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Mendrisio performs its own “Passion of the Christ”

The procession begins with Christ leaving St John's Church

The opening of the controversial Mel Gibson film in Mendrisio just before Easter has failed to overshadow the Italian-speaking town’s own Passion play.

For more than 200 years, the people of Mendrisio have been re-enacting Christ’s path to Calvary in a spectacular procession through the town’s medieval streets.

An elderly man walks his wide-eyed grandson past rows of costumes, neatly laid out and numbered.

Shiny Roman soldiers’ helmets sit upon breastplates and leather thongs. There are tunics for the high priests made of shiny fabric. Trumpets and lances await their bearers in a side room.

A single costume is worth as much as SFr4,000 ($3,100).

The dressing room is in a convent building belonging to the Church of St John the Baptist, where final preparations are being made for the holy procession.

The cross

The cross the Christ figure will drag through Mendrisio’s streets and narrow alleys lies on its side in the nave of the ornate 18th century church.

“Passion plays have been performed in Mendrisio since the middle of the 17th century, but the procession as it is today dates back to 1798,” explains Giuseppe Poma, head of the organising committee.

“It hasn’t changed since then,” he continues. “We’ve had to remake the costumes but they are always made in the same way with the same fabric. And more importantly, the figures haven’t changed and nor have the brotherhoods which organise the event.”

Hundreds of amateur performers from Mendrisio take part each year in the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday processions.

High priests and thieves

Thursday sees the historical procession of Christ to Calvary. Led by Roman soldiers on horseback, the colourful and meticulously-planned performance includes high priests, thieves, the three Marys and an angry mob taunting Christ.

Illuminated paintings depicting biblical scenes hang from balconies and are strung across alleyways.

Good Friday is reserved for the carrying of ancient statues representing the dead body of Christ and the “Virgin of the Seven Sorrows”, accompanied by hundreds of adults and children lighting the way with hand-painted lanterns.

“Mendrisio is quite a modern town, with a thriving industry,” says Poma.

“Ticino University’s faculty of architecture is here, which means we have about 600 students in the town – so I wouldn’t say Mendrisio is very conservative, except during this particular week.”

Continuing tradition

“The two processions are religious but historical as well and it’s our duty to continue the tradition.”

“Up until about 40 years ago, only men were allowed to take part,” says Franco Dell’Oca, who is playing a high priest this year.

“But they would start drinking early in the day and get carried away with their roles so it was hard for them to take the performance seriously,” he says, speaking from behind a long beard.

“The introduction of women performers helped resolve the problem.”

One of the attractions of the play – for young and old alike – is the opportunity it provides for dressing up in period costumes.

Teenage Roman soldiers kill time before the Maundy Thursday procession begins by charging at one another with their spears.

A middle-aged man poses for a picture while pretending to behead a Jewish scribe with his axe.

A young girl says she enjoys taking part so she can wear a costume and put on make-up.

Jesus Christ

The identity of the man who will play Christ is kept secret from the rest of the performers until the end of the procession.

Lots are drawn to choose the man, who must be in his 30s and from Mendrisio.

“It’s an honour to have been selected,” says Alain Rezzonico, as a crown of thorns is carefully placed on the 32-year-old mechanic’s head.

“This is the 25th time I’ve taken part in the procession,” he says, “and I’ve enjoyed playing every role, particularly a dice player who tries to win Jesus’s tunic.”

The town is out in force to watch the procession, and the locals are joined by many people from neighbouring villages and tourists holidaying in the region.

No bloodletting

People have come to witness an age-old pageant dating back to the Middle Ages.

Poma says interest from the public has always been strong and has not increased this year due to the controversy surrounding Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ”.

But he says his curiosity got the better of him and convinced him to attend the film premiere in Mendrisio the night before his town’s own performance.

“There is too much bloodletting, but overall I think it’s a good film,” he says.

Playing Christ has also made Rezzonico want to see the film. “I’ll see it before the Easter weekend is out,” he concludes.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Mendrisio

Mendrisio is a Roman Catholic town, with a population of 6,000.

Mendrisio’s Maundy Thursday procession dates back to the middle of the 17th century.

The Good Friday event is thought to be even older.

The processions take place in the old town, winding their way past some of Mendrisio’s nine churches.

In 1898, Mendrisio purchased its costumes from Milan’s La Scala. They have been replaced by replicas.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR