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'The Passion of The Christ': A Message Beyond Words

By Laura J. Bagby Producer

CBN.comAs one of only a select few journalists allowed to attend a National Religious Broadcasters press conference with Jim Caviezel on Tuesday, February 17, I was thrilled to finally get the chance to hear directly from this talented actor who I had just seen give an incredible performance as the Christ the night before in a pre-screening of The Passion of the Christ in front of some 3,500 NRB conference attendees in Charlotte, N.C.

So much of what I saw during the screening was beyond words. I was profoundly affected by the powerful depiction of Christ's Crucifixion done with such cinematically beautiful excellence, brilliant brush strokes of storytelling finesse, hauntingly emotive facial expressions, and the simple purity of the languages of Christ's day.

Though done in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Latin, I never missed hearing the English language. Within the first five minutes, I quickly forgot about the subtitles and became enthralled in hearing the words in the authentic languages of biblical times. I felt like I was there, among the crowd of onlookers in Jesus' day.

An incredible storyteller, Mel Gibson gets at the emotive essence of Christ's death, rather than the literal essence of the biblical story. Though not a word-for-word account, which might concern some, Gibson's artistic license is never blasphemous or out of place. He masterfully etches into our memories scenes from Christ's life -- both those literal, and those imagined -- through the use of imagery.

Juxtaposing real-time events with flashback scenes of happier times, Gibson is able to tie together several different passages of Scripture, better portraying the humanity and divinity of Christ, and wrenching the viewer emotionally. For instance, as Christ is led out of the city with the Cross on His back, the film flashes back to Christ's entry on the donkey as the crowds spread out their palm leaves. And again, as Pilate washes his hands in front of the clamoring crowds during the trial of Jesus, there is a flashback to the scene where Jesus is washing the disciples' feet. One of the most powerful of these flashbacks is when Mother Mary sees her precious son, Jesus, stumble under the weight of His Cross. She recalls in flashback her son tumbling to the ground as a young boy and how she ran to him then. We flash forward to see Mary running, tears streaming, to help her beloved Son Jesus pick up His Cross. It is one of the most heart-wrenching moments of the film. I found myself starting to cry uncontrollable during this scene.

The film is painterly, not just in the cinematic choices, but in the fact that even beyond words, what grips the heart most are the images -- the pauses on faces, taut with suffering, the reaction shots where there are no words to be said, the close-ups of one or two objects that carry a meaning beyond the literal.

The ghostly pale, enshrouded figure that represents Satan will positively make your skin crawl. Somewhat androgynous in looks, almost pretty, and altogether haunting, the devil is lust and darkness personified. Sans pitchfork and horns, this depiction is even creepier because he has a knowing glance that speaks of a power over sinful man, an evil grace, an enticing spirit that can only come from the pit of hell.

From beginning to end, The Passion of The Christ carries an intensity of purpose and emotion that is beyond description, only letting up for one brief joy-filled scene between a younger Jesus and Mary at home as Jesus perfects His carpentry skills.

Nearly three hours later, still enveloped in a hushing holiness, few moved as the house lights came up in the ballroom of the Charlotte Convention Center. Most of us sat in silence, only stirring after wiping a tear or two and shaking off the initial shock. Out of reverence for one another and out of respect for what we just experienced personally most remained silent.

Stunned by the power of the humanity of Christ just portrayed on screen, I gave a fertive glance or two at those directly around me. Their faces were like mine -- somber, thoughtful, deeply dealing with a real event, one that profoundly affects us not just as Christians in the bigger sense of the body of Christ, but as individuals in need of a Savior -- not a wimpy Lord, but a willingly Lord who suffered brutally and died on our unworthy behalf, all in the name of love.

Those who tried to utter a comment or lighten the mood with humor were given dirty looks -- and rightly so. It just didn't seem proper. I ignored the media who waited in the lobby with baited breath for any kind of comment about the film. What could I possibly say? I just saw my Savior beaten and bruised. I felt the weight of my own iniquity. What more could be said at a moment like this?

So when I arrived for the press conference early the next morning to come face to face with Jim Caviezel, I was really hoping to find a humble man who understood the seriousness of his most recent acting choice. I was not disappointed.

When Mr. Caviezel stepped into the room in a casual blue shirt, his demeanor seemed almost shy. He impressed me as one who wasn't out for kudos from anyone, even from the Christian community who might very well consider him a media darling. He wasn't there to prove anything. And for the next 40 minutes or so, this cordial and thoughtful man was just one of us, another Christian affected by the power of the message he had come to know so well -- the power of Jesus Christ and His suffering.

