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Faith, fact and fiction

Print edition : May 21, 2004 T+T-

The controversial Mel Gibson film on Christ's last hours opens in India, even as a best-selling novel challenges orthodox Christianity's perceived misogyny.

IN the summer of 1957, `convent schools' across India booked entire shows at local cinema theatres for special screenings of the new biblical extravaganza, Cecil B. De Mille's The Ten Commandments. Schoolchildren of all ages gasped as Charlton Heston as Moses turned the Nile blood red and his stick into a serpent, and parted the Red Sea, and cowered in fear as an unseen Hand etched the twin tablets with the Commandments, line by line.

The Passion of The Christ

Three years later, the same schools took the same students en masse to see the new epic Ben Hur, with Charlton Heston in action once more, bending his sweaty muscles at the oars of the slave ship, leading his white horses to victory in the nail-biting chariot race ... and listening from afar as a Jesus Christ in silhouette delivered the Sermon on the Mount. The story of the Jewish prince who becomes the foster son of a Roman Commander, but ends up a Christian, was played out in parallel with Christ's own life - bracketed by scenes showing the Nativity, Crucifixion and Resurrection; it provided talking points in the catechism classes for a few weeks.

And not just for Christian students. Hollywood's biblical products over the last half century have managed to entertain and inspire a generation of movie-goers of all religious persuasions, by weaving a shrewd mix of human interest and devotion. At fairly regular intervals throughout the latter half of the 20th century, movies like The Robe, King of Kings and The Bible... in the Beginning, filled cinema halls around the world with lay viewers drawn by spectacle and good story.

Schoolchildren, singly or in groups, will not head for Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ, which came to India last fortnight, after a triumphant global opening in the U.S. In recreating the events of the last day of Christ's life on earth, the Australia-born actor-director has taken realism to heights never before attempted in popular world cinema. And since the events he narrates are violent and intensely disturbing, the end product makes for excruciating viewing, with its endless floggings, relentless bludgeoning, torture, mutilation and graphic gore.

The final hours of Christ have been depicted at least a dozen times in popular international cinema. But film-makers have generally been subtle in depicting what were violent events even for those times - and they exploited the power of suggestion to get across the message of Christ's suffering on behalf of mankind. But Gibson's film goes for a visceral realism to drive home its lessons. "Drive" is right - in a very literal sense. Close-up shots of Roman soldiers pounding a nail into the hand of Jesus, with blood squirting, backed by a high decibel Dolby sound track, are likely to prove extremely disturbing to many viewers.

Accused by the Jewish high priest Caiphas (Mattia Sbragia) of heresy and other crimes against religion, Jesus (played with great power by James Caviezel) is hauled up before the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov) who orders him to be scourged. This barrage of blows is depicted in all its brutality. When the bloodied Jesus is again brought up before Pilate, a frenzied mob demands his crucifixion and gets its way. The subsequent agonies of the Son of God, replete with the crunch of breaking bones and screams of mortal pain, may seem to viewers like an unending orgy of mutilation.

The director, a devout Roman Catholic, seems to be saying: "This is how it felt, up close and personal: It's time you knew." Carping critics have suggested that the relentless gore is self-defeating; that punishing an audience this much may benumb any feelings of piety or devotion, even for those who see the film to renew their faith. But this may not be the first time critics failed to anticipate the public's response to a film they panned on artistic merits. Many Indian viewers may recall the devotional frenzy set off in 1975 by the Hindi film Jai Santoshi Maa. Reviewers were harsh about its crude production values and heavy-handed treatment. But the thousands of women who performed aarati inside theatres could not care less.

Passion, made for $30 million and released against all Hollywood business logic in a "foreign" tongue - Aramaic and Latin for historical authenticity, with English subtitles - has already raked in $367 million in the United States alone; and every foreign distributor has seen comparable returns.

But a disquieting question remains unanswered. How does one judge a film of this kind? When it is released in a commercial environment, it deserves to be treated just like any other product of its genre. The raging controversy mainly in the U.S. about the film's perceived anti-Semitism may not surface in India. But there will be many who might recall the words of another distinguished film-maker of an earlier age in a different genre of cinema - a director who had in him the artistic power to shock and horrify audiences, but who achieved the effect without explicit visual overkill. That master of the suspense film, Alfred Hitchcock, always maintained: "There is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it."

AFTER May 7, audiences in the main Indian metros will have a chance to view The Passion of The Christ and decide for themselves if Mel Gibson's bludgeon or a Hitchcockian rapier is the superior cinema. And with the recent release here of the paperback version (Corgi; Rs.265) of one of the top-selling novels of 2003 - Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code - they can also experience, albeit at second hand, the curious controversy that has jointly enveloped both book and film: Did the Bible tell it as it happened? Or did a misogynist early Church selectively edit the Gospel to erase the central role that women played in the growth of early Christianity?

On one level Brown's book - his fourth novel - is a straightforward thriller, following the trail of death that begins in the Paris museum, the Louvre. The elderly curator has been lying murdered in a bizarre manner, spreadeagled on the floor of the main gallery, in a pose that mimics the famous drawing by the Renaissance artist Leonardo Da Vinci, known as the Vitruvian Man. Robert Langdon, a professor of religious symbolism, and Sophie Nevue, a cryptologist with the French police (who happens to be the slain man's estranged granddaughter) are mysteriously summoned. As they try and unravel the murder mystery, they are sucked into a `chakravyuha' of intrigue involving Opus Dei, a fundamentalist Catholic organisation that even today has its headquarters in New York; the Priory of Sion, a secret society dating back a thousand years and numbering among its members notables like Leonardo himself, Victor Hugo the French novelist, and Isaac Newton the British scientist. The Priory is the jealous guardian of the secret of the `Holy Grail', which till Dan Brown's book was generally understood to be the communion cup shared by Jesus Christ and his apostles during the Last Supper. He has changed all that.

