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In the Italian mountains of Matera, Mel Gibson is crafting a biopic of Jesus, starring Jim Caviezel, an actor so Catholic that while shooting a love scene with Jennifer Lopez in a previous thriller, he insisted that her breasts be covered so as not to offend his wife.

In the piazzas of Rome, Bob Hoskins has finished a TV series entitled, The Good Pope, in which he plays Pope John Paul XXIII, while in France Gerard Depardieu has exchanged the role of Asterix for that of St Augustine of Hippo. In the battleground of popular culture the Catholic Church has never had it so good.

Or so bad. For while Gibson, Hoskins and Depardieu are happy to play on the side of the angels, Anthony Hopkins, Rutger Hauer and Peter Mullan are playing devil’s advocate in a series of movies that shine a torch on the dark corners of church history. In Edgardo Mortaro, Hopkins will play Pope Pius XI in the true story of the kidnapping of a Jewish boy by the Vatican during the 19th century. In God’s Banker, Hauer plays Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, head of the Vatican bank during the crisis of the 1980s, while Mullan recently suffered condemnation from the Vatican over his new movie, The Magdalene Sisters, about the laundries run by the church for "wayward girls". Then there is Amen, a new film by Costa-Gavras, which chronicles the silence of the Catholic Church over the fate of the Jews during the Second World War.

The church, however, has an ace up its sleeve in the guise of Martin Sheen, only the second Catholic to inhabit the Oval office and one who so far has refrained from using it as a playground for groupies. In the role of President Josiah Bartlet in The West Wing, Sheen has incorporated his own concerns with social justice into the role. In one episode dealing with the death penalty he said: "I’m going to want to talk to the Pope."

Gibson, meanwhile, is more likely to rage against the Vatican than the US government. While in Italy for the filming of his life story of Jesus, The Passion, he attended a press conference where he criticised the Vatican as a "wolf in sheep’s clothing". He went on to say: "I believe in God. My love for religion was transmitted to me by my father. But I do not believe in the church as an institution."

The antagonism he feels towards the church was also transmitted to him by his father, Hutton Gibson, a devout Catholic, who has never accepted the changes of the Second Vatican Council which replaced the Latin mass with the vernacular. At the time of the change during the late 1960s, Hutton boycotted his local parish, refused his daughter’s confirmation and set up a breakaway group which celebrated the old mass in each other’s homes. He also founded the Australian Alliance for Catholic Tradition and wrote a number of pamphlets criticising the modernisation of the church.

Today Gibson and his family are said to celebrate a Latin mass each week in a chapel built at their home in Malibu, but they have also been seen attending English-speaking masses around LA. Hannah, 21, his eldest child, is said to be considering becoming a nun. It is Gibson’s fidelity to the ancient language of the church that has led him to the uncommercial decision to shoot The Passion in a mixture of Aramaic and Latin. "Nobody wants to touch a film in two dead languages. They think I’m crazy, and maybe I am. But maybe I’m a genius." He insisted that his Jesus, played by Caviezel, who played a Christ-like figure in The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malik’s war film, would display the depths of human suffering. "My Jesus will be shaken by his human suffering. Real blood will flow from the wound in his side, and the screams of his crucifixion will be real as well."

Depardieu is sure to have a little more pleasure with his pain when he takes on the role of St Augustine of Hippo, the ancient theologian who reputedly said: "Lord, make me chaste, but not yet." The actor was inspired to take on the role after he met with the Pope. "As soon as I entered the room, the Holy Father said: ‘But that’s St Augustine.’" As a result of their conversation Depardieu plans to give a series of public readings of The Confessions, one of the saint’s greatest works. The actor described Augustine as a "wild child", born in North Africa in 354 AD he rejected his Christian faith, led a louche life and fathered a child by his mistress before rediscovering God and becoming both Bishop of Hippo and one of the church’s greatest thinkers.

In comparison with the piety of Depardieu, Gibson and Sheen, Hoskins is happy to admit to his agnosticism. "I was brought up an atheist while my dad was a communist. I can’t really believe there is an old fellow up there guiding us all. I can’t really believe there is heaven and hell." He received the role on account of his appearance. "‘Bob, Bob you are perfect, we love you because you are so fat and so short,’ they said: So I says, ‘I ain’t that fat’. And they said: ‘It is OK, we will feed you.’"