After a brief introduction from NRB president Frank Wright, Mr. Caviezel put the press instantly at ease with some lighthearted humor: "I don't know what is harder -- the spiritual crucifixion or the interviews. God bless Starbuck's Coffee!" A ripple of good-natured laughter echoed around the room.

Caviezel was refreshingly non-Hollywood. There was not a drop of ego in his attitude or his words as he sometimes haltingly retold the tales of suffering he endured in order to play this role, his distinctive piercing blue eyes filled with honesty and a weightiness.

That weightiness was evident throughout much of the interview as he got quite serious at times. Make no mistake, Caviezel, a devout Roman Catholic, didn't take on this role of Jesus flippantly, nor did he necessarily believe he was the best man for the part.

"Every day I felt this burden of responsibility," he told us, "but one I was willing to take. … I would say, 'Why would You choose me?' I felt as if God would say, 'I don't always choose the best. Let's just leave it at that. But do you dare try? Do you accept this responsibility?' I said, 'Yes.'"

Considering the role of Jesus wasn't a new notion for Caviezel. In fact, he had been offered the role of Christ three previous times before he finally chose to work with Mel Gibson on The Passion of The Christ. Why did he choose Mel and why this film?

Says Caviezel, "I was either going to do it right, or I wasn't going to do it at all. When Mel originally came to me for this, he wanted to make it very visceral, something that people would not be just passively watching nor would I be passively acting in it. That is what I was drawn to." Adds Caviezel, "I wasn't interested in making some film that was watered down."

Visceral the film was; watered down it was not.

From the Garden of Gethsemane where we see Jesus wrestling with His calling, sweat and blood on His brow; to the flogging scene where time stands still as you watch Christ bear the burden of the hatred of man; to the portrayal of Jesus struggling under the weight of His own cross as he travels the Via Delorosa; to the actual Crucifixion, the agony of Christ is vividly and horrifically depicted. There is nothing passive about this film, as Caviezel says. In fact, the scenes are so real, you sometimes forget that it is a movie.

But then, perhaps that is because Caviezel had his opportunity to literally share in the sufferings of Christ. And so what you see are actual happenings.

A couple of times during the scourging scene, for instance, Caviezel notes that the Roman centurion actors tasked to "whip" him actually did accidentally tag him when the whip overextended and slashed Caviezel in the back. The lash knocked the wind right out of him, Caviezel explains. Barely recovering from that blow, Caviezel says he got struck for a second time, once again by accident. This time the result was much more pronounced.

"He completely missed and I had about a 14-inch gash on my back," says Caviezel. "I couldn't breath properly for about eight minutes, just trying to get air back in my system. And I thought, My God, if they were hitting Him that hard, how did He breath?"

But that isn't all Caviezel endured while filming. He also suffered a separated shoulder, migraines, pneumonia, an infection, and hypothermia.

"Every day was hard because my body wouldn't recover. I was always at 70 percent," he says.

While crew members were in parkas, hats, and mittens, Caviezel hung on the cross for take after take. Up on a 1,000-foot canyon, with high winds, and unable to hug his body for warmth, Jim suffered dangerously cold conditions, only getting brief relief from heaters that were positioned in a room down below.

With such extreme conditions, some critics might ask, 'Why endure suffering for this role?'

But Caviezel makes no excuses. He simply states, "I had to suffer. It was imperative that I suffer. That is what I learned a great deal throughout the film."

Not to say that it was easy for Caviezel.

On the contrary, Caviezel, having grown up an athlete, wasn't fully prepared for the kind of physical endurance he would be tasked to handle. That is why Caviezel says he relied heavily on His walk with God.

"I couldn't have done this without grace from God," he says. "The physical beatings in the film and the suffering, it forced me into the arms of God. I had no other choice. … The whole time I was meditating in prayer, continually conversing in my heart about what this all means."

And Caviezel learned something else more profound through sharing in Christ's sufferings.

"The horrific pain He went through, it had to be God," he says. "That was what was going through my head. This has to be God. How could people not know this?"

Whether Caviezel will pay the price in his career for his role as Christ is yet to be seen, but somehow I can't help thinking after hearing him talk, that that isn't the most important matter for him.

For now, Caviezel is just glad he got a chance to work with Mel Gibson and he hopes that he has done his job well as an actor.

"I don't want people to see me," he says. "I want them to see Christ. That is it."

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