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FIRST-PERSON: Mel Gibson’s ‘Passion’ for Jesus

ROME (BP)–On the outskirts of Rome, past the ancient ruins of the baths of Caracalla and the tourist trodden Catacombs, the greatest story ever told is being recreated on the backlot of the legendary Cinecitta studio. Directly across from the decaying wooden sidewalks and fake storefront sets from Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” sits the city of Jerusalem — or at least Mel Gibson’s 2.5-acre scaled-down replica of it. It is a breathtaking spectacle of biblical proportions with giant columns, flights of stoned steps, massive wooden doors and weathered Roman emblems, creating a political and cultural climate where Jesus spent the remaining hours of his life.

The director of “The Man Without a Face” (1993) and Oscar-winning “Braveheart” (1995) has chosen to direct a story centered on the last 12 hours of Christ’s life, primarily focusing on the betrayal, trial and death of Jesus, culminating with his graphic crucifixion and resurrection in the tomb. “The Passion” is Gibson’s “labor of love” and stars Jim Caviezel (“The Count of Monte Cristo,” “Frequency”) as Jesus, Romanian actress Maia Morgenstern as his mother, Mary, and Italian star Monica Bellucci (“Matrix Reloaded,” “Tears of the Sun”) as Mary Magdalen.

Gibson co-wrote his ode to Christ with Ben Fitzgerald (“Wise Blood”), using Scripture taken directly from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, or as Gibson likes to refer to them, “four obscure writers.” He also used research from an old book in his library, “The Dolorous Passion” by Anne Catherine Emmerich. “I’m not kiddin’, the book practically jumped out of the bookshelf at me. I bought this old library of books with some old tomes in there and I reach up for a title and pulled it out, and the one next to it fell into my hands so I started reading it. That book is the one I’m using for the background of this film.” After nearly 10 years of writing, reworking the script and waiting for the right timing, his “labor of love” was ready to be made.

Together with his Icon partners/producers Bruce Davey and Steve McEveety, the team began the enormous task of bringing Gibson’s passion to reality. “My partners and I went searching for a studio to attach to the project, but no one would touch it,” he says with a smile. “They all said, ‘Are you crazy? Why are you doing a Jesus movie in Aramaic?’ Obviously, nobody wants to touch something filmed in two dead languages, but I understand, because I would have rejected me too if I heard my pitch.”

It’s a response and a rejection Gibson has learned to live with. “No studio has backed it, so I’m just going on blind faith. I’m gonna complete it and see what happens and hope that it gets out there. The studios would have imposed too many rules on me. If they’re contributors to it, if they’re the guys putting up their bucks for it, you’ve got to listen to what they say. I didn’t want to be hobbled in that way, so in a sense, it was kind of a relief because of the freedom it gives me to explore the themes in the way I want to without any interference from guys trying to finance it.”

The way Gibson has chosen to tell his story is unique and downright daring. Aside from a graphic depiction of Christ’s crucifixion, Gibson is filming the entire movie in Aramaic. For those of you who have never heard the Aramaic language and assume there will be subtitles (this is the “downright daring” part), there won’t be any. Gibson is ardent about no subtitles at this point. “It will lend even more authenticity and realism to the film,” he says. “Subtitles would somehow spoil the effect that I want to achieve. It would alienate you and you’d be very aware that you were watching a film if you saw lettering coming up on the bottom of it. Hopefully, I’ll be able to transcend the language barriers with my visual storytelling. If I fail, I fail, but at least it’ll be a monumental failure.”

Since Aramaic is a dead language and, to Gibson’s knowledge, never before used in a film, he turned to a couple of experts to bring the language of Christ to the big screen. Father William Fulco is a Jesuit who translated the script into Aramaic. “He’s a wealth of knowledge and a professor of ancient languages and antiquity. He’s also an archeologist and very good with all of this and it took him a relatively short time to translate a script written in English into Aramaic and Latin.” Gibson continues, “I also have help from a woman [Evelina Meghnagi] from Libya who knows how to speak this better than the father can; in fact, when he heard her he was almost in tears.”

The significance of Aramaic being spoken in “The Passion” is that it will revisit the cross and the sacrifice Jesus made in Christ’s own language. Instead of the world getting another Hollywood production of “Americanized Christianity,” Gibson’s movie will provide the truest form of Christ’s message, without the propaganda. With powerful images and language, it will be a riveting and emotionally engaging story that will speak to most people. “A lot of people won’t dig it, not everybody’s going to like it but that’s OK, I’m ready for that. It’s done in the right spirit and that’s what counts,” Gibson says with assuredness.

