Love it or hate it, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is one of the few culturally essential American movies of recent years, a genuine phenomenon that found a huge audience without the bludgeon of an eight-figure advertising budget. Shot in 2003 on the set of Passion, Francesco Cabras and Alberto Molinari’s The Big Question asks members of the film’s multinational, multireligious cast and crew a dozen “universal” questions on the nature of the divine: Who is God to you? How do you pray? What happens after life?
Unfortunately, while the questions may be universal, they’re not particularly original, and the responses largely run the expected range, rendering the whole project less enlightening than your average collegiate coffee-and-cigarettes bull session. The individual clips are kept brief throughout, creating a monotonous rhythm (which musical interludes featuring a mysterious white dog do little to alleviate) and reflecting a dubious methodology that privileges quick, punchy responses over sustained reasoning. (Cabras and Molinari claim to have sought answers “devoid of superstructures,” but of course it’s precisely these pre-existing religious forms that govern most people’s views on spiritual questions.)
In a striking departure from the DV ugliness that’s become the documentary norm, The Big Question is beautifully lit and shot, no doubt in an attempt to impose some cinematic texture on decidedly noncinematic subject matter. Many performers appear in costume and makeup—most strikingly Jim Caviezel, who shows up briefly in full-on scourging mode—but there’s precious little effort to connect the questions asked here with the answers suggested by Gibson’s film (never discussed in detail); indeed, Cabras and Molinari squander a golden opportunity to produce a spiritually oriented variation on the lightweight making-of genre. What emerges instead is an unlikely lesson in the Hollywood star system—the film’s refusal to ID any of the interviewees has the perverse effect of emphasizing the few faces we already know, and viewers may catch themselves wondering when Gibson will show up next.