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For those of us who haven't mastered Aramaic but enjoy films with subtitles, we're out of luck.

1/31/2003 7:06:00 PM by HOLLY McCLURE - www.nytimes.com

Mel Gibson has played a series of fervent men. William Wallace in "Braveheart" had a passion for freedom that revolutionized Scotland. Benjamin Martin in "The Patriot" heroically defended his family and the rights of Americans to live freely. Lt. Col. Hal Moore in "We Were Soldiers" was fiercely dedicated to bringing every soldier home from Vietnam. Heck, even Rocky Rhodes, his Claymation rooster in "Chicken Run," was desperate to free his flightless flock.

But Gibson's latest project promises to be the most urgent and heartfelt — and the riskiest— of them all.

The director of 1993's "The Man Without a Face" and 1995's Oscar-winning "Braveheart" has chosen to direct a story about the final 12 hours of Jesus' suffering for mankind. "The Passion," now in production, will primarily focus on the betrayal, trial and death of Christ, culminating with his graphic crucifixion and resurrection in the tomb. The movie will be spoken entirely in Aramaic and Latin, the languages spoken in Jerusalem in Jesus' time.

For those of us who haven't mastered Aramaic but enjoy films with subtitles, we're out of luck. There won't be any subtitles. Whether this is a stroke of genius or an attempt to commit career suicide, it's an eye-opening example of a major Hollywood star defying Hollywood logic.

Why would Mel Gibson make a movie about Jesus in languages few can understand or read? "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."

The further significance of Aramaic being spoken in "The Passion" is that it will revisit the sacrifice Jesus made in Jesus' own language. Instead of the world getting another Hollywood production of Americanized Christianity, Gibson's movie will provide an authentic form of Christ's message.

According to Entertainment Weekly, Gibson, 47, is the third most powerful man in the business (behind Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg). That leads to the natural assumption that the studios would line up to distribute whatever project he wants to do. But "The Passion" has met with little enthusiasm in Hollywood.

"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." The film will likely open at Easter 2004 — assuming Gibson and his producers at Icon Productions, Bruce Davey and Steve McEveety, can find a distributor.

Ten years in gestation, the project is a "labor of love" for Gibson. The script he wrote with Benedict Fitzgerald ("Wise Blood") is taken directly from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John or, as Gibson likes to refer to them, "four obscure writers." It also draws on an old book Gibson found in his library, "The Dolorous Passion," by Anne Catherine Emmerich. He says he didn't know he had it until it literally fell into his hands when he was reaching for another book. After years of writing, reworking the script and waiting for the right moment, Gibson was ready to make his ode to Christ.

"The Passion" stars Jim Caviezel as Jesus, Romanian actress Maia Morgenstern as his mother, Mary, and Italian star Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene. For obvious reasons, Gibson had to look outside the Holy Land for a location, and he found what he was looking for in Italy.

"I chose Italy, because it's a great country to work in," he says. "It's also a big melting pot and has a huge and diverse talent pool." The crucifixion scenes were filmed in the beautiful, southern city of Matera, where Pier Paolo Pasolini shot his 1964 movie "The Gospel According to St. Matthew."

"Certain sections of the city are 2,000 years old," says Gibson, "and the architecture, the blocks of stone and the surrounding areas and rocky terrain added a vista and backdrop that we [used] 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."

BIBLICAL PROPORTIONS

On the outskirts of Rome, past the ancient ruins of the baths of Caracalla and the Catacombs, is the legendary Cinecitta studio. On the back lot, directly across from the decaying wooden sidewalks and faded storefronts used in Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York," is Jerusalem — or at least a 2 1/2-acre scale replica of it. Production designer Francesco Frigeri and decorator Carlo Gervasi have created a massive set, complete with a temple, courtyard, a praetorium and Pontius Pilate's palace. It is a spectacle of truly biblical proportions: giant columns, flights of stone steps, massive wooden doors, weathered Roman emblems, vendors' canopies and pottery.

