How far is heaven?

On the set of 'The Passion,' two filmmakers pose questions of their own

Movie actors have always needed ways to pass the time on the set between takes, but Italian thesps Francesco Cabras and Alberto Molinari took the rare step of using the breaks to film a documentary. No “making of,” their gorgeously shot, meditatively paced 65-minute opus, “The Big Question,” took advantage of the ancient setting offered by its host production, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” to pose searching spiritual questions of the cast and crew. Participants, clothed variously in Biblical or modern garb, are not identified, though some are certainly recognizable, including Gibson and actress Monica Belucci. Intercut with lyrical scenes of a white dog wandering an arid landscape, the interview footage gains a timeless power.

In “The Passion,” Cabras plays the role of Gesmas, the Bad Thief, who is crucified and shouts against Jesus. Molinari doesn’t appear in “The Passion,” but has acted in movies for 20 years. Together, they previously directed musicvideos and art docs via their Italian company, Ganga Prods. On the set of “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin,” in which Cabras appeared, they shot a docu called “Italian Soldiers/Spaghetti Requiem,” about young Italian actors facing the Hollywood dream. “I have a serious problem of workaholism,” says Cabras. “I can’t stand the infinite pauses between shots.”

Variety: When did you decide to make the movie? Was it inspired by being on this set, enacting the story of Christ?
Cabras: Years ago when we were working a lot abroad, the idea to ask around in different countries one question about God, like, ‘Who is God for you?,’ came about. Being chosen as an actor in ‘The Passion’ I realized it was the perfect microcosm, the perfect place to develop that concept — an extemporary container made by different sorts of people working on a film about a spiritual theme.

Variety: You pose an increasingly focused set of spiritual inquiries. Were these something people commonly talked about during the filming?
Cabras: Working on the set was very inspiring. Mel himself was a strongly intense person to look at. It was crystal clear that he was doing that film because he was feeling it from deep inside. But beyond that, I have always asked myself the questions that are in our film; they are the questions I started to wonder about when I was 11 years old. I’ve studied for 13 years in Catholic schools, but never had adult answers to my questions!

Variety: When you interviewed Gibson, did he know the extent of the project you were making on his set?
Molinari: He knew the reason, but was not necessarily aware of how the final product would be. During the shooting of ‘The Passion’ in Matera we screened some of our works, including “Italian Soldiers/ Spaghetti Requiem.” Gibson was extremely gracious and complimented us. This might have convinced him to allow us to shoot on his set. A year later with our completed work we flew to L.A. and, after a quick lunch with Gibson, we saw “The Big Question.” He liked the work, and noted the quality of the photography. He also gave us suggestions for further editing. Six months later we received the request from AFI to hold the world premiere at the Festival. We have shared this with Mel.

Variety: Are there rights and clearance issues because you use costumes and settings provided by “The Passion?”
Molinari: There are no rights issues, as Icon did not only give permission to shoot the film but also to sell it independently.

Variety: What kind of rights do you hope to sell at the AFI festival or the AFM market?
Molinari: We are looking for strong international distribution. Before making any final decision, we want to wait for the AFI world premiere and see what reactions we get. We are also very excited because, as co-producers (Ganga), we have at AFI another short feature film, ‘A pena do pana,’ directed by Lucia Grillo, who is an extremely talented American-Italian actress and director.

Variety: Who shot the movie, and what did you shoot with?
Molinari: Both of us are directors of photography and camera operators, too. The camera is the Canon XL1. We only shoot with it. It’s the best to obtain a warm light.

Variety: The music is remarkable. Had you composed before? What instruments did you use?
Cabras: We were looking for something intense, essential. My dream was something like “Nina Simone meets Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan with Jeff Buckley and a choir of traditional Sardinian singers”! But together with the composer, maestro Alessandro Molinari, we produced a score we are very proud of. Kamal Sabri, probably the best sarangi (Indian violin) player in the world, plays some heartbreaking tunes. Max Urso from Honduran group Khaoticos created a torrid, open-ended theme. Other musicians come from Matera and Sardinia, and Enkh Jargal comes from Mongolia.

Euro New Faces/AFI Festival
International Night

What: A reception to promote New Faces in European Cinema, introducing up-and-coming Euro film talent (directors and actors) to the U.S. audience and film industry.
When: Sunday, Nov. 7, 6-8 p.m.
Where: AFI Festival Village at the ArcLight
Who’s behind it: European Film Program (EFP) and its member organizations; MEDIA program of the European Union; various consulates.
Who’s attending: Some 300 invited guests, including the spotlight talent (see list), plus consul reps from Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland; the Embassy of Estonia, Danish Film Institute, ICAA (Spain) and Think Film.
Spotlight Talent: (invited, with all films screening at AFI Fest)
Nimrod Antal, director “Kontroll” Hungary
Lieven Debrauwer, director “Sweet Jam” (Confituur) Belgium
Teresa Hurtado, actress, “Astronauts” Spain
Martin Koolhoven, director “South” (Het Zuiden) The Netherlands
Anna Luif, director “Little Girl Blue” Switzerland
Rene Reinumagi, director “Revolution of Pigs” (Sigade Revolutsioon) Estonia
Bjorn Runge, director “Daybreak” (Om Jag Vander Mig Om) Sweden
Paprika Steen, director “Aftermath” (Lad de Sma Born) Denmark
Kari-Pekka Toivonen, actor “Producing Adults” Finland
Mennan Yapo, director “Soundless” Germany