Monday, June 04, 2007

Top ten filmic Christ figures

At F&T, Kim Fabricius has posted a list of his twelve favorite filmic Christ-figures. While the list is solid (I’ve kept two from Kim’s list), I think there are a number of important characters that are often overlooked. I offer here my list of the top ten filmic Christ figures, listed in order of significance rather than in order of film release. Also, the list of rules is extensive and specifically excludes violent, religious, historical, and animated characters. I will do my best to abide by these.

I should note that most of these films are very modern, and that simply reflects my youth. There are certainly a number of much older films that deserve to be on such a list. I welcome suggestions from others.

1. Ofelia – Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
2. Kanji Watanabe – Ikiru (1952)
3. Damiel – Wings of Desire (1987)
4. Babette – Babette’s Feast (1987)
5. Mateo – In America (2002)
6. Theo Faron – Children of Men (2006)
7. Phil Parma – Magnolia (1999)
8. Andy Dufresne – Shawshank Redemption (1994)
9. Lena Leonard – Punch Drunk Love (2002)
10. El Chivo – Amores Perros (2000)

If the rules permitted religious figures, then the following two would be my first choices (they would actually be much higher than 11 or 12, but I’ve listed them this way for continuity):

11. Priest of Ambricourt – The Diary of a Country Priest (1951)
12. Sister Constance Lazure – The Barbarian Invasions (2003)

19 comments:

kim fabricius said...

Wow! Judging from some of your posts I suspected that you might come in on this one, and though you make me feel like a "rank" amateur in cinema-going (which I am!), and though my Father's Day wish-list is now getting totally out of hand (DVDs now added to books and CDs), I am so glad you did. You know how much I value your judgement.

D.W. Congdon said...

Thanks, Kim, that's kind of you. My knowledge of film is rather limited to the last 15 years and foreign films. Hopefully I will rectify this. I'm so glad you posted your list; I love connecting film and religion and writing a list like this was a joy. :)

Theodora Hawksley said...

I'm liking the inclusion of "Wings of Desire" and Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman is SO superb). It'd be interesting to play off Frank T.J. Mackey and Phil Parma as Christ figures - claims to save etc. Recall that Mackey stands in a cruciform shape when we see him at the beginning of the 'Seduce and Destroy' presentation.

But seriously - has no-one seen Breaking the Waves?! Go out forthwith and procure it!

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I definitely agree with Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption which is one of my favorite films.

I would add the role of John Nash's wife (played brilliantly by Jennifer Connally)in A Beautiful Mind, except she violates the rule about not being based on a historical figure.

D.W. Congdon said...

Theodora: I have not seen Breaking the Waves, but it's been on my Netflix queue for awhile now. I'll bump it up to the top and watch it.

The point about Mackey is a good one, and you're certainly right that he is a Christ-figure. I thought about him at first, but the character of Phil wins out for me in the end because his salvific influence extends throughout all his relationships and ends up being wider than Mackey's. But of course almost every character in that film is a Christ figure!

a. steward said...

I would love to add Simon Birch, but I'm a little conflicted about it. His dwarfism I guess qualifies him for having alien qualities. But that fatal foul ball - that doesn't count as violence, does it? It does make it really complicated, though. I don't know, what do you think?

Deep Furrows said...

Matteo! If anybody hasn't seen In America, I highly recommend it. After my wife and I watched, we watched with the kids...

D.W. Congdon said...

Deep Furrows,

In America is one of my and my wife's favorite films. A heartfelt story completely free from the usual sentimental baggage that ruins similar films. Since it is still relatively unknown, I tell everyone I see about it.

Andre said...

Theodora, your suggestion of Bess as a Christ-fgure seems to me to be one of the most difficult - and worthwhile - suggestions so far.

Sister Lazure from The Barbarian Invasions is a great suggestion. (What about the son?) As is Phil Parma from Magnolia.

Theodora said...

