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A Non-Catholic perspective

Rama Gottumukkala | Wednesday, February 25, 2004

When people find out that I’m not a Catholic but have attended a Jesuit high school and that I am now enrolled in the nation’s most notable Catholic university, they often ask me how I feel about the Catholic faith. After answering this question countless times, I’ve settled into the groove of explaining that I try to live by the Golden Rule and I usually leave it at that. And why not? The Golden Rule appears in some form or another in almost every major world religion, if only slightly altered in terms of wording in each of its many versions.The question I usually have a more difficult time fielding is what I think about Jesus Christ. Having been only versed in the very basics of Catholic doctrine through a few short years of required theology courses, I usually settle on the answer that I think he was a compassionate, good man and that is good enough for me. To put it lightly, Mel Gibon’s new film The Passion of the Christ was an eye-opener.It’s hard to ignore an extended scene of an innocent man being scourged to within an inch of his life, especially when each whiplash is beaten into your subconscious as the camera cuts to Jesus’ muted grimace after each crack of the whip. And just when you think you’ve seen enough, the weapon of punishment is changed to a sinister cat-o-nine-tails with inch-long metal spikes running along its outer edges and the torture continues.The film was both unsettling and unpleasant to watch for much of its duration and I’m sure a good number of people will use its depiction of graphic violence as one more reason to denounce it as the work of the devil. But how, exactly, can you accurately depict the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life without the version presented in Gibson’s endeavor? You can’t show scourging and a crucifixion in gentle terms akin to a playful slap on the wrist.The visual power of much of the film rests in its directing style. Although nearly a decade has passed since Gibson’s last directorial effort, Braveheart, Gibson still possesses the same artistic touch that won him an Academy Award. He seamlessly splices in the more pleasant and notable events of Jesus’ life, such as the Last Supper and the Sermon on the Mount, intermittently between the events of Jesus’ tortuous ordeal. This effect is quite jarring, and it paints a stark contrast between the way Jesus lived his life and the way he was forced to die.Although a sizable chunk of the film is devoted to recreating the more well-known scenes of Jesus’ suffering, I found some of the most profound moments to be those hidden among the chaos. There is one scene where Jesus drops his cross in exhaustion on the way to Golgotha amidst a brawl between the peasants and soldiers that envelops him. Seemingly all alone within the bedlam, the scene shifts into a slow-motion shot of the approaching feet of a kind woman who offers Jesus a cup of water and a clean white towel to wipe his bloody, mangled brow. These fleeting scenes are sprinkled throughout the film and they add a deeper meaning to the film that can be interpreted in innumerable ways. They paint a portrait of a good man who touched many with his continuing kindness and who, at the very least, continued to live a noble life when most of us could have easily turned to bitterness and a swift retribution.Given that the brunt of the story is told by the facial expressions of a tortured Jesus and the reactions of his tormentors, friends and followers, the power of the film is a testament to the acting abilities of its stars. The film would have been just as effective if Gibson had decided to distribute it without subtitles, as was originally planned. The performances speak for themselves, with not a single weak link in the chain.As important as the film Gandhi is for Hindus, The Passion of the Christ is just as significant for both believers and nonbelievers. It is not a film that can be lightly tossed aside. It is a monumental achievement and for all its unpleasantries, I can honestly say that I have a greater appreciation for the devout faith that many of my friends and colleagues place in the central figure of Christian doctrine. I saw a noble, just man punished for no good reason and when that punishment is presented as vividly and as painstakingly as it is in this particular film, it is not easily forgotten. So the next time someone asks me my thoughts on Jesus Christ, you have my assurance that it will not be the same light, airy response that I have been giving enquiring friends for years.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Rama Gottumukkala at rgottumu@nd.edu.