Throughout our faith journey, we encounter Christ in many ways. Through church, through prayer, through family, friends, even strangers. One place I’ve encountered Christ that’s had a huge impact on my life is the movies. I really don’t think I’d be where I’m at today without it. That might sound a little odd but I think the visual and aural medium that is film can speak to us and perhaps enrich our lives in a way that is truly surprising and unique.
These cinematic encounters I’m talking about don’t necessarily come from movies centered on Christ either. Christ-figures are prominent in films, whether it is in the superhero genre or in more dramatic pictures like The Shawshank Redemption or Braveheart. There is something about Christ and what He represents that even in a medium mostly associated with worldly affairs, His example can shine through.
For this first part, I’d like to start off by focusing on some films that have Christ figures or symbolism. I believe it gives a nice picture of how Christ influences story and imagery in the movies.
Superman (1978), Superman Returns (2006), Man of Steel (2013)
There’s no subtlety in the Superman films when it comes to portraying Superman as a Christ figure. Right at the beginning of the 1978 film, this symbolism is made clear. Jor-El’s (Superman’s father) goodbye to his son was intended to be as if this was God sending Christ to Earth. The Christian belief that God the Father and God the Son are one is heard in this scene. The parallels continue throughout the movie with Superman being raised by ideal earthly parents, leaving his home in Kansas to spend time in the arctic wilderness reasoning with his father before beginning his heroics, just as Jesus was raised by Mary and Joseph and spent time in the wilderness in prayer with His Father before beginning His public ministry.
The 2006 release of Superman Returns further cemented these parallels, an intentional choice on the part of the director. In Superman Returns, we learn that Lois Lane, Superman’s love interest (no Jesus parallels there conspiracy theorists), wrote an article titled “Why The World Doesn’t Need Superman.” She tells him that the world doesn’t need a savior. In a beautiful scene, Superman takes Lois high above the world and tells her, “I hear everything. You wrote that the world doesn’t need a savior, but every day I hear people crying for one.” We see this earlier in the film when Superman flies above the Earth to hear the cries of the world, remembering the words of his father about humanity: “They can be a great people Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you…my only son.” Think of Jesus saying “I am the light of the world” and the numerous references in the New Testament of God sending Jesus, referring to Him as His “only Son.” There are even more parallels to Jesus’ earthly ministry in Superman Returns, such as Superman being stabbed in the side, falling to the Earth in the form of the cross after making the ultimate sacrifice, and disappearing from his hospital room in a reference to the empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection.
In 2013, the Superman film series was rebooted and a new origin story was told in Man of Steel. If there was a time to make a clean break from the Superman as Jesus motif, this was it, but to my surprise the parallels were drawn again, some in familiar ways to the 1978 film. In one of the early scenes set on Superman’s home world of Krypton, Jor-El says that Kal-El will be a god to humanity. When Superman is learning how to fly, we hear Jor-El telling him: “You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you. They will stumble. They will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.” As it was in the 1978 Superman, he is once again the light we will follow. Also reflected here is something Paul writes numerous times in the New Testament, that the human pursuit to be more like Jesus will not be perfect. In a very not-so-subtle moment (but in a good way), Superman goes to a church to talk to a priest about what he should do since the villain, General Zod, demands the Earth give up Superman or face destruction. Superman’s remark to the priest that “If there’s a chance I can save Earth by turning myself in…shouldn’t I take it?” is made all the more symbolic due to the stained glass window behind him depicting Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane where He made the decision to willingly be arrested and go to the cross.
The last parallel I want to discuss from Man of Steel is when Jor-El tells Superman that he is to be the bridge between two peoples, think of Christ reconciling humanity with God. Furthermore, when Jor-El tells Superman he can save all of humanity, Superman flies away in the shape of the cross. In a twist on typical cross imagery though, Superman strikes the cross pose not in a moment of sacrifice. It is used to suggest a promise instead, that Superman is willing to suffer and die to save the Earth.
The Lord of the Rings (2001 – 2003)
In The Fellowship of the Ring, the wizard Gandalf the Grey sacrifices himself to save his friends, falls, and dies. As he falls, his body forms like the cross. You could also make an argument that Gandalf is struck in the heel by the Balrog, which would be, if intentional, an incredible reference to Genesis 3:15.
In The Two Towers, Gandalf returns as Gandalf the White after having been resurrected. It is worth noting that the author of the Lord of the Rings books, J.R.R. Tolkien, was a devout Catholic, so it isn’t surprising to find this type of symbolism in his great work of fantasy.
The Matrix Trilogy (1999 – 2003)
The Matrix films have a good amount of Christian (and non-Christian) symbolism. In the first film of the trilogy, the main character Neo (also known as The One) dies and comes back to life. In the second film, Neo brings his love interest, Trinity, back from the dead. In the third film, Neo gives his life to bring peace to a world at war with machines. He is in the shape of the cross when he dies and the words spoken by the machines at that moment, “It is done,” obviously reference one of the last words of Jesus on the cross.
Gran Torino (2008)
In Gran Torino, the main character Walt Kowalski, after spending most of the movie as a racist and downright nasty person, makes his peace with God and gives his life to save his neighbors. The blood trickling down his hand adds to the symbolism of his death in the cross pose.
