In 2006 Entertainment Weekly rated The Passion of the Christ — Mel Gibson’s gritty and gory account of Jesus Christ’s final 12 hours leading up to his crucifixion in Jerusalem — the most controversial movie of all time.
Its detractors noted historical and biblical inaccuracies and accused the film of being anti-Semitic and excessively violent. Despite the cries of critics, the film became the top-grossing Christian movie ever.
In fact, it was something of a miracle at the box office, earning $611,899,420 worldwide in its original release.
Since then there has been a trickle of films aimed at a Christian audience, some successful, some not, some controversial, some not.
Passion had a great marketing strategy coupled with enough controversy to get people interested to see what all the fuss was about.
It’s been hard to capture that kind of lightning in a bottle again, which is why we haven’t seen a cavalcade of biblical epics in mainstream theatres.
This weekend Risen looks to the bible for inspiration. Playing like an unofficial sequel to Gibson’s film, it tells the tale of the Resurrection from the perspective of Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), a Roman Centurion commanded by Pontius Pilot to quell reports of a risen Messiah and thwart an insurrection in Jerusalem.
The film, directed by Waterworld helmer Kevin Reynolds, appears to have skirted around controversy by telling the story from the point of view of a fictional and non-believing character.
The studio is quick to note, however, that the script is a “faithful scriptural treatment of the story.”
The secret to success for a Christian themed movie lies with the filmmaker’s ability to translate the scripture to the screen.
“Christians like a well told story,” War Room director Alex Kendrick, who, with his brother Stephen have been labelled the “Steven Spielbergs of Christian cinema,” told just after his movie toppled Straight Outta Compton from the number one spot at the box office last year.
“What we don’t like is when our saviour’s name is abused or taken in vain or our morals trashed, so that keeps us away from many movies. It’s amazing to me that if Hollywood knew how many movies we stayed away from on purpose because of some of the offensive aspects they would change because it means much more money for them.”
Recently Noah, starring Russell Crowe as the arc-building prophet, angered some Christian groups for not being reverent enough. Director Darren Aronofsky called it the, “least biblical biblical film ever made,” and a studio press release admitted, “artistic license has been taken.”
The Christian community has met other films with open arms. Catherine Hardwicke’s The Nativity Story drew on the gospel of Matthew for the story of the Immaculate Conception and while it wasn’t the box office bonanza that made Passion headline news, it made money and skirted around controversy.
In 2004 Christian films were popular enough to garner a category at the irreverent Mexican MTV Movie Awards. Up for Most Divine Miracle in a Movie was the water into wine sequence from The Last Temptation of Christ; Passion’s Christ healing Peter’s injured ear scene; and the part in Bruce Almighty where Bruce causes his girlfriend’s chest to grow several sizes. Mexican audiences voted and Bruce Almighty’s miracle took the prize.