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?

Talking about The Passion of the Christ raises a whole host of issues; long-standing charges of antisemitism against the film are just one of those. The can of worms this movie explodes is almost bigger and more unwieldy than any one analysis can contain.

Let’s try, anyway. To keep this 15th-anniversary revisit orderly and manageable, we’ll limit it to three main areas of discussion, spread out over several sections. First, we’ll tackle the film’s violence through a detailed examination of one set piece, namely, the extended whipping torture of Jesus at the hands of the Romans, which arguably provides the film’s most memorable, discomfiting scene.

Then, we’ll address accuracy and interpretation: how the film builds the illusion of historicity and of fidelity to its primary source material, the Bible, while also bringing in outside influences and giving itself leeway to take a great deal of artistic license with various elements. The driving question here is, how and why does The Passion of the Christ choose to emphasize certain things, and are there times when the film’s focus is inappropriate?

Finally, we’ll touch on how the film’s legacy dovetailed with the real-life toxicity of director Mel Gibson’s personal scandals. The Passion of the Christ marked the beginning of a new ignominious phase in Gibson’s career, one that would see the former Hollywood heartthrob become a highly polarizing figure—in some ways, yet another emblem of that ongoing culture war in America. Stoning Gibson to death isn’t on the agenda here, but The Passion of the Christ is one of those movies where separating the art from the artist is virtually impossible in any honest appraisal, simply because of how the film has lived in public perception these last fifteen years.

Breaking Down the Scourging Scene

In The Passion of the Christ, Jesus endures unrelenting brutality, so much so that it’s not hard to see why the film’s detractors might label it “Christian torture porn.” At the same time, if you venture onto YouTube, let’s say, and start reading the most upvoted comments below clips from the movie, it can be like peeking into an old-time big-tent revival, where worshipful strangers are giving praise to Jesus and sharing testimonials of how their lives changed after watching The Passion of the Christ. It’s a religious film, yes, but it’s also clear that this movie was a downright religious experience for some people.

Just to let you know where I’m coming from — my background and bias — I’m a pre-seminary dropout turned teacher who moonlights as a movie blogger. Around the turn-of-the-millennium, after Saint Augustine’s Confessions blew my 18-year-old mind, I attended a private Lutheran college with an eye toward becoming a pastor. Even though I ultimately decided against pursuing that vocation, I still attend a small Lutheran church and I’ve probably studied the New Testament of the Bible more than the average layperson.

Anyway, that’s the perspective that I’m bringing to The Passion of the Christ. It’s a different perspective, I imagine, than you’re apt to find on most mainstream movie blogs. Yet even with that point-of-view, I can see that The Passion of the Christ does show literal torture. Unless you’re a gore hound, it’s one of the most graphic films you’re ever likely to see. The real question is whether the “graphic,” in this case, reaches a wanton pornographic level. Is it truly torture porn or something else?

Let’s address that question right off the bat with an in-depth (and indeed, obsessive-compulsive) analysis of the whipping, or scourging, scene, which easily rates as the most prolonged scene of over-the-top bloodshed in the movie. One of the most frequent criticisms of The Passion of the Christ is that it is needlessly, excessively violent. How does that criticism bear out when you attempt to quantify the cruelty?

More so than the climactic crucifixion, it’s the whipping scene that really serves as the sadistic centerpiece of The Passion of the Christ. That’s not to say, necessarily, that the film itself is sadistic (though detractors would argue that it certainly is). It’s just to say that the film unquestionably depicts the gleeful sadism of Roman soldiers as they rip the flesh off Christ’s back and as we hear every squishy strike of their whips. These soldiers chain Jesus to a post in a courtyard, gather around his back like a pack of hyenas, and set about lashing him mercilessly.

If you thought they were going to stop at the standard 39 lashes, you’d be wrong. Because I have OCD (it’s a problem), I actually went back and tried to count the number of times they whip Jesus in The Passion of the Christ.

What makes this a slight challenge is that the subtitles drop out during the whipping scene. Gibson originally wanted to make The Passion of the Christ as a foreign-language film with no subtitles. He eventually compromised and included some, but there are still other parts where he left the subtitles out in favor of trying to tell the story in a raw visual manner.

During the first round of lashes with stick whips, Jesus receives 32 lashes, by my count. Then, one of the soldiers breaks out a flagellum, or cat o’ nine tails whip, demonstrating in an unforgettable fashion how this particular metal-tipped torture instrument can rip wood off tables.

The count starts over. On the tenth flagellum lash, the whip rips a big chunk of flesh off of Christ’s side. For a while, the whipping fades to the background, making it harder to keep count, but if you watch and rewatch the scene the way I did, you’ll soon find yourself learning to recognize Latin numbers. This makes it easier to do course-corrections with counting.

