-be-released film:
For filmmakers to do justice to the biblical accounts of the passion, they must complement their artistic vision with sound scholarship, which includes knowledge of how the passion accounts have been used historically to disparage and attack Jews and Judaism. Absent such scholarly and theological understanding, productions such as The Passion could likely falsify history and fuel the animus of those who hate Jews.
Rabbi Daniel Lapin, the head of the Toward Tradition organization, criticized this statement, and said of Abraham Foxman, the head of the ADL, "what he is saying is that the only way to escape the wrath of Foxman is to repudiate your faith".
In The Nation, reviewer Katha Pollitt said: "Gibson has violated just about every precept of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops own 1988 'Criteria' for the portrayal of Jews in dramatizations of the Passion (no bloodthirsty Jews, no rabble, no use of Scripture that reinforces negative stereotypes of Jews, etc.) [...] The priests have big noses and gnarly faces, lumpish bodies, yellow teeth; Herod Antipas and his court are a bizarre collection of oily-haired, epicene perverts. The 'good Jews' look like Italian movie stars (Italian sex symbol Monica Bellucci is Mary Magdalene); Jesus's mother, who would have been around 50 and appeared 70, could pass for a ripe 35." Jesuit priest Fr. William Fulco, S.J., of Loyola Marymount University—and the film's Hebrew dialogue translator—specifically disagreed with that assessment, and disagreed with concerns that the film accused the Jewish community of deicide.
One specific scene in the film perceived as an example of anti-Semitism was in the dialogue of Caiaphas, when he states "His blood [is] on us and on our children!", a quote historically interpreted by some as a curse taken upon by the Jewish people. Certain Jewish groups asked this be removed from the film. However, only the subtitles were removed; the original dialogue remains in the Hebrew soundtrack. When asked about this scene, Gibson said: "I wanted it in. My brother said I was wimping out if I didn't include it. But, man, if I included that in there, they'd be coming after me at my house. They'd come to kill me." In another interview when asked about the scene, he said, "It's one little passage, and I believe it, but I don't and never have believed it refers to Jews, and implicates them in any sort of curse. It's directed at all of us, all men who were there, and all that came after. His blood is on us, and that's what Jesus wanted. But I finally had to admit that one of the reasons I felt strongly about keeping it, aside from the fact it's true, is that I didn't want to let someone else dictate what could or couldn't be said."
Additionally, the film's suggestion that the Temple's destruction was a direct result of the Jews' actions towards Jesus could also be interpreted as an offensive take on an event which Jewish tradition views as a tragedy, and which is still mourned by many Jews today on the fast day of Tisha B'Av.
Asked by Bill O'Reilly if his movie would "upset Jews", Gibson responded, "It's not meant to. I think it's meant to just tell the truth. I want to be as truthful as possible." In a Globe and Mail newspaper interview, he added: "If anyone has distorted Gospel passages to rationalize cruelty towards Jews or anyone, it's in defiance of repeated Papal condemnation. The Papacy has condemned racism in any form. ... Jesus died for the sins of all times, and I'll be the first on the line for culpability".
Conservative columnist Cal Thomas also disagreed with allegations of anti-Semitism, saying "To those in the Jewish community who worry that the film [...] might contain anti-Semitic elements, or encourage people to persecute Jews, fear not. The film does not indict Jews for the death of Jesus." Two Orthodox Jews, Rabbi Daniel Lapin and conservative talk-show host and author Michael Medved, also vocally rejected claims that the film is anti-Semitic. They have noted the film's many sympathetic portrayals of Jews: Simon of Cyrene (who helps Jesus carry the cross), Mary Magdalene, the Virgin Mary, St. Peter, St. John, Veronica (who wipes Jesus' face and offers him water) and several Jewish priests who protest Jesus' arrest (Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea) during Caiaphas' trial of Jesus.
Bob Smithouser of Plugged in Online believed that film was trying to convey the evils and sins of humanity rather than specifically targeting Jews, stating: "The anthropomorphic portrayal of Satan as a player in these events brilliantly pulls the proceedings into the supernatural realm—a fact that should have quelled the much-publicized cries of anti-Semitism since it shows a diabolical force at work beyond any political and religious agendas of the Jews and Romans."
Moreover, Senior Vatican officer Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, who has seen the film, addressed the matter so:
Anti-Semitism, like all forms of racism, distorts the truth in order to put a whole race of people in a bad light. This film does nothing of the sort. It draws out from the historical objectivity of the Gospel narratives sentiments of forgiveness, mercy, and reconciliation. It captures the subtleties and the horror of sin, as well as the gentle power of love and forgiveness, without making or insinuating blanket condemnations against one group. This film expressed the exact opposite, that learning from the example of Christ, there should never be any more violence against any other human being.
South Park parodied the controversy in the episodes "Good Times with Weapons", "Up the Down Steroid" and "The Passion of the Jew", all of which aired just a few weeks after the film's release.
Several critics were troubled by the film's extensive, detailed violence, and especially cautioned parents to avoid taking their children to the cinema. Film critic Roger Ebert, who gave a four-out-of-four-star rating, said in his review:
The movie is 126 minutes long, and I would guess that at least 100 of those minutes, maybe more, are concerned specifically and graphically with the details of the torture and death of Jesus. This is the most violent film I have ever seen.
Ebert also stated that the R-rated film should have instead been rated NC-17 (an MPAA rating even harsher than the R rating) in a "Movie Answer Man" response, adding that no level-minded parent should ever allow children to see it.
Film historian Michael Gurnow, in an April 2008 cover story for American Atheists, stated much the same, labeling the work a mainstream snuff film.
A. O. Scott, in The New York Times, said: "The Passion of the Christ is so relentlessly focused on the savagery of Jesus' final hours that this film seems to arise less from love than from wrath, and to succeed more in assaulting the spirit than in uplifting it." David Edelstein, Slate's film critic, dubbed the film "a two-hour-and-six-minute snuff movie — The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre — that thinks it's an act of faith", and further criticized Gibson for focusing on the brutality of Jesus' execution, instead of his religious teachings.
During Diane Sawyer's interview of him, Gibson said:
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. The actual crucifixion was more violent than what was shown on the film, but I thought no one would get anything out of it.
In June 2016, it was announced that Mel Gibson is working on a sequel to The Passion of the Christ, focusing on the resurrection of Jesus. The screenwriter is Randall Wallace, who wrote the screenplay for Braveheart (1995). Gibson has expressed an interest in directing the film. He also said that the film will come out in a few years since it is a big project. In November 2016, Gibson confirmed that the title of the sequel would be Resurrection and implied that part of the movie would be taking place in Hell, stating that the film would explore what happened in the three-day period between the death of Jesus and his return. He also revealed that the film would probably be about three years away, because of its massive undertaking.