ROME — Hollywood may have sneered when Mel Gibson, in September 2002, preceded by a somersaulting dwarf, walked into a packed press conference room at Rome’s Cinecitta Studios, lit a cigarette and announced he was making a wacky movie then called simply “The Passion.”
But to Italian industryites, the pic was something special from the start. Talk to any of the Italo thesps comprising roughly two-thirds of its key cast, or to the large contingent of local production people involved — from the top dogs to the lowest techies — and they’ll all tell you they knew something sizable was in the works.
These days, not surprisingly, they’re ecstatic.
“We’re all levitating,” says “The Passion of the Christ” exec producer Enzo Sisti.
The day before its U.S. opening, Sisti, along with several other Italians who worked on the pic, attended a private screening in L.A. with Gibson and producer Steve McEveety, who told him: “Enzo, you should be proud for yourself, and also for Italy.”
Rome-based American casting agent Shaila Rubin, one of the first people to read the script, says she understood right away that “Passion” would be an “important” project.
But before getting to work, there was a delicate issue to dispense with. “The first thing Mel said to me was, ‘Do you have any problems with it?’ I replied, ‘I’m Jewish and, no, I don’t,’ ” she recounts.
Rubin — who cast the entire pic except for Jim Caviezel (who had already been recruited by Gibson) –submitted hundreds of candidates over several months prior to the November 2002 start of the 16½-week shoot.
Character actor Mattia Sbragia, who plays Caiphas, the Jewish high priest, was among those who made the cut.
“You don’t get an opportunity like this every day, even in Hollywood,” boasts the veteran Italo thesp. “This is one movie that we are all going to be putting on our CV.”
Since Caiphas plays a key part in Christ’s death, Sbragia’s role has probably been the most crucial in sparking charges of anti-Semitism against the pic. Ironically, Sbragia is part Jewish.
“Caiphas found himself confronted with this nutcase Jesus who claimed: ‘I am God, I am the Prophet’,” says Sbragia — who rejects the anti-Semitism charges — about his controversial character.
“I think the way in which he reacts to that is quite understandable,” he explains. “In this film, many characters are driven by passion. Caiphas was passionately sure that he was doing the right thing, and that’s how I played him.”
Actress Rosalinda Celentano says impersonating the tall, androgynous Satan, with shaved eyebrows, was the role of a lifetime.
“Mel gave me such a huge opportunity that, having made this movie, I think I can now go and make pizzas for the rest of my life,” she jokes. “I don’t think anything else could come close.”
Celentano — who is the daughter of Italo pop star Adriano Celentano — was among the first thesps to be cast, along with Davide Marotta, the Neapolitan lilliputian who was Mel’s sidekick at the press event.
Celentano holds Marotta in her arms in what may be her creepiest satanic scene.
Shooting on “Passion” kicked off Nov. 4 at 3:30 a.m. on the outskirts of the ancient southern town of Matera with the scene in which the tormented Judas goes mad.
For Lionello, who plays Judas, and for many others on the set, the shoot was a very intense experience.
“It was like being on a comet. I’ve been trying to come down ever since,” he says.
According to Lionello, the mood was so charged that even the vats of fake blood used in the pic were “like a blanket that was keeping all of us warm.”
It was a kind of heat that Claudia Gerini, who plays Pontius Pilates’ wife — and who was pregnant during shooting — wasn’t so keen about. When the blood became too much she put a black scarf over her eyes.
“This picture will certainly give me huge international visibility and also help me become known in a more serious role than the mostly comic or light ones I’ve played so far,” says Gerini, a rare English-speaking Italian thesp (though, for this part, the Latin she learned in high school came in handy).
Gibson decided to shoot in Italy after being impressed by Matera, whose prehistoric whitewashed caves provide realistic backdrops for the Jerusalem set built at Cinecitta by production designer Francesco Frigeri and set decorator Carlo Gervasi.
Now Matera’s mayor, Michele Porcari, is ardently hoping for an Oscar for the pic, he tells Variety.
Meanwhile, “La Passione di Cristo” is poised for a massive 500-screen subtitled rollout on April 7, Holy Wednesday, via Eagle Pictures, the first distribbery in the world to pick it up.