Mel driven by ‘Passion’

Gibson has faith in pic on life of Jesus

ROME — Mel Gibson has committed to return to the director’s chair with “The Passion,” starring James Caviezel in a chronicle of the final 12 hours in the life of Jesus Christ.

Helming gig will be Gibson’s first since winning multiple Oscars with “Braveheart” in 1995.

Project has begun pre-production at Rome’s Cinecitta Studios and will shoot for 10 weeks in Italy starting Nov. 4.

Gibson, Bruce Davey and Steve McEveety will produce through the Marquis Films division of Gibson and Davey’s Icon Prods. No U.S. studio (not even Fox, where Icon is based) has so far taken distribution rights to the spiritual drama, to be shot in Latin and Aramaic.

“Obviously, nobody wants to touch something filmed in two dead languages,” Gibson explained at a news conference Friday in the Sala Fellini at Cinecitta. “They think I’m crazy, and maybe I am. But maybe I’m a genius.

“I want to show the film without subtitles,” he added. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to transcend language barriers with visual storytelling. If I fail, I’ll put subtitles on it, though I don’t want to.”

‘Sebastiane’ in Latin

Only modern film in memory to have been performed in Latin was the late British avant-garde helmer Derek Jarman’s “Sebastiane,” which was set in the fourth century.

While Gibson was reluctant to reveal a budget, he said the film will be fully financed by Icon, describing the undertaking in rudimentary Italian as “buono per l’anima, non buono per il portafoglio” (good for the soul, not good for the wallet). The project clearly represents a labor of love for Gibson.

“The idea came to me 10 years ago and has been rambling around in my empty head, very slowly taking shape ever since,” Gibson said. “I think this is a pretty timeless and timely story to tell, involving an area where there’s turbulence now just as there was turbulence then because history repeats itself.

“I want to show the humanity of Christ as well as the divine aspect,” he continued. “It’s a rendering that for me is very realistic and as close as possible to what I perceive the truth to be.”

Gibson not on screen

Unlike in his first two features as director, “The Man Without a Face” and “Braveheart,” Gibson will limit himself to off-camera duties on the biblical drama.

Remaining cast flanking Caviezel as Christ will be Italian actors. Casting director Shaila Rubin is negotiating with a number of key names. Among these, Gibson is in advanced talks with Monica Bellucci to play Mary Magdalene. Known for her roles in European pics like “Malena” and “Irreversible,” the Italian star appears positioned for English-language breakout alongside Bruce Willis in Antoine Fuqua’s “Tears of the Sun” and in the Wachowski brothers’ sequel “The Matrix Reloaded.”

Talks are also taking place with Sergio Rubini (“The Talented Mr. Ripley”) to play the good thief Dismas, while Rosalinda Celentano has signed to appear as Satan.

Consulted with Vatican

Reports in Italy’s Catholic press indicate that Gibson has consulted with high-level theologians and Vatican officials to ensure maximum authenticity in the retelling.

Ben Fitzgerald and Gibson scripted from several sources, freely adapting the diaries of Anne Catherine Emmerich, collected in the book “The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ,” Mary of Agreda’s “The City of God” and the New Testament Gospels of Luke, John, Matthew and Mark.

The screenplay was translated into Latin and Aramaic by Los Angeles-based Jesuit linguistics professor Bill Fulco, who also will serve as on-set dialogue coach.

Principal locations will be the towns of Matera and Craco in Italy’s southern Basilicata region, with extensive work on constructions on the Cinecitta backlot and four soundstages.

Director of photography on the drama is Caleb Deschanel, with Italian veterans Francesco Frigeri and Maurizio Millenotti respectively handling production design and costumes. Line producer will be Enzo Sisti.

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