Inside the gold-washed temple walls, smoke fills the air as the cast and crew of hundreds wait for direction, as if posing for a painting. The handcrafted costumes in beige, brown and black are designed by the award-winning Maurizio Millenotti. The special effects, makeup and hair department — which has custom-fitted every beard, hairpiece and braid to the actors — were flown in from Los Angeles, because of their unique ability to create what Gibson needed for the scenes in which Jesus is whipped and crucified.

Gibson says it is crucial that the story look realistic, not, as he puts it, "like a cheesy Hollywood epic." He chose cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, who worked with him on "The Patriot." Deschanel took as his inspiration the dramatically lit works of the Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio.

"The only reason anyone knows anything about this guy is from prison records, because he was a wild man, a rabble-rouser," Gibson says of Caravaggio. "But I think his work is beautiful. 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."

Though 40% of his film is being shot at night or indoors in low light, Gibson was surprised when he saw the first dailies. "I said, 'Oh my God, it's a moving Caravaggio!' And Caleb went, 'Well, that's what you asked for, isn't it?' He's so casual about this stuff."

As driven as Gibson is about this movie, he maintains an affable demeanor on the set, treating cast and crew with respect. He isn't above donning a red clown nose or burping through his bullhorn to lighten the atmosphere. It would be easy to misdiagnose his exuberance as hyperactivity. But in truth, he simply loves what he's doing.

The cast and crew is comprised of an international group from Romania, Algeria, Tunisia, Bulgaria and Israel, as well as Italy, the U.S. and other countries.

"We have Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, even agnostics," says Gibson, "and all are working together on this thing in perfect harmony. And they're all getting something out of it — people have been touched. They ought to let us run the United Nations.

WORKING MIRACLES?

"There is an interesting power in the script," he adds. "A lot of unusual things have been happening — good things, like people being healed of diseases. A guy who was struck by lightning while we were filming the crucifixion scene just got up and walked away."

Francesco De Vito, who plays the disciple Peter, says "I talk with Judas [Luca Lionello] and with John [Hristo Jivkov] about this movie and about faith on the set, and there is something going on with many of us. We've become very focused — it has changed us."

"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," says Vera Mitchell, Caviezel's personal stylist on the film.

To portray the most famous man who ever lived requires a confident, controlled actor who can radiate mercy, love and forgiveness without opening his mouth. Film historian and "Hot Ticket" critic Leonard Maltin thinks Caviezel was tailor-made for the role of Jesus.

"There's always a question of whether it's an asset or distraction to have well-known stars in key roles," says Maltin. "Jim is a great choice. He's a very earnest and sincere actor and he's not a 'personality' with a lot of baggage from other parts that he's played."

On an average day, Caviezel goes through an arduous makeup session that lasts anywhere from four to seven hours and transforms his clean-shaven face and partly shaved head into a believable likeness of Jesus.

"He looks like the Shroud of Turin," Gibson said when he first saw him onscreen.

Caviezel recalls that when Gibson offered him the part, he said to him, "Do you realize I'm 33 years old, the same age Jesus was when he went through all of this?" He believes his performance is divinely inspired.

"Truthfully, it was never up to me," he says. "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."

He has found Aramaic an intimidating language to learn and speak on camera.

"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," he says.

The devoutly Catholic Caviezel takes his role seriously, often praying and softly quoting Scripture while in character. But he has a lighter side (he does a dead-on imitation of Bing Crosby) as well as a stoic one.

"I endured freezing winds that almost blew my cross off the cliff while I was on it," he says. "I felt it sway back and forth and I knew it was going to blow over."

This went on for a couple of weeks. "To make matters worse," he continues, "we were there without a heater and, of course, I don't have many clothes on the cross, so my body was going numb. I was spit on and beaten and 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 put on for the flagellation and crucifixion scenes. But I consider all of it worth it to play this role."

"I know Jim suffered," Gibson says. "He separated his left shoulder and was in a lot of pain and discomfort, but he was very patient during the whole thing."

Not only did Caviezel spend 15 days on the cross, he endured days in ropes and chains, being scourged and whipped.

"Mel likes to put violence in his movies," the actor says, "but all he cares about is making it look true to the text. Never before has a film of our Lord been shown like this one. 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. And I believe there will be many who will stay and be drawn to the truth."

