WARNING: Due to the subject matter of this film, some photos included in this article are graphic in nature.
Mel Gibson has made a career out of playing passionate characters. William Wallace had a passion for freedom that revolutionized his country in "Braveheart." Benjamin Martin heroically defended his family and his country in "The Patriot." Lt. Colonel Hal Moore was fiercely dedicated to bringing every soldier home in "We Were Soldiers." And even Rocky Rhodes, had a passion to free his flightless flock in "Chicken Run." So its not surprising that Gibson's latest project is to bring his deepest passion to the screen.
As a bankable superstar who can be selective about the roles he takes or the movies he directs, Gibson could easily "play it safe" to maintain his popular appeal. But playing it safe isn't how Gibson rose to the top. This time the director has chosen a subject dear to his heart and one that he knows will undoubtedly be viewed as "controversial."
The director of "Man Without a Face" and the Oscar-winning "Braveheart" has chosen to direct a story about the final hours of Christ's suffering for mankind. His script, "The Passion," will primarily focus on the betrayal, trial and death of Jesus, culminating with his graphic crucifixion and resurrection from the tomb. In truth, the way Gibson has chosen to tell his story is unique and downright daring. The entire language of the film will be in Aramaic and Latin, the original New Testament languages. Gibson is ardent about this point, "It will lend even more authenticity and realism to it." For those of you who haven't quite mastered the Aramaic language and assume there will be subtitles, here's the part that requires your faith -- no subtitles. In what could arguably be called either 'career suicide' or 'creative genius', Gibson has once again defied all Hollywood logic.
The obvious question is why? Why would Mel Gibson of all people make a movie about Jesus in a dead language that no one can understand or read? Unabashed, Gibson is confident with his decision. "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." And why does he feel so strongly about not using subtitles? "It 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 … and I want to present it in a way that is completely real."
According to Entertainment Weekly, Gibson (47) is the third most powerful man in the entertainment business (behind Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg). With that position there tends to be a natural assumption that studios would be lining up to promote whatever project Gibson wants to do, right? Gibson reports they were less than thrilled. "My partners and I went searching for a studio to attach to the project, but no one would touch it." He smiles when he states, "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.
Together with his Icon partners/producers Bruce Davey and Steve McEveety, the team began the enormous task of bringing Gibson's 10-year "labor of love" to reality. Gibson wrote his script 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. It was a book he never knew he had until he reached for another book, and it literally fell into his hands. After years of writing, reworking the script and waiting for the right timing, Gibson was ready to make his ode to Christ.
"The Passion" stars Jim Caviezel ("The Count of Monte Cristo", "Frequency") as Jesus, Romanian actress Maia Morgenstern ("Procust's Bed") as his mother Mary, and Italian beauty Monica Bellucci ("Matrix Reloaded", "Tears of the Sun") as Mary Magdalene. For obvious reasons Gibson had to look outside the Holy Land for a location and found what he was looking for in Italy. "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 in southern Italy called Matera, in which Pier Paolo Pasolini used the outskirts of the city to film his movie, "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" (1964). "Certain sections of the city are 2,000 years old: the architecture, the blocks of stone and the surrounding areas and rocky terrain added a vista and backdrop that we actually borrowed to create the backdrops for our lavish sets of Jerusalem. We relied heavily on the look that was there. In fact, the first time I saw it, I just went crazy because it was so perfect."
On the outskirts of Rome, past the ancient ruins of the Roman Baths of Caracalla and the Catacombs, are the legendary Cinecitta studios. On the back lot, directly across from the decaying wooden sidewalks and faded storefront facades of Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York," sits the city of Jerusalem -- or at least a 2 ½ acre scaled-down replication of it. Gibson has created a massive set, complete with a temple, courtyard, a Praetorium, Pilate's Palace and various smaller sets. It is a breathtaking spectacle of biblical proportions: giant columns, flights of stone steps, massive wooden doors, weathered Roman emblems, vendor's canopies and pottery, replicating the architecture of an ancient world.
Inside the temple walls smoke fills the air, as a hue of gold washes the room where a cast and crew of hundreds wait for direction, as if posing for a painting. 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. Every beard, hairpiece and braid looks real because a team of expert makeup and hair artists have custom fit each person. The massive sets are intricately designed by Production Designer Francesco Frigeri and Decorator Carlo Gervasi. And the special effects (SPFX) makeup and hair department were flown in from Los Angeles because of their unique ability to create what Gibson needed for the flagellation and crucifixion scenes. Many others contribute their talents to create Gibson's biblical world. Gibson has spared no expense in bringing this visual masterpiece to the big screen and it shows.
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