Not only is his vision for the film global but his cast is as well. “We have a cast and crew comprised of different races and religions, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, even Agnostics. And all are working together on this thing in perfect harmony and, in fact, they’re all getting something out of it; people have been touched and even changed by the experience.” The cast and crew are from Romania, Algeria, Tunisia, Bulgaria and Israel, as well as Italy, the United States and other countries.

Gibson is proud of the harmony and marvels at how close his international cast have become because they all have to speak the same language on set. “To actually bring them all in this one place where they have to speak the same language puts them in a world that’s real to them; they have a knowledge that’s real and meaningful to them; speaking the one language of Aramaic has given them a commonality and a sense that they all share the same connection. They oughta let us run the United Nations because it’s been harmonious in every way,” he says half serious.

What’s particularly fascinating is the way God seems to be working in incredible ways through miraculous situations both on and off the set. “There is an interesting power in the script,” Gibson notes. “There have been a lot of unusual things happening, good things like people being healed of diseases, a couple of people have had sight and hearing restored, another guy was struck by lightning while we were filming the crucifixion scene and he just got up and walked away. There was even a little 6-year-old girl (the daughter of a person connected with the crew) who had epilepsy since she was born and had up to 50 epileptic fits a day — she doesn’t have them anymore for over a month now.” He marvels at how this movie has affected or touched most of the cast in some deep and personal way. “And they really give you a lot of hope, it’s like wow! I mean, we’re not kidding around about this, it’s really happening.”

Gibson is best known for action heroes and romantic leads, but it’s his recent role as a minister in “Signs” that may subliminally prepare audiences to accept his spiritual side. “It’s amazing just dwelling on this subject matter and being involved in it all the time now, that’s all I do is dwell on it. It really begins to inhabit you — but I see that as a good thing.” Gibson has clearly been changed and moved by this experience. “When I said that this thing begins to inhabit you, then other things begin to inhabit you as well, you start to realize the value of life and keeping your temper in check, or the value of forgiveness even when people are doing things that wrong you. It really helps me stay centered because … we’re all food for worms one of these days and you can’t take anything here with you.”

Raised in the Catholic faith, Gibson considers himself a “traditionalist” and lover of the Tridentine Mass. He has brought a priest on the set every day who offers a Latin Mass, communion and confessions to whomever wishes to partake; many in the cast and crew faithfully attend. “I read these articles that make me sound like I left the church for awhile but I didn’t actually leave it, I always believed. Let me put it this way, I just wasn’t too active.” He’s refreshingly honest about his former, rowdy days. “I wasn’t exactly the most zealous keeper of the flame, ya know? I was a pretty wild boy, quite frankly. Even now when I’m trying more than I was before, I still fail every day at some level but that’s being human.”

Gibson continues on a subject that’s become dear to his heart. “For me, coming back to being a Catholic is hard these days, particularly when you look at all the scandals in the church, ya know? I remember as a kid where the Mass was said in Latin and the doctrines were adhered to as they were for almost 2000 years. I chose the one I think is true and the one that is actually connected to Christ, but if I get in trouble for saying that, then I can’t help it, that’s the way I want to worship and that’s what I believe to be the truth.”

Several articles have been written by the press (including a few Christian publications) reporting Gibson sought “help” and “approval” from the Catholic Church on his script. “There are all these reports that the Vatican is helping me do this movie and they’re not — they’re not involved in an advisory capacity and I didn’t have to get their approval. In fact, I wouldn’t let 3M, or Bill Gates, or anybody get involved because it would simply stifle my creative process. So they like to put it out that they are involved and for some reason they keep mentioning that they are involved but they’re not.” Asked if he’ll seek the Vatican’s approval when the film is finished, he chuckles then replies matter-of-factly, “Uhhh nnno.”

“When I was growing up, the whole story of the Passion was very sanitized and distant; it seemed to me very much like a fairy tale. Then from about the age of 15 to age 35, I kind of did my own thing as it were. Not that I didn’t believe in God, I just didn’t practice faith or give it much consideration. I went through that period in my life where you put a lot of other things first. So coming back 20 years later, it seemed so distant, you know? I had to reconsider and say to myself, now hang on a minute, this isn’t a fairy tale and this actually happened, this is real. And that started me thinking about what it must have been like, what Christ went through, and I started seeing it in film terms.”