Keith Vanderlaan, the film's special-effects makeup producer, did extensive research on crucifixions, then improvised to show nails being hammered into Jesus' hands, ribs protruding from his chest and blood spurting from his side. Audience members — at least, those who stay — will feel as if they are watching an actual crucifixion.

PERSONAL VISION

Gibson is weary of the comparisons that have already been made in the press between his film and Scorsese's controversial "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988), which was based on Nikos Kazantzakis' novel.

"I've taken a totally different approach altogether," he says. "Why would I want to do anything that's been done before? Besides, I never saw [Scorsese's] movie, so I don't know how different it is." He says he was offered a role in "Last Temptation" but won't elaborate.

"I'm trying to access the story on a very personal level and trying to be very real about it," he adds. "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."

Maltin, however, contends that biblical epics have not lost their appeal. "People respond to the best of them because they were done with great conviction and sincerity," he says. "Who would have thought that a gladiator movie would have been relevant to the modern-day audience? Every year they trot out 'The Ten Commandments' [1956] on Easter Sunday, and it's almost 50 years old. It was corny then, in the best Cecil B. DeMille tradition, as it is now, but it is wonderful storytelling and an entertaining movie.

"There's always room for another movie about Jesus from a specific point of view," Maltin continues. "There are so many stories other than the last days of Christ that could be told. One thing is very clear: Gibson knows what his purpose is in doing a film of this magnitude.

His mission is, indeed, a passionate one, and as a dedicated director, it will be deeply felt. and that's the answer for anyone who asks the question 'Why?' about its box office [potential] or Mel using Aramaic. I look forward to seeing it."

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. He was raised in the Catholic faith and considers himself a traditionalist who loves the Latin Mass. He has a priest on the set who offers a Latin Mass and hears confessions from whomever wishes to take part.

"When I was growing up, the whole story of the Passion was very sanitized," he says. "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, 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. 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."

Coming back to the story of Jesus nearly 20 years later was difficult, he says. "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 — 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."

He accepts that making a movie about Jesus is risky "because it's very personal for everyone. Every nation and 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 in him or not. And that's the point of my film, really: to show all that turmoil around him politically because he is who he is."

Messiah in the movies

"The Oberammergau Passion Play" The Bavarian town has staged a Passion play every 10 years since the 17th century, when it was performed to ward off plague. It was the basis of very early motion pictures by pioneers Thomas Edison, Adolph Zukor, Edwin S. Porter and siegmund Lubin.

"The King of Kings" (1927) Cecil B. DeMille always understood how to mix biblical spectacle with cheesecake, and this early epic version of the story of Jesus is a brilliant example of something for everybody.

"The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988) Martin Scorsese's attempt at a humanizing portrait of Jesus (Willem Dafoe) is alternately reverent and blasphemous; it is also beautiful in places.

"Monty Python's Life of Brian" (1979) The comedy troupe meets Jesus, sort of, in something completely different. This hysterical British satire on organized religion is both loathed and loved. For further English silliness, try "The Ruling Class" (1972), starring Peter O'Toole as an aristocrat who thinks he's Jesus.

"King of Kings" (1961) Jeffrey Hunter's portrayal of Jesus in Nicholas ("Rebel Without a Cause") Ray's epic virtually brought his career to a halt. A fascinating artifact, the movie was shot in 70mm Super Technirama and has a fantastic score by Miklos Rozsa.

"Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar" (both 1973) At a time when "Moulin Rouge" and "Chicago" have reshaped the musical, it's fun to remember that the art form's cutting edge once came in the form of two hippie extravaganzas about Jesus.

"The Gospel According to St. Matthew" (1964) According to most experts, this is the greatest cinematic rendering of the New Testament — and it was told by Italy's blasphemous visionary Pier Paolo Pasolini. As with Gibson's "The Passion," parts of it were shot in Matera.

"The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965) Director George Stevens' extravaganza is like a huge, swooping circus epic or a biblical version of "How the West Was Won." What it lacks in vision, it makes up for in spectacle. It even has John Wayne's centurion announcing, "Truly, this was the Son of God."

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