“Christian movies” seem to go through times when they’re especially popular.
For example, the 1950’s and 60’s produced some excellent Biblical epics.
Since the early 2000’s, Biblical adaptations and movies with faith-based themes have been very popular.
People debate a lot of things about the new Christian movie trend, but everyone seems to agree on what sparked it: Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ.
Here are 4 things that filmmakers can learn from this movie.
1. Make the Story Well
I’ve made this point before, about how nothing’s more boring than a compelling idea communicated badly.
Quite simply, if you want to tell a story that will impact people, you need to tell it well.
If it’s a story people have heard dozens of times, it better be especially good, because your audience can always watch another version.
The Passion of the Christ may not have gotten the critical praise of Braveheart or Gibson’s other films, but it’s distinctly well-made.
The actors give great performances, particularly Jim Caviezel.
The soundtrack and cinematography create a powerful and epic atmosphere.
The story structure, moving from flashbacks to the main storyline, gives you a good sense of Jesus’ full story even as it follows the last day or so of his life.
Everything works together to make the story compelling, even if you’ve seen dozens of earlier versions of the story.
3. Showing Pain isn’t the Same as Glorifying Pain
It’s tempting and understandable to avoid “scary stuff” (gore or violence, characters experiencing pain or trouble) in a story.
However, there are many times you have to portray the pain characters go through for them to make the stories work.
Sure, the pain that Jesus experiences in the film looks brutal, inhuman, and is often hard to watch.
But it needs to be like that.
For one thing, crucifixion was a terrible way to die (people had to invent a new word to describe how harsh it was).
For another, seeing the pain Jesus experienced makes his response so much more compelling.
It’s one thing to sit in at a Bible study or Sunday School class and hear that Jesus said “Father, forgive them” on the cross.
It’s something else to watch a portrayal of Jesus saying “Father, forgive them” and see just how bloodied and humiliated he was.
3. Write Good Characters
It’s tempting, especially in biblical adaptations, to make all the character one-dimensional.
By and large, The Passion of the Christ rejects that approach.
There are characters who are supposed to be the good guys but have weak moments, or characters who struggle to know which side they’re on.
For example, when Jesus heals a temple guard’s ear in Gethsemane, the guard doesn’t angrily lash out or immediately start saying nice things about Jesus.
Initially, the guard seems shocked.
He’s not sure what to think about Jesus.
Even when the guard apparently changes his mind (he shows up when Jesus finally gets crucified), he never speaks.
Everything the guard feels comes across in body language, and it’s a complicated mess of duty, newfound sympathy, and pain from trying to reconcile those things.
In short, he’s a poignant character.
4. Always Do Your Research
Whenever you write about a group that’s been mistreated, you need to recognize there are stereotypes that you may not be aware of.
There are ways of talking about or portraying things that come across as offensive and you probably wouldn’t realize it unless you come from that group.
In this case, The Passion of the Christ told a story that some people have misused to fuel anti-Semitism.
Catholic Bishops even created a set of criteria in 1988 to help filmmakers avoid anti-Semitic elements in Passion plays.
Going off of interviews Gibson gave while making the film, it seems clear he didn’t try to make the movie anti-Semitic.
However, the movie sometimes plays on anti-Semitic stereotypes by accident.
The Romans seem weak, and we keep getting the impression the Jews are pushing them around.
We eventually see Jews who weren’t Jesus’ followers but still support him, but not until halfway through the movie.