The monumental task of choosing a location and assembling a crew to create his vision took him to Italy for a location that would best replicate a centuries-old Jerusalem. “I chose Italy because so many people love it and it’s a great country to work in. It’s also a big melting pot and has a huge and diverse talent pool.” The crucifixion scenes were filmed in a beautiful city south of Italy called Matera, where Pier Paolo Pasolini used the outskirts to film his movie, “The Gospel According to St Matthew” (1964).

“Certain sections of the city are 2,000 years old and they have surrounding areas like the Judean dessert and the architecture, the blocks of stone, and the surrounding areas and rocky terrain add a vista and backdrop for this whole thing, and we actually borrowed from that city to create the backdrops for our lavish sets of Jerusalem. We relied heavily on the look that was there. The first time I saw it, I just went crazy because it was so perfect.”

Production designer Francesco Frigeri and decorator Carlo Gervasi designed a massive set; complete with a temple, courtyard, a Praetorium, Pilate’s Palace and various smaller sets. The handcrafted costumes are designed by the award-winning Maurizio Millenotti who paints the crowd like a detailed backdrop in various shades of beige, brown and black. On the day I visited, the temple was bathed in hues of gold, and smoke hung thick in the air where a cast and crew of hundreds waited for direction, as if posing for a painting.

Every beard, hairpiece and braid looks real because a team of expert makeup and hair artists have custom fit each person. The special effects (SPFX) makeup and hair department for Caviezel were flown in from Los Angeles because of their unique ability to create what Gibson needed for his flagellation and crucifixion scenes. A crew of numerous experts in various departments lends their many talents as well. All have created a biblical world that Gibson has spared no expense in bringing to the big screen, and it shows.

Capturing a magnificent biblical story of this magnitude requires a technical artist who can paint with light. Although the timeline is only the last 12 hours of Christ’s life, and more pointedly his crucifixion, it is crucial that the story look realistic and not, as Gibson puts it, “like a cheesy Hollywood epic.” Gibson knew he would have to create a visual testimony to one of the most inhumane acts ever committed. Every frame showing the face of Jesus would have to carry visual impact, so Gibson looked no further than his friend, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel.

Gibson and Deschanel took their mutual vision of how they wanted the film to look and translated their collaborative art form on screen. Deschanel uses the light that warms every frame in the Renaissance style, inspired by the artist Caravaggio. Gibson explains, “The only reason anyone knows anything about this guy is from prison records, because he was a wild man, a rabble rouser. But I think his work is beautiful. I mean it’s violent, it’s dark, it’s spiritual and it also has an odd whimsy or strangeness to it. And it’s so real looking. I told Caleb I wanted my movie to look like that and he said, ‘Yeah, OK.’ Just like that. He’s so casual about this stuff.” With 40 percent of his film shot at night or indoors in a dark environment, Gibson was surprised when he saw his first dailies. “I said, ‘… [I]t’s a moving Caravaggio!’ And he went, ‘Well, that’s what you asked for isn’t it?'” Gibson chuckles in awe. “He just said it so casually, he just casually tossed that over.”

Gibson brags on Deschanel’s talents, saying, “This man is a gifted cinematographer, who’s probably in the top bracket, right there at the pinnacle with a handful of others.” Deschanel has accumulated an impressive body of work (“The Black Stallion,” “The Right Stuff,” “The Natural,” “Fly Away Home,” “Message in a Bottle,” “The Patriot”), full of techniques that exemplify the approach Gibson wanted for his film. “He’s amazing and very talented. I feel so fortunate to have someone like him to present the images that I want, the way I want them. But even more than the way I want them, ya know? Because he’s there, his creativity is there. His own taste and vision is there. And man, I need all the help I can get!”

As serious and focused as Gibson is about this movie, he still maintains a sense of humor and affable demeanor on and off the set. He’s a superstar without a super attitude, treating cast and crew with kindness and respect. Gibson has long been known for his practical jokes and knowingly creates a relaxed atmosphere in which his actors and crew can thrive. Daily he tells jokes, talks with the crew, dons a red clown nose, occasionally makes burping noises through his bullhorn and has more energy than a teenager.

On the surface it would be easy to misdiagnose Gibson’s exuberance as hyperactivity, but the truth is the intuitive director simply loves what he’s doing. He brags like a proud father, “The performances I’m getting out of Jim, Maia and Monica — they knock my socks off! And you should see the guy who plays Judas, he’s doing an incredible job. And the guards, man, they are very scary people. There’s not a bad performance in my cast, it’s truly amazing.”

