Tim Drake

Wednesday, June 04, 2003
Mel Gibson’s Passion
by Tim Drake

Mel Gibson has either directed or played a continuing series of heroic men: William Wallace in Braveheart, Benjamin Martin in The Patriot, Lt. Col. Hal Moore in We Were Soldiers, and Reverend Graham Hess in Signs. So, it should come as no surprise that he is directing a production on the greatest hero of human history, Jesus Christ. Gibson’s most recent project is the self-financed $25-million epic The Passion. Currently being filmed on the sound stage in Rome’s Cinecitta stuido, the film will explore the final 12 hours of Christ’s life.

“There is no greater hero story than this one,” said Gibson, “about the greatest love one can have, which is to lay down one’s life for someone. God becoming man and men killing God – if that’s not action, nothing is.”

Jesus has been the subject of more than 100 films, but never one quite like this. The Passion promises to be neither Jesus of Nazareth nor King of Kings.

For starters, the film will be told in three foreign languages — Hebrew, Latin, and Aramaic — without subtitles. Jesuit language expert Father William Fulco translated the script into Aramaic. Many critics have questioned the intelligence of filming a movie in two dead languages.

For Gibson, however, he feels that the languages will lend an air of authenticity to the film. The visuals, he insists, will tell the story.

“Caravaggio’s paintings don’t have subtitles,” said Gibson in a Zenit interview. “The Nutcracker Ballet doesn’t have subtitles, but people get the message. I think that the image will overcome the language barrier.”

The film also promises to be both bloody and violent. Early photographs have depicted a beaten and bloodied Christ carrying His Cross on the road to Calvary.

“No mere man could have survived this torture,” said Gibson.

EWTN news director Raymond Arroyo saw an early rough-cut of a portion of the film. The violence he described as “intense, but never gratuitous.” He found it “as disturbing as it is comforting.”

The project first took root in Gibson when he began taking his own faith more seriously more than a decade ago. The script is based upon the diary of St. Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824) as collected in the book “The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” It’s a book Gibson found in his library, but didn’t know he had until it literally fell into his hands when he was reaching for another book. The script also draws from “The Mystical City of God” by venerable Mary of Agreda, and the Gospels.

“We’ve done the research. I’m telling the story as the Bible tells it,” said Gibson.

For Gibson, the film is clearly a work of faith. Gibson has a makeshift chapel installed on the set and attends daily Mass, in Latin. A priest on the set has been available for both Mass and confessions.

As interesting as the film itself is Gibson’s choice of actor to portray Christ. Last June, Gibson hand-picked the then 33-year-old Jim Caviezel (The Count of Monte Cristo, The Thin Red Line) to play the role. Caviezel himself is a devout Catholic with a devotion to Mary and the Rosary.

Of the role, Caviezel said, “Truthfully, it was never up to me. 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.”

On the set Caviezel is a daily communicant and has taken to wearing relics in his costume during the shooting.

“I can’t be successful in this business if I do not pray,” Caviezel told Al Kresta in an interview.

When Gibson first saw him onscreen he said, “He looks like the Shroud of Turin.”

The sight of Caviezel walking the streets has moved the townsfolk of Matera, where much of the film has been shot. Caviezel said that he gets one of two reactions. The people either shriek with laughter or they fall on their knees at his feet, lay their hands on him, and chant “Jesu! Jesu!”

The film is a monumental risk. It’s a Catholic film, by a Catholic director, starring a Catholic actor, about a Catholic subject.

It isn’t surprising then that Gibson claims that he has come under fire. Gibson told Fox news’ Bill O’Reilly that reporters had been digging for dirt on Gibson and his family. The New York Times Sunday Magazine recently ran an article attempting to tarnish Gibson by associating him with some of his father Hutton’s more outlandish ideas. To date, Gibson has not been able to secure a distributor for the film.

It’s expected that the film will open in theaters in April 2004, just in time for Lent.

Ultimately, the film seeks to do what Christ did — namely, change lives. In fact, the film has already had an impact. After the filming of the scourging scene many of the film crew had tears in their eyes. Reportedly, one of the Italian actors in the film has come back to the sacraments after a long hiatus, and another member of the film crew, an atheist, is exploring the Catholic faith.

“By the time audiences get to the crucifixion scene, I believe there will be many who can’t take it and will have to walk out — I guarantee it,” said Caviezel. “And I believe there will be many who will stay and be drawn to the truth.”

© 2003, This article originally appeared in Southern Renaissance. Tim Drake serves as executive editor of Catholic.net and features correspondent with the National Catholic Register. He writes from Saint Cloud, Minnesota.

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