My friend, Raymond Arroyo, is fresh back from a visit to the set of The Passion in Italy. Has there ever been a film that has ever generated so much buzz in Christian circles? I wonder if Mel minds that the buzz isn’t in Aramaic and Latin…
Ray has written a piece about the set of The Passion for The Wall Street Journal. I’ll put some excerpts here…just in case you miss the piece in some of the eleventy billion Christian web sites and email lists that are circulating it even now.
Mr. Gibson’s current project was conceived during a reappraisal of his life 13 years ago. “I read the New and Old Testaments and tried to just focus on that to maintain myself,” he says. Reflecting on Catholic theological works and the sacrifice of Christ, he found various images surfacing. “I began to imagine what that must have been like,” Mr. Gibson says. “I mean really like. No mere man could have survived this torture.”
Based on the Gospel accounts, the dramatic visions of Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich (a 17th-century stigmatic) and The Mystical City of God by Venerable Mary of Agreda (a 17th-century nun), The Passion focuses almost exclusively on the sacrifice of Christ. “We are talking about the single event that influenced civilization as we know it: the law, the arts, our knowledge of good and evil,” Mr. Gibson says. “It has touched every possible aspect of everyone’s life whether they realize it or not.”
To underscore Christ’s physical sacrifice, Mr. Gibson and special-effects artists have created some of the most graphic scenes ever committed to celluloid. To become the brutalized Jesus, actor Jim Caviezel (The Count of Monte Cristo) often spent up to eight hours a day in the makeup truck. Buried under a wig and prosthesis, he may be the most Semitic-looking Jesus ever on screen. He endured 15 days on a cross in freezing weather, a separated shoulder, the flu and literal scourging for the role. “One day they missed the board on my back and hit me full on. It hurt so badly I couldn’t find my voice to scream,” Mr. Caviezel says. “I see people pulling Jesus off the cross these days. They just don’t want to see how he suffered, but this is what happened.”
Dissatisfied with “cheesy” portrayals that miss the political situation and “prettify” the torture and death of Christ, Mr. Gibson is struggling to recapture the historical reality, right down to the clothing and eating customs of the Jews under the old law — to “make it truly about a man born to the House of David.”
At moments Mr. Caviezel looks like a bloodied skeleton. Wearied and stumbling, with one eye swollen shut, he keeps a knowing dignity and strength. The violence, though intense, is never gratuitous, at least in the rough cut I saw. It rescues Christ from myth and grounds him in a reality that makes his actions more heroic.
Mercifully, Mr. Gibson has chosen to interrupt the brutality with artistic breathers: flashbacks to the Last Supper and to Christ’s early life. At one point we see Christ fall under the weight of the cross through the eyes of his mother. For a moment we flash back to the child Jesus falling near his home as a concerned Mary rushes to console him. Now, on the harsh streets of Jerusalem, she can do nothing but watch her boy suffer.
“There have been a lot of obstacles thrown in the way of this picture; it’s full of discomfort,” Mr. Gibson confides. “And I understand it’s the other realm warring. So I have taken steps to put on armor.” A priest says Mass on the set each day. I also notice that Mr. Gibson wears a crucifix and brown scapular around his neck; Mr. Caviezel carries relics of the saints in his costume during shooting. “And I try to stay squeaky clean,” Mr. Gibson adds.
“For Mel and Jim, their belief is their whole lives, and they are committed to telling this story,” Steve McEveety, Mr. Gibson’s producer and partner, observes.
Back in Studio 5, Mr. Gibson is like a giddy child. The actors have finally gotten the arrest scene right. “It’s happening, it’s happening. Ha. This is so cool,” he sputters. Then: “OK. Take your places, one more time.”
Mr. Arroyo is news director of EWTN, the world’s largest religious TV network.