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The Passion of the Christ: Gibson's passion

THIS may sound dramatic, but the questions now being debated in some places is the death of Jesus Christ. Why did he have to die? And, why did he have to suffer the way he did? May be, God wanted some drama, and Christ had to go the way he did.

Mel Gibson paves that path with unimaginable and visually disturbing even distasteful forms of suffering in his film, "The Passion of the Christ".

Millions of people and not necessarily Christians have already seen the movie since it opened some weeks ago in March/April 2004. There was still greater rush during the Holy Week of Easter, when men and women participating in services reliving the death and Resurrection of Christ were tempted to see what Gibson had to show.

"The Passion of the Christ" is a two-hour-long journey of the Messiah filled with scenes of torture. As Christ finishes his Last Supper, he is betrayed by Judas and arrested only to be condemned to the cross. What is the man's crime? He calls himself the son of God, and preaches forgiveness and tolerance.

But, Gibson adopts a strange method to convey these virtues. Christ is whipped mercilessly, kicked and pushed to the ground, made to carry a heavy cross and ultimately nailed to death. The blood and gore can cause revulsion even in the most hardy. Just two examples will suffice: Christ is hung by a metal chain upside down. Giant nails are hammered into his frail palm.

Gibson's camera looks on unflinchingly. If there is sadism here, the glee and mockery of Roman soldiers perpetrating this heinous crime are not just the last word in savage imagery, but indicates a mind out to shock the viewer.

And what is Gibson's purpose? Probably to spread Christ's love. Forgive them, for they know not what they do, the holy man utters on the cross.

But, Gibson fritters away the chance to strengthen the significance of Christ's message: he invests very little in creating a bond between Jesus' suffering and the audience.

Instead, so much of attention is paid to portraying the brutality against Christ, that his pain is eclipsed. One can hardly feel the intensity of the agony that he is supposed to have endured in his final hours on earth.

"The Passion of the Christ", I would think, leaves one spiritually bankrupt. It does not uplift us to a plane that Christ would have wanted us to be.

Yet, 12 years ago, when Gibson went through a low in his life, the idea of this work began to incubate in him. Maybe, "The Passion of the Christ" was meant to lift him, and stop his spirit sinking further. Has it?

Gibson has remained silent against accusations, and many have condemned him for this creation of his.

Of course, he knew right from the start that he was courting danger. A self-funded -million chronicle adopted, though rather selectively, from New Testament, and augmented with material from extra biblical writings long accused of containing anti-Semitic contents, "The Passion of the Christ" is, to put it mildly, deeply polarising.

Those who support Gibson will undoubtedly hail his movie as the most realistic depiction of Christ's end: even the dialogue is in Aramaic and Latin.

However, those who do not will say that "The Passion of the Christ"' is hopelessly mired in anti-Jew stereotypes. Here are two examples: the Jewish religious leaders who conspire to kill Christ are painted black, and the Jewish mobs who clamour for his death are made to appear bloodthirsty.

The choice of title is another bleak point. Passion plays, centuries old, have often incited anti-Semitic outrage, and Catholic theologians issued guidelines in the 1980s for "tonal appropriateness".

Yet, Gibson lets Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest and Christ's chief persecutor, mouth the most inflammatory sentence in the movie: "His blood be on us, and on our children". This has long been used to support "the theologically and historically suspect" claim that Jews killed Christ.

Well, besides all this, my own argument against the film is that it is much too gruesome to watch.

Except for those brief flashbacks that show the child Jesus with his mother and the scene just before Christ's trial begins. These are but brief interludes to Gibson's passion to fill his canvas with his idea of entertainment.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated May 9 2004)

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