Christ Figures in the Movies

There has been a lot of press recently about the upcoming movie The Passion, from director Mel Gibson. Focusing on the last twelve hours of Jesus’ life, the film is already inspiring a spate of commentary on the canon of Jesus movies. Smugly devoted to Franco Zefferelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, I’ll watch Gibson’s production with folded visual arms.

The Priests

The potential catechetical benefits of a powerful Jesus film at this time are undeniable. Still, I skew toward the covert, believing that there is probably more spiritual impact to be found in films that represent in an implicit way what Christ’s life meant, as opposed to what it looked like.

The notion of the “Christ Figure” early on became a cinematic archetype, leaving us with a rich panoply of characters which make for a broader canvas of Incarnational images beyond the stable, shepherd and star.

Vatican II identified the three-fold manifestation of Christ in human history as priest, prophet, and king. Some of these Christ-figure films are great works of art, and, as such, are, in the words of John Paul II’s recent Letter to Artists, “genuine sources of theology” about the myriad ways that Christ comes into human experience.

“Therefore, all disciples of Christ…should present themselves as a living sacrifice….” (Lumen Gentium, #10)

There are many classic films that present us with images of priest characters. Called out from the midst of the people, as was the high priest Christ (Hebrews 5:1), these characters make of their lives complete sacrifices so that others may live and grow and find meaning.

The character of Andy in The Shawshank Redemption, presents us with one of the clearest Christ-figures in recent cinema. Coming into the prison environment as an innocent man, Andy brings hope and a sense of dignity to his fellow inmates, and ultimately truth and justice to the corrupt prison officials. In a scene that is already a classic, Andy earns two weeks of hard-time in solitary, for sharing with the entire prison community a few inspiring moments of a beautiful operatic aria.

A wonderful cinematic “priest” image can be found in the Academy Award winning foreign film Babette’s Feast. Having fled from political upheaval in Paris, a bedraggled woman presents herself as a refugee on the doorstep of two sister spinsters in a forgotten village on the stark Norwegian coast. Dwelling among the villagers and taking on all their ways, Babette ultimately obtains a large inheritance. She spends the entire amount on a lavish thanksgiving feast for the poor villagers who had welcomed her. Based on the story by Isak Denison, Babette’s Feast is a beautiful work of art that resonates particularly with Catholics because it is basically a two-hour visual allegory of the Eucharist.

Other films that offer compelling portrayals of characters that offer themselves for others in a Christlike priesthood include: The Miracle Worker (both versions), Metropolis, The Iron Giant, Glory, Open City, The Mission and The Country Girl.

The Prophets

“…Aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth, the People of God… unfailingly adheres to this faith, penetrates it more deeply with right judgment, and applies it more fully in daily life.” (Lumen Gentium, #12)

In the scriptural model, the role of the prophet is to seek out the People of God who have lost their way and lead them back into the embrace of God. Fundamentally, it is to remind the people who they are, and recall them to their vocation to be a holy people. In its stories of cinematic prophets, Hollywood has created some of its greatest and consequently most beloved works. Movies like Ghandi, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, A Man for All Seasons, Meet John Doe, Schindler’s List, and One Against the Wind, are all wonderfully produced stories of people who each pay a huge personal price in the cause of truth and justice.

A great scene of a cinematic Christ-prophet occurs in the classic film Casablanca. In Nazi dominated Vichy territory in North Africa, the Czech underground leader Victor Laszlo, played by Paul Henreid, visits a nightclub owned by American ex-patriot Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart. When a group of raucous nazi soldiers co-opt the club’s piano and start bellowing Nazi songs, Victor presents himself in front of the club’s orchestra and commands them to, “Play La Marseillaise.” Pounding the air, Victor leads the timorous French citizens in drowning out the ugly Nazi voices. At the end the people are inspired and triumphant, once again connected to each other, and to their real greatness.

The Kings

“…the Church ceaselessly and efficaciously seeks for the return of all humanity and all its goods under Christ the Head in the Unity of his Spirit.” (Lumen Gentium, #13)

The Kingship of Christ is universal, and the fundamental principal of unity between all people. There are many wonderful screen images of men and women who mirror the servant leadership of Christ. These movies set before us true leaders, who in recalling the people entrusted to them to their own fundamental dignity, make brotherhood and community possible.

Some cinematic Christ-King figures can be found in movies such as Camelot, We Were Soldiers, Braveheart, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Goodbye Mr. Chips, The Great Escape, and High Noon.

One of my favorite screen leaders can be found in the slightly dated but still effective British film, To Sir With Love. In a role that defined a whole genre of “teacher as mentor” films, Sidney Poitier portrays a black engineer who takes on a temp job in an urban high school, and ends up taking to heart the troubled lives of all of his students. Contrary to most of the films made of the sixties during the sixties the film still holds up, and manages to transcend the period’s ridiculous hairstyles and mini-skirts to deliver a wonderful message.

Barbara Nicolosi teaches screenwriting to aspiring Catholic writers at the acclaimed Act One: Writing for Hollywood. You may email her at [email protected].

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage