5 Ways “The Passion of the Christ” Uses Flashback to Tell (or Show) the Crucifixion Story
The Easter story and the events surrounding the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as recorded in Scripture, have been adapted into nearly every artform and medium of storytelling since the first century.
Whether these depictions of Christ (in their various forms) are accurate and even appropriate is a topic of debate for another time.
However, we cannot deny the proliferation of Christ-focused imagery that emerges on and around Easter every year.
When it comes to film and television, there have been many adaptations of the Christ story over the years, some good, many more egregious in both their artistic quality and theology!
But where does Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) rate, and what makes The Passion, to this day, one of the most prominent film adaptations of the Easter story?
Is it the horrific efficiency of Roman crucifixion that the filmmakers dared to show on screen what warranted the film’s R-rating and such widespread attention and even acrimony?
Was it the film’s A-list creative talent, multi-million-dollar budget, and high production value that set it apart from most faith-based films?
Was it the director’s offscreen antics that set The Passion in the crosshairs of the predominately Jewish-run Hollywood?
Adored by some, loathed by others, The Passion of the Christ is in no way a perfect film. In many regards, it may not even be the best adaptation of biblical events either.
It is a visual representation (or visual interpretation) of a focused period in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Some creative license is to be expected.
It is visceral. It is graphic. It is disturbing. And by some accounts, it is not even as violent as the actual crucifixion of Jesus was said to have been.
Therefore, while I affirm that the biblical Gospel of Jesus Christ is for everyone, I wholeheartedly recognize that The Passion of the Christ is not.
So why am I returning from a long hiatus from Perspectives off the Page to write about The Passion?
Beyond its connection to Easter weekend and the conversations it typically inspires, The Passion of the Christ relies on a notable storytelling device to tell (or show) the crucifixion story.
Used effectively, this device can help writers develop their characters and introduce important backstory; handled poorly and it can fragment the entire plot and destroy a story’s overall pacing.
I’m writing, of course, about flashback.
Flashback, as a narrative device, involves a break in the chronological telling of the story to give us (the audience or reader) a glimpse into events or images of the past.
Flashbacks are often short scenes or sequences. Sometimes they aren’t really scenes at all, serving more like flashes of memory or snapshots into a character’s thoughts and emotions.
The television show LOST famously incorporated flashbacks into its episodic structure to provide important backstory about major characters and their lives before being marooned on the island. The writers even threw us a curveball in later seasons by cutting to flash-forwards without telling us we were actually looking into the future, not the past.
Sometimes these narrative jumps worked; other times they felt gimmicky and threatened to bring the whole series down. Perhaps they inevitably did.
Unfortunately, because flashbacks have been overused and misused over the years, many writing books, classes, and teachers have resorted to discouraging their use altogether.
But why is that?
As I mentioned before, when handled poorly, flashbacks can disrupt a story’s momentum, confuse the audience, and take us away from the present story to shoehorn in unnecessary backstory.
Furthermore, if we spend too much time cutting to past events, the question soon arises: if those events are so important, why isn’t the writer telling that story?
With The Passion of the Christ, however, director Mel Gibson made clear that he wanted to focus on, as you might have guessed from the title, the events of the last twenty-four hours of Jesus’ life, from the Garden of Gethsemane to the cross (with a brief resurrection tag at the end).
That is the primary story that unfolds before our eyes in a little over two hours.
For some audiences, the absence of the life, miracles, and teachings of Christ in the film was unacceptable and unsatisfactory. I can certainly understand this objection.
However, Gibson did not set out to write Ben-Hur, a Bible miniseries, or The Chosen. He chose to focus solely on the events of Good Friday.
Of course, this also begs the question: can you effectively communicate the significance of the crucifixion (and resurrection) apart from the context of the biblical narrative and ministry of Jesus that came before?
The answer is arguably, no.
Without context, the events of the Passion are cinematic, enigmatic, and violent, maybe even emotional, but hardly transformational or meaningful.
Shock and violence for violence sake do not create the kind of story that changes people’s lives and alters the trajectory of human history.
So how did Mel Gibson keep focus on the Passion while also connecting its events and imagery to the larger biblical narrative?
The answer is flashback.
At key points in the film, the director and editor (John Wright and Steve Mirkovich) cut to images, scenes, or sequences from Jesus’ life and ministry that offer context or let us know what He (or others) might be thinking in various moments.
Of course, these flashbacks and their connections to the present narrative are largely speculative, however, they do provide key insights into the ministry of Jesus that reveal the significance of Christ’s mission and ultimate victory over sin and death that is the Gospel message.
Here, then, are five ways The Passion effectively uses flashback to tell the crucifixion story and how writers of all genres can use these techniques to tell better stories.
1. Use Flashback to Show (Not Tell)
It might be one of the oldest and most worn-out adages of screenwriting and fiction writing in general, but on principle, the concept is true.
