‘The Passion of the Christ’ at 15: Untangling the Crown of Thorns of a Divisive Religious Blockbuster
Posted on Monday, February 25th, 2019 by Joshua Meyer
Some fast facts: Deadpool came close to unseating it, but after fifteen years, the all-time highest-grossing R-rated movie in the U.S. is still a subtitled film about the last hours of Jesus Christ’s life. Another comic book movie, Black Panther, has since surpassed it as #1, but for over a decade, The Passion of the Christ was also the highest-grossing February movie in the U.S.
The month of February used to be more of a dumping ground for low-profile movie releases, so when The Passion of the Christ hit theaters on February 25, 2004, it didn’t look poised to become a certified blockbuster. For Christians, it was a holy day—Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. For everyone else, it was just hump day, a random Wednesday when they might happen to see Xtians walking around with ash crosses on their foreheads.
To say that The Passion of the Christ was and is a contentious film would be an understatement. Entertainment Weekly once ranked it as the most controversial movie of all time, just ahead of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, a film that helped bring the word “ultra-violence” into the cinematic lexicon with its depiction of a disturbing home invasion set to the tune of “Singin’ in the Rain.” In a way, that juxtaposition is fitting, because while Jim Caviezel receives top billing as Jesus, ultra-violence is the real star of The Passion of the Christ. The film’s divisiveness goes beyond its horror-movie shock tactics, however, to what EW called “a culture-war firestorm unrivaled in Hollywood history.”
It’s the film that opened up the floodgates on the niche market of faith-based movies. The question is: outside the usual echo chambers, below all the noise, how does The Passion of the Christ hold up fifteen years later?