At one point, while Mary, mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene, are off weeping, away from the sight of the whipping, the camera pans over to John, the beloved disciple. Right at this moment, the voice of the counting Roman can distinctly be heard saying, “Quadraginta!” (Latin for “40”) in the background.

That’s 40 lashes in the second round, plus 32 in the first round, for a grand total of 72 lashes … and we’re still not done yet.

Whence This Whipping Frenzy?

Believe it or not, after 72 lashes, the whipping continues, but at this point, I’m no longer sure I trust my own ears as a counter. Was that one lash with an echo I just heard, or two lashes in swift succession? I thought we were up to a higher number, but then it sounded like the voice in the background said, “…septem!” (Latin for “7,” in which case, the count would be 47).

Either way, after about 50 lashes, give or take (plus 32 on the first round, for an approximate total of 82), the lead Roman torturer holds up his hand dramatically. He gestures for them to flip Jesus over onto his back. Now they commence whipping Jesus on the front of his body.

This is the third round of whipping. As it gets underway, the scene sort of shifts into montage mode. It’s entering into a more dreamlike, or nightmarish, flow. Maybe that’s how the whole protracted whipping bout should be read: not as an accurate count, but as a nightmare impression of Christ’s torture.

As if to show how awful and strange this nightmare can truly be, Satan shows up with a demon baby right around this point. Everyone in the crowd is standing face forward, mesmerized by the scourging, but Satan glides sideways through the crowd. The Devil, as depicted in The Passion of the Christ, is androgynous (more about that later) and he/she is holding “a 40-year-old ‘baby’,” as Gibson termed it.

“What’s up with the ugly baby?” asks Christianity Today. People were writing into the site back in 2004. Even Christians were confused by this bizarre moment in the movie with the leering and grinning demon baby—whose presence in the arms of Satan inverts the image of Mary holding an infant Jesus. It’s an inversion meant to provoke a visceral reaction in the audience and to show how there are evil cosmic forces aligned against the good ones in this story.

If nothing else, it distracts from counting the lashes.

After they start whipping Jesus on the front of his body, the count starts at “Octo!” (Latin for “8”), so I’m thinking that verifies we were at 47 before and now we’re at 48 with the flagellum. We then get 15 or 16 more lashes before the scene transitions into a flashback. That puts us at a total of 63 or 64 lashes with the flagellum, plus 32 lashes from the first round with the stick whips, for a grand total of 95-96 lashes, give or take.

One more lash comes after the flashback ends. Then one of the senior-ranking Romans, Abenader, comes in and finally breaks up the whipping.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and give 96 lashes as my conservative estimate for how many times Jesus gets whipped during the scourging scene in The Passion of the Christ.

It’s sort of a make-or-break number. If you’re willing to go along with that number, then you might be willing to go along with the movie. If you think that number is wildly gratuitous, then you might not.

40 lashes maximum, minus one, was the standard according to ancient Hebrew law. However, since the Romans were the ones doing the whipping, and since biblical accounts hold that Jesus wasn’t strong enough to carry the cross on his own, we really have no way of knowing if Gibson’s multiplication of that number gels with the event that Christians believe happened in the 1st century AD. It’s an interpretation of what might have happened—perhaps a liberal one, and yes, perhaps a sadistic one.

At the very least, the viewer is left watching this scene and wondering: how much punishment can the human body really take? Shouldn’t Jesus have bled to death by now? How is he still alive? Is the movie just asking us to believe that he’s superhuman, the Son of God, and therefore able to sustain his frail mortal body through divine power? Or could a normal human being actually survive the same impossible level of agony?

All throughout the movie, the angry mob smacks Jesus around. It beats him till he’s broken and bloody and can only flop to the ground like a rag doll. By the end, his face is a red mask of pulp.

Is the endless succession of blows meant to be a visual expression of every sin he’s ever felt, every betrayal, from every person throughout human history? Or is it meant to be more literal, more tangible, less metaphysical, than that?

Is Gibson wielding violence as a sick provocation or a spiritual one? Whence this whipping frenzy in The Passion of the Christ?

What makes that question so much more mysterious is the fact that everything we’ve covered in these last two sections — this whole punishing ordeal with almost a hundred lashes — can be reduced down to a single line of scripture. “Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged.” That’s all the New Testament’s four canonical Gospels have to say on the subject of Christ’s whipping. Gibson, by contrast, turns it into a thing of paramount importance, belaboring the point that bad guys beat Jesus until it overrides all other concerns.

Continue Reading Revisiting The Passion of the Christ >>

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