Francesco De Vito (Peter) shared what this experience has done for him. “I talk with Judas (Luca Lionello) and with John (Hristo Jivkov), we talk about this movie and we talk about faith on the set and in our life, and there is something going on with many of us. We’ve become very focused; it has changed us.” Vera Mitchell is the personal stylist for Caviezel and is a Buddhist. “There’s a pride that all of us have because we realize we are working on an important movie that could change a lot of lives,” she says.

The violence in “Passion” is the topic that seems to be drawing the most media attention these days and although Gibson feels apologetic for what Caviezel had to go through (“I know Jim suffered; he separated his left shoulder and was in a lot of pain and discomfort. But he was very patient during the whole thing”), he maintains that giving a graphic depiction of what Jesus went through before and during the time he hung on the cross is what makes his portrayal realistic. “This is an event that actually happened. It occurred. I’m exploring it this way, I think, to show the extent of the sacrifice willingly taken by Jesus. The price he paid, that is as much a part of what Jesus went through as the resurrection.”

To portray the most famous man who ever lived requires an actor who is confident, controlled and can radiate a look of mercy, love and forgiveness through his eyes, without ever opening his mouth. Gibson knew that Jim Caviezel (“The Count of Monte Cristo”, “Frequency”), the tall, soft-spoken actor with piercing blue eyes that seemingly penetrate your thoughts with just a glance, could convey those qualities. “Last year when Mel asked me to play the part I said to him, ‘Do you realize I’m 33 years old, the same age Jesus was when he went through all of this?'”

On an average day Caviezel goes through an arduous makeup session that lasts anywhere from four to seven hours, miraculously transforming his clean-shaven face and partly shaved head into a believable image of Jesus. Even Gibson was amazed one day when he saw him on camera. “He looks like the Shroud of Turin!” Caviezel says his performance is inspired, explaining, “Truthfully, it was never up to me.” He humbly continues, “My answer was always that I’m interested in letting God work through me to play this role. I believe the Holy Spirit has been leading me in the right direction and to get away from my own physical flesh and allow the character of Jesus to be played out the way God wants it — that’s all I can do.” Is Aramaic an intimidating language to learn? “Sure it is. But I asked God to help me and I was able to learn it in a quick amount of time, more than I normally am able to learn things.”

The devoutly Catholic Caviezel takes his role seriously, often praying and softly quoting Scripture while in character. There’s a lighter side to this gentle spirited man that enjoys a good joke, and he’s proven to Gibson over and over again that he has the endurance and patience of Job.

He laments about the trials and tribulations of playing the Son of God. “I endured freezing winds that almost blew my cross off the cliff while I was on it! Seriously! I felt it sway back and forth and I knew it was going to blow over.” He can now chuckle about his experience, but it went on for a couple of weeks. “To make matters worse, they had me up there and it was freezing cold the first day, and we were there without a heater, and of course I don’t have many clothes on the cross, so my body was going numb, it was freezing.”

Most people cannot imagine what Jesus really went through in his last remaining hours on earth but Caviezel has a fair idea. “I was spit on, beaten, and I carried my cross for days over and over the same road. It was brutal.” When asked about the makeup and special effects for his crucifixion scenes, he winces, “I have a 2 a.m. call time to get skin and makeup put on for the flagellation and crucifixion scenes, so I’m here long before the rest of the cast and crew. But you know what? I consider all of it worth it to play this role, it’s that important to me.”

In addition to spending 15 days filming on the cross, Caviezel was scourged and whipped in chains and ropes. “Mel likes to put violence in his movies, but the fact is, they represent truth; that’s all Mel cares about is making it look true to the text. No time has a film of our Lord ever been shown like this one, believe me when I say this to you, when people get to the crucifixion scene, by that time I believe there will be many who can’t take it and will have to walk out, I guarantee it. And I believe there will be many who will stay and be drawn to the truth.”

The SPFX team of makeup artists and technicians were challenged to devise new ways of creating realistic crucifixion and flagellation scenes. They also devised a never-been-done-before technique of showing the nails being driven into Christ’s hands. And yes, it looks real. Keith Vanderlaan, the SPFX makeup producer, did extensive research on actual crucifixions and studied what specifically went on, then improvised with his own techniques. The graphic flesh wounds, scars, ribs protruding from his chest and even the nails being driven into his hands have never been tried before now, but all work together to give the movie a realistic look and feel. This realism is what Gibson wants because he knows all too well how that impact will affect his audience.

