The Passion of Mel Gibson

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NICK CORNISH FOR TIME

Director Mel Gibson on the set of "Passion" with actor Jim Caviezel as Jesus

You may expect a certain tense solemnity when an Academy Award — winning director is shooting a film on the life and death of Jesus Christ. On the sound stage of The Passion in Rome's Cinecitta studio, the famed auteur prepares a scene for Maia Morgenstern, the Romanian actress playing the Virgin Mary. She is to enter the abandoned temple where her son has just been removed in chains on his way to Calvary. The director needs an enshrouding silence, so he shouts down some workmen's chatter. Then he coaxes the actress into a long, slow walk that hits the perfect notes of apprehension and anguish.

But since this director is Mel Gibson (who got his Oscar for Braveheart), the tone isn't always pious. Gibson loves to goof. Playing practical jokes is a way of keeping the crew loose, asserting the primal jester inside the armor of a star's machismo. So to wrap up the temple take, he has a quiet word with Morgenstern and steps back to leave the actress alone — staring dolefully into the camera with a bright-red clown nose he has stuck on her face. Cut. Print. Amen.


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Don't look for levity in The Passion, an account of the day Jesus was crucified starring James Caviezel (The Count of Monte Cristo) as Christ and Italian sex diva Monica Bellucci (soon to be seen in Matrix 2 and 3) as Mary Magdalene. Gibson is life-after-deathly serious about the project, which his production company is financing on an estimated budget of $25 million. (He doesn't yet have a distributor.) "This has been germinating inside me for 10 years," he says. "I have a deep need to tell this story. It's part of your upbringing, but it can seem so distant. The Gospels tell you what basically happened; I want to know what really went down."

In the Mad Max and Lethal Weapon series, in Ransom and in Signs, Gibson was the loner battling impossible odds. He seems to feel that way about The Passion, which should be ready for Easter 2004. A conservative in reflexively liberal Hollywood, and a devout Catholic in an industry whose products often mock religion, Gibson senses opposition to his film. The star, who had kept the set closed to the press before allowing TIME to visit this month, was angry that friends and relatives, including his 85-year-old father, had been pestered by an unidentified reporter preparing a story on The Passion. He suspects this is part of a media attack on a Christian testament.

"When you do touch this subject, it does have a lot of enemies," he told Fox News channel host Bill O'Reilly last week. Asked whether The Passion will upset Jews, Gibson replied, "It may. It's not meant to. I think it's meant to just tell the truth." Gibson's company recently signed a lucrative deal with Fox TV's film-studio sibling and has optioned O'Reilly's novel Those Who Trespass. So his TV anger may simply be the latest form of media synergy. Besides, Hollywood likes Gibson; moguls wish him well. "If anyone can pull it off, it's Mel Gibson," says Richard Cook, chairman of the Walt Disney Studios, for which Gibson made the megahit Signs. "The project is fraught with all sorts of issues, but I would never bet against him."

The Passion will be told — boldly, perhaps perversely — in two dead tongues: Latin, used by the Roman occupiers of Palestine, and Aramaic, the language of most Semites at the time of Christ. If it's hard for the actors to speak their lines, it will be a challenge for the audience too: Gibson wants to show the film without subtitles. "The audience will have to focus on the visuals," he says. "But they had silent films before talkies arrived, and people went to see them."

Jesus has been the subject of a hundred or so films, from Edison's The Passion Play at Oberammergau in 1898 to a quartet of Stan Brakhage experimental shorts in 2001. The story has been filmed by Cecil B. DeMille, Nicholas Ray, George Stevens. The Messiah has been portrayed with stolid reverence (in Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth) and Surrealist blasphemy (Luis Bunuel's L'Age d'Or). Often he sings: in Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar, in a born-again Bollywood musical and in the Canadian kung-fu horror comedy Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter.

Gibson has few kind words for previous Passion films. Mention Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew (which, like Gibson's location shots, was filmed in the Italian town of Matera), and he fakes a big yawn. On Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ: "You've got Harvey Keitel as Judas saying"--and here Gibson shifts into a Brooklyn accent--"'Hey, you ovah dere.'"

Gibson's film will be Scorsesean in one aspect: its meticulous attention to violence. "It's gonna be hard to take," he says. "When the Romans scourged you, it wasn't a nice thing. Think about the Crucifixion — there's no way to sugarcoat that." Not if you're playing Jesus. Caviezel, a practicing Catholic who met and was blessed by Pope John Paul II, logged 15 shooting days on the Calvary cross — which may have been easier than wearing shackles and getting beaten and whipped. During one trouncing, he separated his left shoulder. "There's an immense amount of suffering on this," the actor says. "Fortunately, God is helping me."

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