In the intriguing and surprisingly witty docu, “The Big Question,” the king of all queries is “What is God?” The answers gathered by filmmakers/actors Francesco Cabras and Alberto Molinari range from deep devotion to solid skepticism. Cleverly, the documakers — cast in small roles in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” — interviewed that film’s cast, crew (including Gibson) and advisers as well as locals in ancient Matera in southern Italy. An in-the-works longer version, set at around 80 minutes, will fit commercial feature proportions for strong worldwide interest, though current shorter version feels like just the right length.
Taking a cue from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s amusing docu, “Comizi d’amore,” in which the director asked Italians their thoughts on love and sex, Cabras and Molinari approach their weighty subject with a light touch, structuring their work along a series of questions bridged by brief, slightly mystical and purely visual transitions.
The thrust of the questions is often personal — “Who is God to you?” or “If you were born on the other side of the world, would you have the same religion?” Yet, some of the questions are deliberately provocative — “Why are depictions of God solely male?” or “What happens after life?”
With only Gibson and “Passion” stars Jim Caviezel (shown briefly, drenched in bloody makeup) and Monica Bellucci recognizable and no respondents identified on screen, there is less a concern for who is answering than the thoughts themselves. This subjectivity is perhaps best seen when various men of the cloth speak for the camera: While most respondents dressed in priestly garb predictably enunciate absolute certainty in their beliefs, a Jesuit priest speaks in far more human and vulnerable terms about his own struggles with alcoholism and his sense of humility.
To an extent, this vulnerability jibes with Gibson, who freely admits that he was spiritually lost from ages 19 to 35, and “if left to my own devices, I’d devolve into chaos.” Though Gibson never speaks in specific terms about his own affiliation with the ultra-orthodox Catholic offshoot faith, the Legion of Christ, his comments about himself suggest the need for extreme religious discipline.
Yet “The Big Question” is as ecumenical as possible (one costumed actor observes, “Five billion non-Christians can’t be wrong”) and is even open to atheists’ freely expressed views. What truly — and sometimes comically — enhances the discussion, though, is the frequent and clever device of interviewing actors in full dress, who express generally modern views of God while in ancient-looking garb, thus underlining that these are questions not only big in size, but as old as time.
The visual bridges between topics teeter on the purely pretentious, featuring a white half-wolf, half-dog wandering the crimson-colored streets and hills around Matera. At too many points during these passages, the fine video lensing tends toward merely pretty pictures, but a passage showing the animal hesitating and then finally crossing a small bridge becomes effectively symbolic.