One of the 15 films listed in the category "Values" on the Vatican film list.
Overshadowing even Ben Kingsley’s astonishing, transcendent performance in his first major screen role is a larger, more formidable presence: that of Mohandas K. Gandhi himself. Richard Attenborough’s ambitious, Oscar-winning biographical epic is solid rather than inspired moviemaking, but the greatness of its subject and the force of his principles are so palpably realized that Gandhi achieves real transcendence.
Yes, it’s both fictionalized and hagiographical, assiduously filing the rough edges and smoothing over the contradictions and tensions in its complex subject. The film depicts Gandhi as a lifelong pacifist and egalitarian who rejected war and the Indian caste system with its "untouchables," though in fact his rejection of both came late in life and was less than absolute. It touches briefly on Gandhi’s withdrawal from marital relations with his wife, but omits his practice, so alien to the Christian precept of avoiding even "near occasions" of sin, of "testing" his moral resolve by sharing his bed with naked teenaged girls.
But Attenborough captures the force of the literally revolutionary principle of nonviolent resistance that Gandhi pioneered and championed, which would later inspire such figures as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela.
Faced with indomitable, oppressive British imperial presence, Gandhi’s fellow countrymen have no viable military response except terrorism. But Gandhi argues, with devastating logic that has only become more inescapable over time, that terrorism not only further justifies oppressive measures, even if it succeeds it liberates a country only to terrorize it in turn. It’s a message that disgruntled societies and individuals today ignore at their own peril.
Gandhi’s practice is predicated on the belief that moral authority, not superior force, ultimately prevails in the court of public opinion. Literally turn the other cheek, and if your attacker himself isn’t overcome with shame eventually the conscience of others will become your ally. All that is required is the courage and humility to be a true victim for your cause.
It seems naive — but it conquered the British Empire. First in South Africa, where in one harrowing scene we see Indian protesters, attacked by mounted police, actually lie down on the ground in front of the horses, out of range of the policemen’s batons, relying on the horses’ aversion to treading on people to avoid being trampled. Then in India, where Gandhi’s celebrity and penchant for punitive fasting when displeased gives him the clout to unite Hindus and Muslims behind his principle of nonviolent resistance. And finally throughout the world, where other colonial peoples were inspired by Gandhi’s success to seek their own independence, ultimately replacing the British Empire of yesterday with the Commonwealth of today.
But Gandhi’s crusade is marked by failure as well as success. Having achieved his goal of nonviolently rendering India ungovernable for the British, he is unable to parlay Indian unity against the British into a united post-British India.
Tensions between the Hindu majority and the Muslim minority, the latter of which had come to rely on the British as their advocates, come to a head. Ironically, Gandhi’s efforts to reach out to the Muslims elicit even greater ill will from his own Hindus. Gandhi fights tooth and nail against the segregation of the subcontinent into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan, but in the end human concupiscence, the fruit of original sin, overcomes his efforts to appeal to what is best in man.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.