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Film case study - The Passion of the Christ

Re-classified on appeal

Controversial film has its classification changed.

In the early part of 2004 the Office of Film and Literature Classification was inundated with letters of complaint and support over its decision to classify Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ as R16 with the note 'brutal violence, torture and cruelty'.

The plot

The film is a dramatisation of the last 12 hours of the life of Jesus Christ, directed and co-written by Mel Gibson. The story is derived partly from the accounts of the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It also contains events not found in those accounts. The film begins with the arrest of Jesus in Gethsemane, shows his trial, conviction and death, and ends with his resurrection.

Most of the film, however, focuses on his scourging, his enforced passage through the streets and his crucifixion. Flashback sequences show Jesus giving sermons, meeting Mary Magdalene, as a little boy being comforted by his mother, and dining with his disciples the evening of his arrest. Satan is frequently shown passing through crowds, observing and taunting Jesus, sometimes carrying a hideous child. Many presentations contain strong Roman Catholic symbolism. All dialogue is spoken in Aramaic and Latin. English subtitles are used, but do not appear to interpret everything said.


There was interest in the film here before it even came to New Zealand.

Even before the film arrived in New Zealand the Classification Office had received inquiries about how it would be classified. Some church groups expressed an interest in helping to classify the film, others expressed the opinion that a secular government-funded office would be anti-Christian and thus shouldn't be allowed to classify it.

Classification considerations

After the film was submitted on 16 February 2004, it was viewed by six members of the Classification Office. As usual, one classification officer had responsibility for examining the film, taking notes on what happened in it and writing up the decision.

Since it was expected that the classification decision would excite controversy whatever classification was assigned, both the Chief Censor and the Deputy Chief Censor attended the film's examination, as did two senior classification officers. A member of the Information Unit who was studying Christian theology also attended to provide some expertise on the story.

After watching the film, the group discussed it for several hours. It was agreed that this was a very violent film, unusual particularly in the way that the violence was focused on one person, and in great detail.

Public consultation

It was decided to hold a public consultation to gauge the reaction of a diverse group of Christians and members of other faiths. The distributor, Hoyts, was planning a preview session for ministers and priests, so the Classification Office asked if a questionnaire could be distributed to those who attended. About 80 people filled out the form and, from those, the Chief Censor interviewed five to get a more detailed response. You can read these interviews in the Record of Assistance.

Record of Assistance for the classification of the film The Passion of the Christ (PDF, 146KB)

Classification Office decision

The Classification Office made the film R16 with the note 'brutal violence, torture and cruelty'.

Writing up the decision, doing research on the story as presented in the film, and finalising the classification and descriptive note took another few days. The decision was registered and the distributor notified on 20 February 2004.

Classification Office decision for The Passion of the Christ (PDF, 115KB)

More controversy

The public reacted strongly to the decision to make the film R16.

There was a flood of inquiries and complaints following publication of the decision. Because of the religious nature of the film, the Classification Office could not answer many of these in a way that was meaningful to the correspondents - that is, most of the correspondence was about religious aspects of the film.

If this was a Muslim, Buddhist or Hindi film, I wonder if you would have been so restrictive.

Email from a member of the public, 2004

It amazes me that our children have had unlimited access to the Harry Potter films - which are blatantly advocating and progressively training people in witchcraft, that they can watch soaps on TV that promote uncommitted relationships and sexually perverted lifestyles regularly, and yet The Passion which is based on a historical fact is given an R16 rating? As a parent I want my children to see what Jesus did for each of us - graphic violence or not.

Fax from a pastor, 2004

My basic point is that no-one should commercially profit from the sacred gospel message, particularly by scenes (described by TIME magazine) as 'near pornographic feats of flayed flesh'. Although the suffering of Christ cannot even be fully represented by Mel Gibson's gory portrayal, this suffering was for sinners thirsty for righteousness, not for those seeking commercial profit or perverted gratification at violence.

Email from a member of the public, 2004

People wanted the film banned for a number of reasons which have no relation to the classification criteria. For example, because it was inaccurate, unorthodox, or because they thought certain scenes had been invented to conform to a Roman Catholic point of view. Jewish correspondents were worried that it might incite hatred towards Jews. While most Christian complainants felt that the classification was too high, others complained that the film was too violent, and should have a higher classification. It is worth noting that, as well, a large number of people wrote in supporting the decision.

This is one film that addresses violence in a positive manner and puts it in its proper place.

Email from a member of the public, 2004

The appeal

The distributor asked for a review of the classification decision.

The distributor, Hoyts, decided to ask for a review of the film's classification decision. The Film and Literature Board of Review examines films afresh, as if they have not been classified previously by the Classification Office. The Board viewed the film in early March, and received written and spoken submissions from interested parties.

Classification Office's submission to the Board of Review (PDF, 260KB)

Board of Review classification

The Board lowered the classification to R15.

On 5 April, just in time for Holy Week, the President of the Board of Review issued the Board's decision, which lowered the restriction to R15, with the descriptive note 'prolonged sequences of brutal violence, torture and cruelty'. This is the film's current classification in New Zealand.

Board of Review's decision on The Passion of the Christ (PDF, 230KB)

Other film case studies

The Passion of the Christ poster

By giving us the feeling of experiencing Jesus' thoughts, and by making us privy to his prayers, The Passion draws us toward Christ's full humanity like no film before.

Peter T. Chattaway, Christianity Today

If I were a Christian, I'd be appalled to have this primitive and pornographic bloodbath presume to speak for me.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

Useful links

Stills from the film

A still image from the film of Jesus being bloodily whipped by a Roman soldier, as other soldiers look on and laugh
Jesus (Jim Caviezel) is flogged by a Roman soldier
A still image from the film of a woman - Satan - in the blue-lit darkness, with a shawl around her head
Satan (Rosalinda Celentano)
A still image from the film of two men in a crowd of soldiers - one carries a giant wooden cross over his shoulder, the other helps
Simon of Cyrene (Jarreth Merz) helps Jesus carry his own cross along the Via Dolorosa to Calvary
A still image from the film of Jesus crucified on the cross, with a large crowd below
Jesus crucified


R15 classification label
R15: prolonged sequences of brutal violence, torture and cruelty

Classifications given to The Passion of the Christ around the world

MA15+ Graphic violence.
18 for excessive, sadistic, extreme and extensive violence.
12 for oppressive scenes of flogging and crucifixion.
16. Faithful to the Gospels. No glorification of violence. But too intense and emotionally demanding for 12 year olds who may also lack the knowledge to make sense of the events on screen. The charges of anti-Semitism were not founded.
15PG for brutal and unrelenting violence. But given the particular interest and awareness in Ireland of the subject matter, a higher classification was not necessary. However, a warning of the explicit violence in the work was carried on all publicity material.
16 for violence and horror (fear).
New Zealand
R15 prolonged sequences of brutal violence, torture and cruelty.
16 for strong physical violence.
15 for extensive and detailed scenes of gross assault and battery and crucifixion.
18 for strong bloody violence. 'Anti-Semitism was not an issue for us in a film that was faithful to the Gospels. We discussed 15 given the well-known nature of the story and clear CA. But ultimately, our guidelines on violence required the adult category.'
R: Under 17 requires accompanying parent or guardian. Rated R for sequences of graphic violence.