The winner of the 1995 Oscar for Best Picture, Braveheart, has many moments of symbolism drawn from the life of Christ. Everyone knows the symbolism at the end when William Wallace is executed on a cross, but other parallels can be found, including how Wallace is betrayed three times in a moment when he needed those who betrayed him. Robert the Bruce is like Peter in that he repents after his betrayal of Wallace and takes up his sword in the end, just as Peter repented after denying Jesus and led the early church after the ascension.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne is incarcerated for a murder he didn’t commit. He shows others a different way of living in an imprisoned world and escapes, literally taking on the waste and filth of the Shawshank prison population, and is washed clean in cross-like imagery. The prison guards discover Andy’s cell empty – a reference to the empty tomb. For further commentary, I highly recommend reading Father Robert Barron’s reflections on this incredible film.
So what we see here is not just imagery but also story showing the example of Christ. There are other films as well that do this like The Chronicles of Narnia films with the Christ-figure of Aslan, a lion, who sacrifices himself and is resurrected. There’s also E.T. which features a friendly alien that miraculously heals people, who dies and comes back to life in white robes and ascends to the heavens. The Hunger Games film, Catching Fire, also features obvious cross imagery in one of its last scenes, equating the main characters sacrifice with Christ’s.
Obviously with this imagery, we are encountering Christ on some level while watching a movie. But for many of these examples, there’s nothing else in the characters or stories that point to Christ, other than the momentary imagery of the cross. So that then raises the question, why use that imagery to begin with?
I think the answer to that is because society equates the cross with the ultimate sacrifice, of putting others ahead of one’s own interests. This is universally recognized symbolism that even non-believers would recognize and even appreciate on some level. But most of these examples don’t really lead us towards Jesus – it’s just neat imagery. It doesn’t cause us to examine our own faith or make us want to dig deeper into the scriptures. I’m not saying they should and I don’t think that’s the point of these movies, but it really is incredible when you experience a movie that changes you, that impacts your faith, that leads you to God’s Word, and results in an encounter with Jesus Christ.
One film I want to delve more deeply into relating to a cinematic encounter is the 1997 historical drama Amistad, directed by Steven Spielberg. For those of you unfamiliar with Amistad, it tells the story of the intense legal battle that followed the capture by the United States of African slaves who had taken control of the slave ship they were imprisoned on, La Amistad, in 1839.
I’m going to focus on one scene in particular from the film, but first, a little bit of background for what has happened leading up to this scene. The Africans are in prison waiting for the verdict on whether they will be recognized as free. The question before the court and for the judge to decide is “Were they born in Africa?” If they were, then they are free since the international slave trade was prohibited at that time. But there are other parties involved in the case who claimed otherwise – that the slaves were born in Cuba, and should remain as slaves. Earlier in the movie, while on their way to the court house, one of the Africans, who is called Yamba, takes a Bible from a Christian man who wants to pray for him. It’s not necessarily the most amicable encounter between two cultures, but Yamba keeps the Bible and looks through it. In the scene we are about to watch, we witness Yamba and Cinque, who is the main character, looking through the Bible. This is intercut with the Catholic judge, who is presiding over the case, praying over the decision he has to make. Click here for the scene
What I love most about this scene is that it is essentially a gospel presentation in the middle of a movie about a legal battle. It speaks to the universality of the gospel message and how the story of Jesus has spoken and continues to speak to all people and cultures. These slaves do not understand English but they witness the gospel through images and encounter Jesus through it.
Another thing I love is the first question Cinque asks Yamba about the story – “Who is he?” That’s the question we are all faced with when we encounter Christ and it is a question Jesus asked those who encountered him – “Who do you say that I am?” Yamba obviously doesn’t know Jesus’ name but as we see, Yamba identifies with Christ. Cinque tells Yamba that Jesus had to have done something wrong to merit punishment and Yamba replies, “Why? What did we do?” Yamba sees his own suffering in Christ and is drawn to the Jesus story because of it. After showing Cinque the crucifixion, Cinque says to Yamba that it’s just a story. Yamba tells Cinque, “But look,that’s not the end of it!” Yamba sees the hope that is in Christ, in the one who did nothing wrong dying and ascending into heaven. Yamba believes in this story and in the hope that comes from the suffering Christ on the cross, the resurrection, and eternity in heaven. He believes he will go to the place Jesus went to after ascending. That all may sound like a stretch, but I don’t think it is. Look at the point being made at the end of that scene with the Bible. Yamba returns to the page with the crucifixion and then flips to the page with the empty cross. What if the story just ended at the crucifixion? What is the cross without the resurrection? There is no hope in that. It is simply the end – you die and that’s it. “But look! That’s not the end of it!” Yes we die, but that’s not the end of our story. The cross is empty – symbolizing the hope that comes from the resurrection. This is the hope that Yamba recognizes.
It is through an encounter with Christ through suffering that this truth is revealed. After that scene with the Bible, Yamba and the others approach the courthouse and there are many people holding crosses and making the sign of the cross. Yamba especially focuses on 3 ship masts which remind him of the 3 crosses on Calvary. He is holding the Bible, which I believe symbolizes the faith he his holding onto. The judge, who heard of the horrors the slaves endured while crossing the Atlantic Ocean in the scene before this, prays before the suffering Christ. The judge too sees that truth and identifies the plight of these Africans with that of Christ. He draws a parallel between their trial and Jesus’ trial. In his meditations before the cross, the judge decides the innocent cannot die this time. He declares them free and Yamba celebrates and holds up his Bible, seemingly giving thanks to God for saving them.
More of course happens in the movie and the Africans’ case ultimately goes before the Supreme Court of the United States where they are declared free. But what we see here shown in his brief scene from Amistad is the story of the Christian faith – the truth and reality of it. That Jesus Christ came down to us, not to take away suffering or magically make our lives perfect, but to fill suffering and all things with His presence. That we have hope and confidence because of His resurrection.