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The Big Question Reviews

A sort of sidebar to Mel Gibson's THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004), Francesco Cabras and Alberti Molinari's documentary seeks the answers to big questions about spirituality, the nature of the divine, and the presence of God in everyday life among Gibson's cast and crew. Where better to undertake such a quixotic quest than on an austerely picturesque location — the ancient Sassi settlement near Matera, a small city of primitive homes and winding streets dug out of the sides of a deep ravine and all-but-abandoned since the 1950s — where an army of artists and technicians whose faiths, nationalities, races and upbringings span a significant part of the world's spectrum is making a film about the martyred God of Christendom? The film's tone — a mix of childlike directness, twee whimsy and arty sentimentality — is a matter of taste; if you squirm at the thought of costumed extras groping for words to describe God interspersed with footage of a feral wolf-dog wandering desolately beautiful southern Italian landscapes, this is not the film for you. But beneath the cutesy thematic headings — "Special Effects" (people discuss miracles), "Rainbow" (what they think about faiths other than their own) and "Goin' Home" (imagining the afterlife) — lies a collage of highly personal reflections that range from the goofy to the surprisingly affecting. If nothing else, the diverse speakers are a reminder that deep, abiding faith is not the private property of evangelical bible-thumpers or bearded mullahs, and that movie people as a group are not so godless as some might suppose. Cabras and Molinari have their fun with "only-in-movie-land" paradoxes: The person beneath the first-century Judean robes may be from Argentina or Bulgaria or Italy, an extra or Monica Bellucci; Maia Morgenstern or Rosalinda Celentano, respectively, may be the film's Mary Magdalene, Virgin Mother and creepily androgynous Satan. Ironically, Gibson — whose intense commitment to his own Roman Catholicism brought this diverse group of people together — is the least compelling speaker; his practiced delivery and "regular guy" mannerisms, honed over a lifetime of performing on, and perhaps more importantly, off screen, seem resoundingly false by comparison.