Continuing our series on screen portrayals of Pilate that I began last year during Holy Week. The posts on portrayals of Pilate by Rod Steiger, Richard Boone and Barry Dennen may be read here, here and here.
Without a doubt the screen portrayal of Pilate seen by the most people around the world is that of Bulgarian actor Hristo Shopov in Mel Gibson’s hugely successful Passion of the Christ (2004). That is good, because it is a superb portrayal.
Shopov portrays Pilate as a coolly in charge Roman prefect in public, but in private he unburdens himself to his wife Claudia who warns him that Jesus is a holy man and he must not condemn Him. Pilate repeats his query to Christ about truth to his wife. His truth he tells her is that the Emperor has warned him that if there are any more rebellions in Judaea, he will pay for it with his own blood. If he refuses to execute Jesus he fears that Caiaphas will lead a revolt, but that if he executes Jesus the followers of Christ might revolt. I believe this was a key fear of the historical Pilate and he did not order the execution of Jesus until he decided that a revolt by the rent-a-mob of Caiaphas on Good Friday posed the far greater threat.
Prior to ordering the execution of Jesus Pilate washes his hands. Note that the man does not need to be summoned but is already standing with a basin of water. Pilate had obviously decided to make this gesture before hand, and perhaps divert the anger of the followers of Christ from him to Caiaphas. Pilate of course made the right choice from his short-term perspective. There was no revolt against Rome on Good Friday, and the peace was maintained and taxes would continue to flow to the Emperor. Yet Shopov’s skilled portrayal of Pilate also reveals that the words that Christ speaks to him do have an impact on Pilate, and that Pilate is fascinated by this mysterious figure before him. What should have been just another day’s work for Prefect Pilate in governing the always on the verge of revolt Judaea turned out to be not quite so cut and dry, and Shopov conveys that well. Pilate, a relatively unimportant functionary of a vast empire, had just had an encounter with divinity and the world would never be the same again. Shopov’s performance suggests that Pilate had an inkling of this, and it disturbed him greatly, as he was one of the first of the gentiles to confront the question, a question that has perplexed and inspired humanity for twenty centuries, about Christ: Who do you say that I am?