Emmitsburg Council of Churches

Harsh Beauty

Father John J. Lombardi

Those are words I’d use to describe the Lord Jesus with—say, in His heroic-sacrificial love carrying the Cross to a bitter death, and words also to describe the Gospel (noble-idealistic missionaries getting eaten by lions), and much of life. Christianity and life are a grab-bag of joy-sorrow, a living-life giving oxymoron.

I’d also use the words harsh beauty to describe a movie I just saw. Now, some movies you go to, others you go thru. After my recent pilgrimage to India I was intrigued by the near-hit movie, "Slumdog Millionaire" and saw it on a snowy night recently. I felt as if I was right back in India. It was an absolute adventure, true to life and made me want to go back.

It is about Survival. Two Muslim boys who are thrown into the chaos of Mumbai (Bombay), and their family’s persecution and obliteration. Their survival is depicted as sometimes comedic, violent, imaginative. They become entrepreneurs, opportunists, street vendors, tea sellers and hired beggars for a dark outfit, until their maturation unto adulthood and the climax of the movie. There is a good and tough ending which I won’t reveal. One boy is depicted as good and eventually gains entrance to an Indian "I want to be a millionaire" show, and by his flashbacks, succeeds greatly. The other boy grows dark and yet eventually turns towards the good. At the end, all India (almost) is awaiting the "slumdog" (term used for beggar-entrepreneurs) good boy’s answer in the game show, and really, the revelation of his love interest from childhood. Rags to riches? Love requited? Go see for yourself.

Perseverance, destiny, love, separate paths, good and evil, this is what the movie is about. It is about more than that. It is a visual, virtual hologram which pulls you thru sights of boys living on top of a trash dump, kids running from the police or begging for food, drab and dramatic acres of shantytowns and slums, sounds such as cries of terror at religious persecution, omnipresent traffic jams and cars honking, hoards of people bustling about, smells from latrines and markets to moist jungles of fruits. There are emotions, childhood and adult friendships, lost love and betrayal. After the movie, one may need a kind of decompression to recuperate. It is so riveting, and weirdly, wildly, entrancing. Like my pilgrimage to India, this movie was a sensual, sometimes assaulting, interactive and low-to-high adrenalin pumping intoxication. A path thru another land, and ultimately yourself. All of your own emotions react, respond, get mad and find ecstasy. You cannot remain neutral, and view the movie, or if you go there, you need fortitude, and must have a strong stomach.

While some may object to this movie as being too graphic or negative about India, or novelistic as one Indian Bollywood star said. I recommend that you see this film to expand your cultural view, increase thankfulness for your own upbringing, world and culture, and to awaken to what the greatest economic power outside USA and China is like, at least in some ways. It is an amalgamation of joy and sorrow.

While one parent friend flinched against the visceral images of the movie, the abuse of children and women, the religious fanaticism, the slums, and the dog eat dog survivalist world, I myself saw it as an adventure and as just what people do in such situations. They create and re-create themselves to survive. It is a kind of Dickens and Hugo, a la India. On my own pilgrimage, I was amazed by one young boy who came on our overnight train to Darjeeling with his shoe shine kit. My friend Paul and I both declined his initial marketing advance. Later, Paul was impressed by this eight-year olds’ entrepreneurial skills. He barely had clothes on his back. He wore skimpy flip flops, and moved amidst a crowded train, with other hustlers. Paul finally gave in and propped up his feet. The boy went to work, vigorously whipping out various weapons of his trade. It cost Paul about 10 cents and he gave him a 100% tip. The boy whisked away smiling. Who know what will happen to him?

The movie obviously gives you an extended, up-close and personal view of poverty. While we eleven pilgrims were traveling on the streets of India to a shrine, we agreed how the suffering there seemed so obvious. It is right-in-your-face and explicit, whereas in the USA it is seemingly behind closed doors and white picket fences. Evil is evil and suffering is suffering, no matter where you are, we agreed, and India was definitely different than countryside Maryland, USA. While the poverty in India is at first atrocious, blatant and hard-hitting, similar to but different from many third world countries, a pilgrim may gradually befriend it, and in the public nature-spectacle of it all learn from it. There is no need of pretense or hiding one’s station in life. Whether in the maddening traffic or among bustling pedestrians, there is an elegant cacophony and orchestration of chaos which one learns, and maybe even, appreciates. Life there is more social public than our invidious individualism. The "just-do-it" mentality of living life no matter how hard, the helpful traditions and customs that still exist in such societies, modesty, respect of genders and family togetherness. The dramatic action there and of the movie, is a built in roller coaster ride of life that contrasts to other repressive cultures. Maybe that is why Mother Teresa was more at home there than anywhere, and she often decried the "poverty of the West."

In response to India and poverty a pilgrim recently wrote: "Isn't it funny that we travel great distances to see and experience 'poverty'. I spent time in Haiti one year, to see, touch and smell human poverty. We are such concrete individuals/humans that we have to see, touch, smell it a certain way/a certain presentation in order for us/our minds to believe. Poverty looks like this (x, y, z) and when I see (x, y, z) then I understand that to be poverty. But when I see (c, d, e) or (a,b,c) or (f, b, R) then I don't see 'poverty' because my brain is hard-wired to understand x,y, z = poverty. Yet our own country SUFFERS from poverty to the most despicable degree. Moral poverty, ethical poverty, spiritual poverty etc. There is so much need in our own country. Poverty presents itself in a different way than how we think it looks, yet it is right in front of us. People 'appear' happy and healthy on the outside and yet inside there is such suffering. Suffering disguised as careers, progress, materialism, sensuality etc.

While awaiting the movie, of course there were endless/mindless advertisements for other movies. One was called "He’s Just not That Not Into You" and couldn’t have been more western, and opposite of "Slum Dog Millionaire." It depicted (by what I could tell), the metaphysics of guy-girl relationships as Ultimate Existentialism, communicating the gender gap issue, codependence, waiting for the phone to ring from a love interest, warfare between the sexes, and, of course sexuality. All this while "Slumdog Millionaire is about survival, ethics and a rags to riches story of Hope and Redemption.

While in India I read an essay by someone about how different this worldview, typical Hollywood’s is different from "Slumdog Millionaire" Some of us also began to think and question if there is so much overt, dramatic suffering in India why aren’t there psychics and guru-therapists in every neighborhood, or ever present ads to offset this and help? Answer: that’s not their gig and they "just do it" accepting some difficulties and move on, or thru, without brooding. While there are life trainers and therapists in India, obviously they do not equal our Western number and our tendency toward self-absorption, which the movie trailer I saw, depicted, and, well, feeds on.

But our family relationship and communication problems are real, dramatic and visceral. We do need help, and for some, counsel. However, we need, as one pilgrim said, to get a proper perspective and to look at the present problem in light of the whole. Maybe that’s why we met so many volunteers in Calcutta. They wanted to get a grip on their runaway problems. Obtain a proper focus, to serve Jesus in His suffering, and to be reminded of what is real and important. They want to see and experience other’s suffering, and then and thereby re-visit their own afresh, and just maybe and most importantly, get detached from the entrapping, illusory self and selfish absorption of Western navel gazing and existentialism. Then they can be freed.

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi