For Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, a plethora of texts and even paintings were consulted by Gibson and the screenwriter, Benedict Fitzgerald. In the documentary, By His Wounds We Are Healed: The Making of ‘The Passion of the Christ, Gibson claims “faithfulness” to his source material. The “faithfulness” that Gibson claims comes from his and the screenwriter’s use of the “canonical” gospels to make sure they had not contradicted the authority of those texts. For John Desmond, co-writer of Adaptation: Studying Film & Literature with Peter Hawkes, “faithfulness” comes with various questions attached to it. The Passion of the Christ is an adaptation of multiple sources, so the question comes of “faithfulness” by what standard. In the text, Desmond states, “If we leave aside the problem of identifying what is essential in the text, we are still left with the difficulty of judging the degree to which the essential has been transposed.” (40). In the film, it is clear that Gibson took artistic liberties to The Passion. Some of his inspirations are Renaissance painters, some of whom were referenced in the documentary. Paintings by Bosch, Rembrandt, Carravagio, and Grunewald, could all be taken as visually influencing Gibson and his Cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel. Desmond states another problem, which pertains to the language of fidelity: “The reviewer claims the adaptation is ‘faithful’ or ‘unfaithful’ and that this degree of faithfulness is either good or bad. The problem with this language is that it tends to imply that the book is better than the movie.” (41). For the depiction of the Passion, it seems that using multiple texts while simultaneously having Mel Gibson’s assert “faithfulness’ would cause difficulty in determining what was essential to the adaptation. Suppose a filmmaker uses artistic renderings from a variety of time periods. In that case, it does not seem reasonable to assert faithfulness in the sense that it is an exact replica of the document. Besides, the four Gospels have differences in focus for each event leading up to the crucifixion. If Matthew, Mark, and Luke all focus on different aspects of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, what would Gibson consider more authoritative and important to depict in his adaptation? The three Gospels similarly portray the events, while John is distinctly different, so what authority does Gibson go by? By looking at Gibson’s use of The Stations of the Cross, and the abundance of texts outside of the Gospels, in his portrayal of the crucifixion, The Passion of the Christ becomes a loose adaptation of the Gospels.
It is important to show differences and similarities in Gibson and his team’s focus from the Gospels. For the crucifixion, the tradition of The Stations of the Cross, which allows devotees to spiritually and emotionally connect with Christ’s move to Golgotha for his crucifixion, was used by Gibson. Although this tradition is memorable, many details depicted are not in the Synoptic Gospels. There are 14 stations in the Stations of the Cross, and a painting and prayer accompany each. On the Creighton University, “CollaborativeMinistry” website, the author gives some context to the Stations:
“Its purpose is not a historical examination of “what really happened” on that day in history. It’s about something far more profound. This is an opportunity to use this long standing Christian prayer to let Jesus touch my heart deeply by showing me the depth of his love for me.”
This description seems useful in understanding why Gibson and his team would choose to depict these Stations in the film. Not only could the film be used as an exercise to pinpoint each station, but it slows everything down into these stations allowing the audience to connect to the struggles as well as the depth of Jesus’ love. By portraying these moments, Gibson makes them involved and have emotional resonance. For example, in Gibson’s portrayal of The Fifth Station of the Cross: “Simon helps carry the cross.” Simon’s initial reluctance in helping Christ is explicit when he states, “I can’t do that. It’s none of my business. Get someone else!” Interestingly, a woman yells: “Help him! He is a holy man,” which reminds us of Pontius Pilate’s wife and her own belief in the holiness of Christ. The soldiers force Simon to help. Simon’s reminder to the crowd, before he helps carry the cross, furthers our understanding of him as a person: “All right, but remember I am an innocent man, forced to carry the cross of a condemned man.” The statement shows that Simon is far more interested in self-preservation than sacrificing himself for Christ. As Simon says this, Gibson cuts to a high-angle with Christ, bloody, beaten, and exhausted. The high angle puts Jesus in a position of helplessness, which is further emphasized by the Roman soldiers’ legs surrounding his body, his heavy-breathing, and how his body is upside-down in the frame.
In John’s Gospel, there is no mention of Simon of Cyrene while the other Gospels mention his forceful recruitment by the Roman soldiers. For Mark, Simon enters with a mention of his children, “And they compelled a passer-by, Simon of Cyre’ne, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross.” (Mark 15.21). For Matthew, “As they went out, they came upon a man of Cyre’ne, Simon by name; this man they compelled to carry his cross” (Matthew 27.32). For Luke, “And as they led him away, they seized one Simon of Cyre’ne, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus.” (Luke 23.26). For this passage, by these three accounts, it is understood that Simon was “compelled” and “seized” to carry the cross. There is a divide between some scholars who believe that Simon had sympathy for Jesus, which is why he was chosen, but the Gospel accounts seem to be straight-forward in their use of “compelled.” Simon was forced to help Jesus Christ in the Synoptic Gospels and the Fifth Station of the Cross. In the film, Simon comforts his daughter and begins to leave until he is called upon by a soldier. Although Mark lists his children, “Alexander and Rufus,” they are not explicitly shown or comforted as Gibson portrays in the film. There is a certain intensity to how this sequence is shown in the film, particularly how Simon reminds the crowd that he is not a criminal. For potency, Gibson includes Jesus’ bloody body, breaths of agony, and many high-angle shots, while Simon and his daughter stare. The Cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel, states in an interview:
“I did a lot of research going into this film, and I didn’t find much imagery like that. There are things in the film that you can find in certain artistic representations, but it’s rare to see images of Christ with severe wounds from the flagellation.”