As the two investigators unravel layer upon layer of clues cloaked in puzzles, anagrams and mind-boggling classical cryptography, they stumble on one of the most persistent `conspiracy theories' of all time: the belief that in the aftermath of Christ's crucifixion, the emerging Church sought to highlight his divinity by playing down his more human actions ... by erasing references to Mary Magdalene, the woman who might have been closer to him than orthodox doctrine suggests. Demonised as a "fallen woman", she may have been one of his trusted apostles.

When Leonardo's masterpiece "The Last Supper", painted in 1498 and seriously deteriorating over the ages, was unveiled afresh in May 1999, after a two-decade-long restoration process in Milan, the figure seated to Christ's right appeared to be feminine - uniquely smooth-chinned among the other, bearded, apostles, and with robes whose colours matched those of Christ. Could Leonardo, known to have hidden hundreds of tantalising clues in his drawings, have left the definitive message that Mary Magdalene was indeed the trusted "right hand" of Jesus and the source of the ancient tradition in art known as the Sacred Feminine? Is the `V' shape formed by the alignment of the two figures the ancient symbol of feminity? While giving fresh life to the theory of the existence of a long-lost "Gospel of Mary of Magdala", Brown makes a direct reference in the novel to a decade-old non-fiction publication The Holy Book and the Holy Grail (Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln; Dell Books; $7.99) which suggested that kings of the 1,300-year-old Merovingian dynasty in France were descendents of Jesus and Mary Magdalene and founded the Priory of Sion, which plays such a key role in The Da Vinci Code.

Brown's book has his protagonists zipping across Europe's famed churches: Saint Sulpice in Paris, Westminster Abbey and the Temple Church in London, the ancient Rosslyn Chapel in Edinburgh... turning up mind-bending cryptic clues and conspiracies. The classical Fibonacci sequence - 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 - where every number is the sum of the two preceding numbers is a clue to decipher a message scrambled into an anagram. "O draconian devil! O lame saint" unscrambles into "Leonardo Da Vinci. The Mona Lisa". This is an excuse for a diversion into the theory that the Mona Lisa was in fact an androgynous figure - half man, half woman. Rearrange the letters in the name and you have Amon L'Isa - the Egyptian male god, Amon and the female goddess Isa.

The trail that starts from the Mona Lisa painting comes back full circle to the structure known as the Louvre's Inverted Pyramid - the final clue in this cryptographer's nightmare. One has to crack what is possibly the world's first device to provide public key encryption - the technology behind today's Internet security: The Da Vinci Cryptex is a tube with lettered dials, which have to be aligned to form the password, much like the numbered locks on suitcases. The secret is inside, written on a papyrus scroll, rolled on a vial of vinegar. If the tube is forced open, the vial breaks - and the papyrus self-destructs. Does it contain clues to the Holy Grail? The novel tantalises but does not answer all the questions it raises.

"The greatest story ever told is in fact the greatest story ever sold," says a character in Brown's book, suggesting that Christianity has been built upon some early mistruths. The Da Vinci Code got its timing dead right, appearing at a time when feminist theologians have begun to demand a bigger role for women in Church affairs; and by skilfully weaving fact and fiction, it has struck a chord with today's women, who seek a more assertive role. Conservative Christians have dismissed the novel's masala mix of truth and invention as "blasphemy in a soft voice". But seven million copies have been sold, and the book will soon become a film: Sony/Columbia have bought the rights and retained Oscar-winning director Ron Howard of A Beautiful Mind to helm the project.

In recent weeks, religious leaders who noticed that many of the readers who bought a copy took the book too seriously encouraged the publication of a string of "debunking" or "decoding Da Vinci" rejoinders.

IT is an interesting footnote that while some Indian States are hot and bothered about the supposed inaccuracy in the way Shivaji is portrayed by a foreign author, and are contemplating a ban on his book and seeking his "apology", many bookshops in the U.S., particularly those specialising in Christian literature, have refused to stock The Da Vinci Code even while they briskly sell a dozen high-priced, "coffee table" versions of the Gospel inspired by Passion. Public demand forced one public library - in Cuyahoga County, Ohio - to purchase 541 hardcover copies of the Dan Brown book, to cater to a huge waiting list of readers.

The Da Vinci Code is poles apart from The Passion of The Christ, which is orthodox, if distinctive, in its reading of the Gospels and quite old-fashioned in its portrayal of characters like Mary Magdalene. One suggests that the New Testament as we know it may not be the last word on the subject of Christianity's origins. The other seems to believe that a graphic and explicit depiction of the last hours of Christ's life on the earth is what will best renew the faith of Christians - even if it opens old wounds about the role that Jews played in ordering the precise details of his end.

But coincidentally and perhaps unintentionally, they have cast new light on Christianity and left their paying public with a cryptic challenge of its own: Should one accept with humility "This is how it was," or ask, "Could this too have been?"