If the audience cannot see it or hear it on the screen, you shouldn’t put it in the script.
It is the job of the actor, director, cinematographer, and editor (even the composer) to collaborate and communicate what’s happening in the mind, motivation, and emotions of the character.
For the screenwriter, scene(s) must be written in such a way that the director and production team can see and understand the character through action and/or dialogue, not intrusive description.
Show us who they are; don’t just tell us.
For novelists, explaining character emotions or tell what is going on in the mind of a character with entire pages of thought description is an advantage of that medium.
For the playwright, the monologue and soliloquy can be employed.
Screenwriters have a different challenge.
That being said, that doesn’t mean that screenwriters are necessarily hindered by the conventions of their craft.
In the case of The Passion, Mel Gibson was faced with an interesting dilemma (or opportunity, depending on how you look at it).
According to all four gospel accounts, Jesus was said to have remained silent, even in the face of false accusation and ridicule. Yes, there are moments where He did speak, however, for most of His trial and crucifixion, Jesus said very little.
How then, do you tell a story where your main character has very little dialogue for most of the film?
For Gibson, Jesus’ silence created an opportunity for the filmmakers to show us what He might be thinking or remembering in the moments leading up to His death.
Visually, this happens in several scenes.
For example, just before His mock trial, Jesus stares silently at a carpenter at work in the courtyard of the high priest. What He might be thinking or seeing in this man, we don’t know. Not a single word is uttered.
However, this image triggers one of the first flashbacks to Jesus working as a carpenter in His parents’ home in Galilee.
In this flashback, which does include dialogue, we get to see Jesus at work as a young man. We also encounter the loving, even playful relationship He shares with His mother (Mary).
Of course, this particular exchange between mother and son is not referenced explicitly in Scripture. However, there are many moments and interactions in Jesus’ thirty-three-year life that are not included in the gospels for obvious reasons. We are left to imagine and speculate.
Sometimes, this can be dangerous. In this instance, however, the storytellers have maintained a measure of theological consistency.
Gospel truth? No. This flashback is not. However, the interaction between Jesus and Mary in this scene is one that offers a beautiful glimpse of the love that Jesus likely had for the most important woman in His life.
Furthermore, it reminds us that Jesus would not be the only to suffer Easter weekend.
As the elderly Simeon told Mary at Jesus’ dedication, “behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed – and a sword will pierce even your own soul – to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:34-35)
A mother’s grief at having to watch her son endure such ridicule and pain is a prominent and deeply moving motif throughout The Passion.
Not coincidently, almost immediately after cutting back to the present, Mary enters the scene.
Thus, a flashback is used to show us what Jesus is thinking and foreshadow the arrival of a major character and the motif she’ll carry.
2. Use Flashback to Combine Setup and Payoff
A second notable (though brief) flashback occurs when Peter, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, separates himself from persecution by denying even knowing Jesus when pressed by the angry mob.
Having denied Jesus three times, Peter makes eye contact with Jesus, and immediately recognizes the extent of his betrayal. We see this in the actor’s performance and feel it in the score.
Here, the editor also cuts back to the Last Supper, only hours before, where Jesus prophesied that Peter would deny Him three times before the rooster crowed the next morning. Peter, however, had insisted, “even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You!” (Matthew 26:35)
This is what we see on screen.
Of course, this particular flashback is pulled directly from Scripture.
Do we need it in the film to recognize Peter’s grief, having realized he just publicly disowned His best friend and master? No. That’s clear from the actor’s performance.
However, the flashback reminds the casual audience that this moment is a payoff to what Jesus had previously prophesied and setup.
It’s not just backstory. It’s backstory that has profound implications in the present for both the plot and the character.
Through flashback, we are given payoff and setup in the same scene. Here, it works.
3. Use Flashback to Sustain Momentum
Typically, flashback is discouraged when it disrupts the pacing of the plot or causes an unnecessarily break in the story’s momentum. When an unnecessary flashback is casually thrown in or inserted into the wrong moment in the story, the break can feel like an intrusion.
However, sometimes a flashback can actually sustain the story’s momentum by giving the story, the character, and the audience a moment to process and catch our breath.
A story that is non-stop in its action and relentless in its pacing can overwhelm the audience and cause us to break away or disconnect on our own.
Sometimes, the fatigue of a fast-paced story can be used deliberately to help us connect to what the characters are going through (ref: Sam Mendes’ 1917)
The audience, like the characters, however, often needs moments of pause where things slow down, we recover, and prepare for the next sequence.
A pause is not necessarily a hard stop or break either. It is a breath note or rest in the larger symphony, the calm before or during the storm, and the Garden of Gethsemane before the crucifixion.
Unlike reading a book, a film audience cannot close the book and come back later (unless they are watching from home). Most films are written to be viewed in their entirety and in one sitting.
