By Steven O’Connor
Devout Catholic James Patrick Caviezal Jr, an up and coming actor who had been praised for his performances as Pvt. Witt in The Thin Red Line and Edmond Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo, was approached to play the lead role of Jesus Christ in the
independently funded and controversial film The Passion of the Christ. The movie would depict the final 12 hours in the life of Jesus and despite several attempts by Director Mel Gibson to talk him out of it, for fear that the actor would never work again, the actor felt that he needed to make this movie.
“We all have a cross to carry. I have to carry my own cross. If we don’t carry our crosses, we are going to be crushed under the weight of it. So let’s go and do it.”
– Jim Caviezal’s response to Mel Gibson
Was it worth it? Was it worth Jim Caviezal putting his mind and body through so much suffering and torture for a role he believed he was destined to play? On screen Jesus is beaten, tortured and crucified and in order to bring this story to life the 35-year-old actor was put through an intense physical and mental ordeal which he described as ‘horrendous’. During filming, Caviezal had dislocated his shoulder, battled hypothermia, suffered a lung infection and pneumonia, endured eight-hour makeup sessions that left him with severe headaches and skin infections and was also struck by lightning. Despite this, Caviezal did not regret accepting the role.
“Why would you subject yourself to persecution unless you know and believe that it’s the truth?” – Jim Caviezal
Filming of The Passion of the Christ took place primarily at Cinecittà Studios in Rome and then in the old city of Matera and at Craco (Basilicata). The conditions in the dead of winter were icy cold and what may look magnificent on film was sheer hell for the actor to bring to life.
The crucifixion scenes would be the most challenging scenes for Caviezal to shoot as he carried the 150 pound cross on his shoulders over the same road day after day. Caviezal would say that as the days went on the cross would feel close to 600 pounds. With crowds of extras spitting at him, hitting him and pushing him it got to the point where he just didn’t have enough energy to support the weight anymore. This resulted in the cross crashing down on his head and separating his shoulder in the process.
These scenes would also require nine stages of make-up for his entire body (25 days in a row). Make-up started at 2am and continued until 10am. He would at times be standing around, freezing, unable to shoot and would therefore go home and sleep in full body make-up. Imagine yourself in freezing conditions (wearing nothing but the body make-up and a loin cloth), hanging with your arms outstretched on a cross after separating your shoulder, suffering from hypothermia and being so cold that you can barely get your lines out (in Aramaic and Latin) as you shake uncontrollably. As he was suffocating on the cross, he felt like knives were stabbing every inch of his body and his arms and legs would go numb. In the mean time, the surrounding cast and crew members would have coffee and laugh and joke with each other, very indifferent about what he was going through up there. Could you do this, take after take after take, for five weeks?
“I may be playing Christ, but a lot of times I felt like Satan. I had obscenities wanting to come out of me constantly.” – Jim Caviezal
Perhaps the most controversial, and brutal, scene of the movie is ‘the scourging scene’ where Jesus is being flogged by two Roman soldiers. During this scene, Mel Gibson had set it up so there was a board behind Caviezal’s back for the soldiers to aim at. They were to strike while Caviezal saw through a mirror “off-camera” when the strikes were coming. On one particular take though, one of them missed and hit Caviezal, flush, ripping his skin and creating a 14 inch gash on his back. The pain was so severe that he had the wind knocked out of him and he couldn’t even find the breath to scream out in pain. The second time hurt so badly that it caused him to wrench his hand from the shackle, scraping and damaging his wrist.
The violence shown in this movie is unlike other Hollywood violence – it’s uncomfortably personal, the scenes are so believable and the violence so real, that it appears to be taking place in your very presence. Imagine before you a man being torn to bloody shreds and you’re helpless to do anything, you’re a spectator – utterly horrific.
“I wanted it to be shocking; and I wanted it to be extreme … So that they see the enormity – the enormity of that sacrifice; to see that someone could endure that and still come back with love and forgiveness, even through extreme pain and suffering and ridicule. The actual crucifixion was more violent than what was shown on the film, but I thought no one would get anything out of it.” – Mel Gibson on the violence in the movie
Filming the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ scene was an entirely different experience as both Caviezal and assistant Jon Mikalini were struck by lightning.
“I was lit up like a Christmas tree! I was doing the Sermon on the Mount. I knew it was going to hit me about four seconds before it happened. I thought, “I’m going to get hit.” And when it happened, I saw the extras grab the ground.” – Jim Caviezal
He described it as a tremendous slap on his ears and a few seconds of a pink, red static in front of his eyes as all of the extras dropped to the ground. The cast and crew members who witnessed it described it as fire coming out the right and left side of the Caviezal’s head and an Illumination around his whole body. All signs pointed to God not wanting this movie to be made. Still that wouldn’t stop the determined actor.
So I ask again, was it worth it? Jim Caviezal put his body through hell in order to create a fantastically brutal and bloody movie which is intended to show us how Christ suffered for our sins. Would you be willing to put your mind and body through such an ordeal in order to convey something that you believed in?
If you have never seen this movie I encourage you to do so no matter your background, your race or your beliefs. The art, the culture, and the magnificence of The Passion of the Christ means this movie needs to be seen.
The movie tells of the ordeal that Christ went through for all mankind but personally I think of what Jim Caviezal went through to convey this message, and it was worth it.
“This is the ultimate hero story for all mankind” – Mel Gibson
You can follow Steven on twitter @st3ven91 as he discusses wrestling, The American Office and his obsession with the Chicago Bulls.