'The big questions of life' discussed on the set of Mel Gibson's 'The Passion of the Christ'
It is unfortunate that The Big Question, an intelligent and thought-provoking documentary about faith, was made before the December 2004 tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people around the Indian Ocean. Filmmakers Francesco Cabras and Alberto Molinari could then have asked one more pertinent question to their dozens of subjects on the set of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ: If there is a God (or Goddess, or gods, or goddesses), how could such a horrific, unimaginably destructive tragedy have taken place?
Answers would surely have been as thoughtful, stupid, funny, mean-spirited, wacky, and/or illuminating as those provided by the film's dozens of interviewees of different religions, nationalities, and social backgrounds while answering questions such as “Who is God for you?” and “How would you describe who God is to your child?”
Francesco Cabras, the bad thief Gesmas in The Passion of the Christ, and Alberto Molinari had previously worked together on the documentary Spaghetti Requiem / Italian Soldiers, shot during the making of the Nicolas Cage-Penélope Cruz movie Captain Corelli's Mandolin, in which Cabras had a bit part. But whereas Spaghetti Requiem was a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a Hollywood movie on location (Greece, with numerous Italian extras), The Big Question has nothing to do with the making of The Passion of the Christ in the outskirts of southern Italy's ancient town of Matera – except in that it uses those associated with Mel Gibson's film as a microcosm of the human race.
In fact, according to the filmmakers, the framework for The Big Question was inspired not by Mel Gibson's version of the life of Jesus Christ, but by Pier Paolo Pasolini's Love Meetings / Comizi d'amore. In that 1965 documentary, Pasolini asks his subjects about their views on sex.
Talking heads and talking hands
In The Big Question, we never see Cabras and Molinari actually asking any questions. Instead, we are treated to a variety of heads of different sizes, shapes, colors, and age groups talking directly to the camera. Additionally, in a montage representing thought and faith as manifested through the body, we see close-ups of talking hands.
Although a mostly static camera focused on nonstop talking heads may sound unexciting, the directors' cinematic approach in The Big Question is in fact fully involving. The questions asked may be grammatically simple, but they are both profound and complex. So, when the interviewees talk while looking into the camera, it is as if they are having an intimate conversation with us, whether agreeing with or challenging our own beliefs and assumptions. For even within the documentary's relatively confined boundaries, the responses to questions about God and faith are remarkably disparate.
Thus, in The Big Question radically different viewpoints are spilled forth, sometimes leading to disagreements between the interviewees themselves. At other times, we see through the filmmakers' clever montage how the various concepts of divinity are at their core intellectual decisions based on one's cultural background, level of intelligence, and personal experiences and prejudices.
Mel Gibson: 'Prone to be insane'
Among those providing memorable talking-head moments is a wide-eyed, wildly gesticulating Mel Gibson, who – very convincingly – says he's “prone to be insane,” while explaining how he felt the urge to look for divine guidance after finding himself lost in the nothingness of fame and wealth.
In another curious vignette, a Christian clergyman declares that there is only one God – of the Christian kind – and that it's either faith in that God or No Salvation, for “in the end something has to be right.” Unfortunately, the Christian man of the cloth isn't followed by an equally radical Muslim imam asserting that it's either Allah or Eternal Damnation, but we do get to see Romanian actress Maia Morgenstern (the Virgin Mary in The Passion of the Christ) stating that “when you start to say my religion is better than your religion, then it's the end.”
Jim Caviezel, Mel Gibson, and the 'democratic' approach to talking heads
Now, credit must be given to Francesco Cabras and Alberto Molinari for not focusing The Big Question on The Passion of the Christ's Big Names. Mel Gibson, Monica Bellucci, and Jim Caviezel get about as much screen time as extras, crew members, and visitors on the set. One important qualm with this democratic approach, however, is that the directors refrain from telling us who their subjects are. They clearly want us to see everyone as equal “religion experts,” so we will not regard one opinion as worthier than another because it comes from the mouth of an authority figure or of a famous movie star.
That's a well-intentioned approach, no doubt, but it is also a self-defeating one, for those watching The Big Question will easily be able to identify members of the clergy by their clothes. Most will also recognize the traditionalist Catholic Gibson, and many will know Bellucci and Caviezel; but chances are that audiences will have no idea of the identity, or the social and cultural background of most of the other interviewees. Also, if we learned more about the respondents' background, their opinions and religious views might then seem less personal and more cultural – or, in some cases, vice versa – thus adding a new dimension to the replies.
'The Big Question': The searching dog-wolf
Interspersed with the interviews are several beautifully photographed sequences of a lone dog roaming through ancient ruins, overcoming obstacles, and staring inquiringly at the universe. These scenes are an obvious but no less moving analogy to the human experience on this plane.
After all, Greg, the half-dog half-wolf truth seeker, has a more expressive face than most two-legged actors working in films nowadays, and his search is made more heartfelt by Alessandro Molinari's evocative score. (It should be noted that I watched The Big Question on DVD under less than ideal conditions; even so, the technical and artistic qualities of the film remained impressive.)
Answers to the big questions in life
As to be expected, no definitive answers to the Big Questions in Life are provided before the documentary's final fade out. What The Big Question does instead is attempt to make us think about those other questions that are all too infrequently asked: How do our cultural and social backgrounds influence – or downright determine – what we believe in? For instance, if a fundamentalist Christian from Tennessee, U.S.A., had been born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, would he or she have been instead a fundamentalist Muslim? Or vice versa? Are religion and spirituality one and the same? Is religion a worthy spiritual path or is religious dogma an obstacle to spiritual enlightenment?
And what if there is no God? As seen in The Big Question, for Mel Gibson – and others like him – the absence of a divine power would mean total chaos from which one could escape only through artificial means.
There is, however, another way of looking at that possibility. As another interviewee explains, if there's no God then our responsibility for doing good becomes all the greater. Could that be true? The Big Question dares us to stop and ponder.
The Big Question was initially reviewed at the 2004 AFI FEST.
The Big Question (2004).
Dir.: Francesco Cabras. Alberto Molinari.
Scr.: Francesco Cabras.
Cast: Greg, the Dog. Interviewees: Mel Gibson. Monica Bellucci. Jim Caviezel. Rosalinda Celentano. Maia Morgenstern. Luca De Dominicis. William J. Fulco. Claudia Gerini. Christo Jivkov.
The Big Question image: ThinkFilm.
Jim Caviezel The Passion of the Christ image: Newmarket Films.