Published in The New York Times
Playing a film villain can often be a thankless job. But just try portraying the Roman soldier who mercilessly flogs Jesus in Mel Gibson's ''Passion of the Christ.''
When Dario D'Ambrosi, the 45-year-old Italian actor who had the part, took his family to see the film in Rome, everyone in the theater turned to glare at him; his two daughters cried. The girls told his mother not to see it, and she took their advice. People on the street shoved and cursed at him, and students confronted his daughters, 12 and 14, at school. Mr. D'Ambrosi, a Roman Catholic, says he still has dreams in which Jesus -- with the face of Mel Gibson -- assures him that it was all worth it.
The entire experience ultimately inspired Mr. D'Ambrosi to write and direct a play, ''The Pathological Passion of the Christ,'' running through next Sunday at La MaMa E.T.C. in Manhattan.
The word ''pathological'' may seem odd unless you know that Mr. D'Ambrosi founded the pathological theater movement, which explores the relationship between the mentally ill and the rest of society. This was a major issue in the Italy of Mr. D'Ambrosi's youth, and he found it so gripping that at age 19, in the midst of what was a promising professional soccer career, he decided to spend three months in a mental hospital learning about the patients. His soccer career ended and his theatrical career began.
Mr. D'Ambrosi has created 14 original shows in this vein for La MaMa over the past two decades, including one about a man obsessed with a trout and another that envisioned Captain Hook as a pedophile.
In broken English, he explains that his ''Pathological Passion'' is based on the idea that many of Jesus' contemporaries considered him insane. The work portrays Judas as a sexual compulsive, Pontius Pilate as an ex-convict and Jesus as an epileptic. At the show's climax, Jesus has a seizure and is rushed off in an ambulance. A video shows him having brain surgery to treat his epilepsy.
Mr. D'Ambrosi said the procedure is a contemporary twist on the Crucifixion. Cured of epilepsy, which was once thought to be a sacred disease, Jesus becomes normal, a symbol of how the world has become more secular.
Mr. D'Ambrosi was thinking of Mr. Gibson when he decided to play the doctor in the video; in the film, Mr. Gibson's hand, in a cameo, was the first to hammer a nail into the prosthetic hand of Jesus, who was played by Jim Caviezel.
To Mr. D'Ambrosi, Mel Gibson is ''a genius'' who, despite being a movie star, had a sincerity and a wide-eyed innocence that reminded Mr. D'Ambrosi -- in a good way, Mr. D'Ambrosi said -- of the mentally ill people he has worked with. Although he and many of his fellow actors were initially skeptical of the enterprise, he said Mr. Gibson's charisma lured them in and bound the cast together.
Still, the filming was difficult. To stay in character, Mr. Caviezel didn't talk to him on the set. At one point during filming, Mr. D'Ambrosi accidentally hit Mr. Caviezel with a piece of wood, splitting it in two.
During the actual flogging scene, Mr. D'Ambrosi would whip the ground for an entire 10-minute take, staring at the face -- not of Jesus, but of Mr. Gibson, who would be lying on his back, looking up, yelling encouragement and squirting fake blood.
On the whole, said Mr. D'Ambrosi, making the film was ''like when you make love with a woman.'' At the time, ''You really don't understand so much, because you don't really leave the moment. But after, you understand how much was beautiful.''