Though the primary focus is on the last 12 hours Christ spent on this earth, Gibson has added other scenes to familiarize audiences with Jesus’ life and ministry. “Some of this is hard stuff, you can’t just go straight through and torture a guy for 90 minutes.” Gibson explains that he’ll use other scenes, “like when he’s falling on the cross, Mary will flash back to when Jesus was a boy and fell down. I’m adding bits and pieces of the Last Supper and Jesus washing the apostles’ feet and other scenes, so emotionally I think flashbacks like that can really work and hopefully it will all gel together.”

Will people who perhaps don’t know the story of Christ be able to gather who he was and what his ministry was about from this movie? “I think it demands a certain knowledge of the story which I think many people have, but this is a slightly different way of telling it and I think it’s more poignant for that reason, and then you don’t have to go through the entire gospel. I mean, it’s impossible to do all of his work on film – just dealing with the last 12 hours is a handful, I’ll tell ya!”

The fact that Gibson’s Jerusalem stands juxtaposed against Scorsese’s old “Gangs” set on the Cinecitta lot is an interesting irony. Scorsese was the last director to have theatrically released a movie about Jesus with his controversial, “Last Temptation of Christ” (1988), based on Christ’s last days from Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel of the same name, not on the Gospels. Although the press continually try to compare the two, Gibson grows weary with the comparisons. “I’ve taken a totally different approach altogether. Why would I want to do anything that’s been done before? Besides, I never saw the movie, so I don’t know how different it is.”

Gibson has taken his text directly from the Bible and depicts Mary Magdalene as a faithful follower of Christ; there are no sexual undertones implied between Jesus and Mary Magdalene (as in Scorcese’s film) nor liberties taken with the story that could cause any concern for the religious community. In other words, the church can trust the fact that Gibson is presenting a biblical interpretation.

That said, it might be natural to assume that Gibson’s movie will simply be another “sterilized religious epic” like some of the ones Hollywood has churned out since the Cecil B. DeMille days, but Gibson wants to make clear that’s not the case with his movie. “I’m trying to access the story on a very personal level and trying to be very real about it. I’m doing it in a realistic manner so that it doesn’t suffer from the traps of a lot of biblical epics, which quite frankly, suffer from either being too corny, or laughable, or have bad hair or really bad music.” All that fans of Gibson’s early career have to do is recall what he did with Braveheart and expect the same realistic approach: visual images graphically depicting the bloody violence of the crucifixion and a uniquely creative interpretation of how Satan and his demons tormented Christ.

In a day and age when being “spiritual” is in and other movies about religious leaders like Ghandi or Buddha didn’t seem to phase Hollywood, why would making a movie about Jesus be considered risky or provocative? Gibson answers thoughtfully, “Because it’s very personal for everyone. I mean there isn’t one person who hasn’t been influenced in some way. Seriously, I mean everybody. Every nation and every creed has been influenced by Christ in some way or another and everyone has differing opinions about who he is, what he is and why, or whether they even believe him or not. And that’s the point of my film, really, to show all that turmoil around him politically and with religious leaders and the people, all because he is who he is.”

If movies have become our master storytellers and movie theaters the pulpits of America, it’s a little mind-boggling how potentially influential and important Gibson’s movie could possibly be. Whether Hollywood likes it or not, “The Passion” has all of the makings of a career milestone for Gibson and a religious phenomenon for the rest of the world.

Mel Gibson’s heart, passion and hope for his film is simply this: “My hope is that this movie has a tremendous message of faith, hope, love, forgiveness and a message of tremendous courage and sacrifice. My hope is that it will affect people on a very profound level and somehow change them, and that message is a pretty good message to be pushing right now. There’s so much turmoil in the world today, on the brink of everybody at each others throats. I think usually when the world is tried in this way, people usually start going back to something higher to fill a void in their souls, particularly if the earth is crying out in pain from all the suffering and fear that’s inflicted by war and hatred. For me, I don’t think there’s a better message you could put out there than what’s in this movie.”
Holly McClure, at hollymcclure.com, is the movie critic for Crosswalk.com and author of “Death by Entertainment: Exposing Hollywood’s Seductive Power over You and Your Family” (Lionshead Publishing). (BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at https://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: GIBSON’S STATEMENT OF FAITH and ON LOCATION.

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  • Holly McClure