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A passion renewed

Hollywood has made plenty of Biblical films in the past. But none quite like the realistic portrayal in Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." It has rekindled interest in the subject in an inimitable way, says V. GANGADHAR.

"The Passion of the Christ" ... despite controversies it drew the audience.

AS ONE more Easter Sunday passed, interest in the life of Jesus Christ peaked as never before. Time magazine carried a cover story on the theme, `Why did Jesus Have To Die.' For months together, the first spot on the New York Times best seller list was a religious thriller, Dan Brown's `The Da Vinci Code,' which, while attacking the Conservative Church, maintained that Jesus Christ was a mortal, who did marry and begot a child.

But the main source of interest in Christ and Christianity is because of the Mel Gibson film, "The Passion of the Christ," presenting a gory account of the final hours of Christ on earth. Seen so far by more than 30 million people, `Passion' could become Hollywood's biggest box office blockbuster.

Self-financed with a budget of $25 millions, Mel Gibson's film has so far grossed more than $260 millions in North America alone.

Strangely enough, `Passion' is a hit in the Arab world, not a fertile ground for Hollywood films. Arabs flocked to watch it because the Israelis were unhappy over the alleged anti-Semitic sentiments in the film.

Actor-director Mel Gibson has a lot to smile about.

Following the outcry from Jews, the Arab censors permitted the screening of `Passion' without any cuts! Though the film was banned in pro-West Dubai and Bahrain, it created box office records in the heart of the Arab world, Egypt, Qatar, Syria, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates.

At the time of one more Easter Sunday, one may safely conclude that `Passion' has rekindled a passion for the life and times of Jesus Christ, as no other Biblical film has done.

According to the Time story, a group of western scholars were brainstorming the death of Jesus. If God had planned the arrival of Jesus on the earth, why did he make him suffer so much? Was it because his life and death had to be dramatic? Did Christ endure torture because he had to be `totally obedient'?

David Grey, one of the brainstormers, had this to say, ``After watching the movie, certain things are much clearer to me. I can't say why Jesus Christ had to suffer the way he did. But Christ had to die.''

Roman Catholics and agnostics flocked to watch the film. There have been reports of deaths in the theatres of viewers with weak hearts.

Though most among the audiences came out of the theatres ashen-faced, four churches in the Archbishop of Canterbury's diocese spent 20,000 pounds to attract the spiritually confused in the hope that they would reconsider their attitude to God by watching the film. The church behind the scheme claims to have attracted 2,900 non-churchgoers to the screenings. They covered their eyes and wept as Roman soldiers lashed and drove nails into the flesh of Christ.

Yet unlike the Canterbury diocese, St. Lawrence School in Northern California, sacked the 50-year-old teacher, Stephan Hathorn, for offering extra grades to his seventh grade students for watching the film. In the controversy over the sufferings of Christ, the most popular explanation is that Christ had to endure torture, for man's transgressions.

``By his stripes we are healed,'' says a verse from the Bible. Another view about the film is that it revolves round atonement, which is the centrepiece of Christianity. Both the Catholics and Protestants have ignored atonement. Priests agree that they have not been preaching atonement for quite sometime, but it has been revived dramatically by the Gibson film.

Charlton Heston in "Ben Hur."

There is a common feeling about the message of the film — Jesus Christ offered himself as a sacrificial ransom to a God made angry by the sins of the people.

Over the years, Hollywood has made hundreds of films on stories from the Bible and the life and death of Jesus Christ. Like the `Mahabharata,' the Bible has some of the most wonderful and exciting episodes tailor-made for public exhibition.

One has seen many of these films, starting with Cecil B. De Mille's "Samson and Delilah" in 1952. Then followed in quick succession, "The Ten Commandments" (second version with Charlton Heston), "The Greatest Story Ever Told," "Ben Hur," John Huston's "The Bible," "Quo Vadis," "Salome," "Solomon and Sheba," "The Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah," "Esther and the King" and many more.

Sitting at the Midland cinema in Madras, one wondered at the magnificence of the Cinemascope screen introduced by 20th Century Fox for their Biblical films, "The Robe" and its sequel, "Demetrius and the Gladiators."

One remembered watching three or four films on the story of David, the most enduring memory being that of handsome Gregory Peck in "David and Bathsheba." Many of these films were hugely successful in India. People saw them as entertainment, spectacle and wondered at the special effects of those days. As the sea parted so that Moses could lead his Jews to safety in "Ten Commandments," groups of convent school children and the accompanying nuns stood up and recited `Holy Mary Mother of God'... !

One was overwhelmed by beauteous Rita Hayworth's dance of the seven veils ("Salome") and was on the edge of the seat as Emperor Nero watched Rome burning while he fiddled and strongman Buddy Bear battled a fierce bull to save his protégé Deborah Kerr (Lygia in "Quo Vadis").

The Crucifixion scenes were part of many of these films and one was accustomed to watching the bent, bearded, saintly figure of Jesus Christ, goaded by the Roman soldiers, stumbling alone carrying a huge cross on which he was to be crucified. Some of the Christians in the audience wept, but there was no horror or excessive blood in the scenes. These were films for family audiences and once one was out of the theatres, one forgot about them. Of course, brilliant individual scenes like the chariot race scene in "Ben Hur" were often discussed with wonder.

"The Passion of the Christ" changed all that. Other producers are contemplating making similar films. But no imitation can be as good as the original. The touch of genius in Mel Gibson will be lacking in his imitators. In a way that is good. One cannot have too many films focussing on the inhuman torture inflicted on the Son of God, and gory scenes, which resulted in heart attacks among the audiences.

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