Needless to say, The Passion of the Christ includes some of the most violent and disturbing imagery in film history. The events of Christ’s crucifixion are not easy to stomach. They’re not meant to be.
However, if the film presents the horrors of Christ’s beating, scourging, and crucifixion without a pause or break, it’s hard to imagine anyone being able to withstand that kind of torture for two hours straight.
Yes, the harsh reality of this kind of violence is meant to remind audiences of all Jesus endured for the sake of humanity. However, we don’t necessarily need to see and feel it all to get the significance of the moment.
Pacing is everything, and no story can survive or maintain its audience if its pacing is too fast or conversely too slow.
Arguably the most difficult to scene to watch in the film is Christ’s scourging at the hands of the Roman soldiers.
Bloody and gruesome (perhaps in excess), this scene is the reason why many people struggle to sit through The Passion or have committed to avoiding it altogether. I don’t fault them.
After watching the Romans tear flesh, muscle, and sinew from Jesus’ back using the kind of whip only a sadist would employ, we, the audience are in desperate need of a moment of reprieve
Here, the filmmakers give us one in the form of a flashback.
As Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, on their hands and knees, wipe the blood of Jesus from the stone courtyard where He was just flogged, Mary Magdalene thinks back to the moment she was rescued from stoning at the hands of the Jewish elders by Jesus.
As before, this moment is used to reveal an important moment in the life of this character. It also works in tandem with what we’ve just witnessed.
As Jesus once stepped in to rescue and redeem Mary Magdalene from her accusers and a life of prostitution (also demonic oppression, as we read in the gospels), so He has again just put Himself on the block to rescue and redeem mankind by paying the penalty for our sin.
An argument can be made that Mary Magdalene, in this moment, is making this connection.
However, the flashback also serves as a moment of rest from the horror of what we’ve just witnessed, giving us a moment to gather our strength before the cycle continues and Christ’s passion resumes.
4. Use Flashback to Develop Character
In all of these examples, flashbacks are used to provide context and backstory for the current scene. In doing so, they also develop and define key characters without having to use much dialogue.
Nowhere is character on display more than in the most heartbreaking sequence of the entire film.
As Mary, the mother of Jesus, waits along the Via Dolorosa for an opportunity to reach her son, the virgin mother is forced to relive a moment from Jesus’ childhood.
Watching her adult son stumble under the weight of the cross, Mary recalls a time (likely one of many) when she, as a young mother, ran to her baby boy after he’d tripped and fallen.
As the flashback reveals a younger Mary running to her son, the editor cuts back to the elderly Mary running in the same manner to reach to her adult son in his moment of agony.
Here, the cutting back and forth between parallel scenes offers a powerful image of all the virgin mother was forced to endure in watching her baby boy suffer for the sake of the world.
“I’m here,” Mary says in both scenes (past and present). You don’t have to be a mother or even a parent to feel the heartbreak of this moment.
Would the scene still be devastating if we just saw Mary run to her adult son? Absolutely.
Would a separate flashback of Mary running to her baby boy be moving as well? No doubt.
Put the two together, however, and the storyteller has prompted an entirely different reaction and response from the audience. Not only that, the timing of this flashback when juxtaposed with the present sequence develops Mary’s character and defines her relationship with Jesus in a way each individual scene cannot do on its own.
5. Use Flashback to Lay the Groundwork for Audience Revelation
In the case of Peter’s realization or Mary Magdalene’s memory of Christ’s intervention on her behalf, flashbacks are used to help the character make an important connection.
In the example of Jesus and the carpenter or Mary running to Jesus, flashbacks show us what these characters are thinking or feeling in the moment.
It is one of the great strengths of narrative filmmaking.
However, there are instances where flashback can be used solely for the benefit of the audience. Flashbacks to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and Last Supper are included for this reason.
Another example, and probably the most important flashback of the film, comes as the Roman soldiers are nailing Jesus to the cross. Here, the filmmakers cut back to the Last Supper and moment where Jesus connects the bread and wine to His body and blood.
As Jesus removes the bread from the oven, unwraps, and breaks it for His disciples, the film editor cuts back to the cross, where the Romans remove Jesus’ garments (an unwrapping), exposing His bloody, broken, and bruised body for all to see.
If the connection was not clear before, it certainly has been made with the words of the Lord’s Supper shared in tandem with the images of the cross.
Here, the groundwork has been laid for the audience’s ultimate epiphany, that Jesus Christ was and is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and the ultimate sacrifice for man’s sin.
At the cross, the words of Isaiah, quoted at the beginning of the film, hit home.
“He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)
The Passion of the Christ (2004) was produced by Icon Productions and distributed by Newmarket Films (USA). It is directed by Mel Gibson, written by Mel Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald, and stars Jim Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, and Monica Bellucci.