The intensity of the severe wounds from the flagellation that Gibson and Deschanel portray were not portrayed much in other pieces of art. Interestingly, the scene with Simon of Cyre’ne is a good example of how Gibson’s adaptation differs, but the sequence also shows some of the Gospels’ basic structure.
Taking for the Thirteenth Station, Gibson has Mary’s embrace, the mother embracing her son as he is taken off the cross, as the most impactful scene. During the Stations, the Priest would say: “He was taken down from the cross by two of His disciples, Joseph and Nicodemus, and placed in the arms of His afflicted Mother. She received Him with unutterable tenderness and pressed Him close to her bosom…” This description is accurate to how Gibson adapts the scene. Gibson adds non-diegetic music that is quite angelic as Mary cradles her son. There is a cutting back and forth to an extreme close-up of the bloody crown of thorns and nails, emphasizing the brutality with these symbols. For the Synoptic Gospels, this passionate scene with Mary is not included. For Luke, instead of Mary’s embrace, it is about Joseph of Arimathe’a: “Then he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud, and laid him in a rock-hewn tomb, where no one had ever yet been laid” (Luke 23.53). For Luke, he vaguely mentions the women of the event; he says, “the women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and saw the tomb, and how his body was laid;” (Luke 23.55). Mark states: “And he bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud, and laid him in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock; and he rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. Mary Mag’dalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid” (Mark 15.46-47). This is slightly more specific than Luke but is pretty much the same. However, it states Mary the mother and Mary Magdalene by name, and it does not feature the embrace. For Matthew, the event mirrors Luke with Joseph “a very rich man” asks Pontius Pilate to allow him to move Jesus’ body: “Mary Mag’dalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the sepulchre…” Finally, for John, he mentions spices: “They took the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.” (John 19.40). John, departing from the others, does not mention the women during this critical moment. For Gibson, this moment is significant because it shows the bond between Mother and Son, which is also mocked by his portrayal of Satan as androgynous holding a “child” earlier in the film. In By His Wounds We Are Healed: The Making of ‘The Passion of the Christ, Gibson recalls Bouguereau’s Pietà as what he tried to emulate in the final frame in the crucifixion sequence. He says,
“his is far more stylistic than mine (Pietà), and mine was gritty and rough, and she (Mary) was dirty, and she had blood on her. His painting it’s really immaculate, but there is something that is unmistakable in both images, and that’s what’s in her eyes— a kind of a pleading grief, that is what I responded to.”
Gibson continues that he just wanted “the essence of those things.”
Calling The Passion of the Christ “faithful” is difficult. It is clear, from interviews, Gospel comparison, and the look at the Stations of the Cross, that Gibson, Fitzgerald, and Deschanel took a lot from sources other than the summary of events of the Gospels. It can be said that Gibson focuses on the connection between Jesus and his mother, Mary, more specifically than the Gospels and comes to the striking ending of the crucifixion with their embrace and Mary’s eye-level shot. With this “point-of-departure,” it can be said that there is an artistic reimaging that focused heavily on the brutality and flagellation and the connection between Mary and Jesus. There are examples where Gibson picks and chooses what to include and what the cinematography will connote, like how he describes Bouguereau’s Pietà as “immaculate” and connoting something that he wanted in the final frame of the crucifixion sequence. When looking at Desmond’s problems with labeling something as “faithful,” we wonder what was necessary to include in the adaptation and what text had the authority over other texts. If we say the Gospels have primacy, then we can not call the portrayal as close. Since film is a different medium, the chronological telling of events is not done as the Gospel’s show. In Gibson’s version, the chronological development of the gospels is altered for suspense and resonance. For example, Gibson’s use of flashbacks during and before Jesus’ crucifixion reminds us of events leading up to this torture, such as The Last Supper, and is not how the Gospels told events. With the immensity of artistic emulation from these other sources and his own focus, Gibson’s film is a loose adaptation of the Synoptic Gospels themselves.
Adaptation: Studying Film and Literature, by John M. Desmond and Peter Hawkes, McGraw-Hill Education Create, 2006.
Andy Alexander, S.J. The Stations of the Cross, http://www.creighton.edu/CollaborativeMinistry/stations.html.
Bailey, John. “A Savior’s Pain: Caleb Deschanel, ASC Photographs The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s Controversial Film about the Final Hours of Jesus Christ.” American Cinematographer: Conrad L. Hall, ASC Captured a Series of Magical, Indelible Moments., theasc.com/magazine/mar04/cover/index.html.
Liquori, Alphonsus. “https://www.catholicnh.org/Assets/Documents/Worship/Our-Faith/Lent/Stations-of-the-Cross.pdf.” https://www.catholicnh.org/.
New International Version. Biblica, 2011. BibleGateway.com,
— Christian Mietus, Blog Editor.
Christian is a Senior at Lewis University who is an English major and a minor in Film Studies and Russian Language and Culture. In 2019, he received the “Dr. Stephany Schlachter Excellence in Undergraduate Scholarship Award” for his collaborative piece “Assimilation through Sound.” Additionally, his poem “The Japanese Photography is Covered in Dust” is forthcoming from City Brink Magazine. In his free time, he appreciates and dissects cinema as well as consistently rating and reviewing it. Some of his favorite directors are Andrei Tarkovsky, John Cassavetes, Ingmar Bergman, and Kenji Mizoguchi. He also appreciates different art forms, such as music and literature. Christian hopes to continue expanding his skills as a writer and to encourage others to do so as well. He writes about film for the JFR blog, so check out Christian’s Cinematic Syntax.