Re Andre's comment, I think the reason Bess is so controversial and difficult as a Christ figure is that she suffers sexual violence: this exposes a great deal about what we think of general (perhaps more macho) physical violence in relation to Christ figures 'Macho' violence is more acceptable and to an extent preserves the integrity of the sufferer. Sexual violence entails helplessness and real shame, which is an integral part of the gospel passion narratives often lost in Christ films. Makes for uncomfortable watching.

I also think such a female perspective is quite illuminating for the 'macho' pacifism of Stanley Hauerwas, for example, but that's another story...

D.W. Congdon said...

Andre,

Certainly the son in Barbarian Invasions is a Christ figure of sorts, but he's a character just as much in need of redemption as the others in many respects -- so I would still go with Sister Lazure. Her short screen time belies her pivotal position in the film's story. She is the one who helps reconcile the father and son in the first place, so the redemptive influence of the son is really dependent upon the redemptive influence of Sister Lazure.

Patrick McManus said...

David,

have you seen Bresson's Au Hazard Balthasar? Balthasar the donkey would be on the top of my list of filmic Christ figures.

I love the suggestion of Lena Leonard in Punch Drunk Love...great film! Philip Seymour Hoffman's character, Dean Trumbell, makes for a great Devil figure in that one!

D.W. Congdon said...

Patrick,

I love Bresson's films, but that's one I am still waiting to see (also on my Netflix queue!). I look forward to watching it soon.

Mykel G. Larson said...

Oh I will commit some heresy and sully the purity of this list and say:

Neo from the Matrix

And...!

Riddick (Yes, it's a stretch, but he displays Christ like qualities in the most interesting of times.)

D.W. Congdon said...

Mykel,

The only problem is that one of the rules is that the Christ figures must be nonviolent. They must imitate Christ in their refusal to take up arms. Certainly Neo is one of the most carefully constructed Christ figures in all of cinema -- for better or for worse -- but since he exhibits violence throughout, he is disqualified.

The Riddick of Pitch Black is a more interesting example, and apart from his own violent tendencies, I am inclined to see him as the best Christ-figure in sci-fi films.

Andre said...

Theodora, I agree that the sexual nature of the violence that Bess suffers is a significant part of what makes it so hard to watch the film. But I think what made it even more difficult for me was something I'm finding hard to pin down. Bess is such an ambiguous and heartbreaking character. And one guided by perverse conceptions of love and duty that have been reinforced by religion. And yet, it's as if we are being invited to see in actions which at one level are self-destructive, the difficult work of love. I'm not sure what I think of such an invitation.

A. Chapin said...

YAYYY for Riddick!
I also like him in the sequel where he deals with the necromongers - perfect symbols of fascist fundamentalism. Christ did overturn some tables, but yes, killing people is worse.
Christ did say "Woe to you..." to many...isn't that a death sentence?

The connection I would make with Riddick and the Christ figure is that he holds relationship more important than doctrine.....

D. W. McClain said...

David, regarding your rule of non-violence for the Christ figure, how do you deal with Christ's taking up the whip and driving the merchants out of the temple? (Not that I'm advocating violence here, just curious why you would come up with this rule) Seems to me that the Christ-like figure refuses violence as a means of self-defense, or rather the figure refuses self-defense.

I'd also suggest you look at Dignan in Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket (1996). His action at the end seems to meet the Christ-like figure in a powerful, albeit comical sense.

Although, I'd also suggest narrowing down what we mean by Christlike as it could include any number of qualities, from the "fool" or "idiot" (as in Dostoevsky or Cervantes, or it could include the Messianic. Both of which historically have not excluded violence.

D.W. Congdon said...

d.w. mcclain,

By way of clarification, you'll notice that this rule is not my own, but Kim's.

That said, I think this is a good rule to abide by for the simple reason that Christ's nonviolence is a definitive feature of his ethical example and thoroughly shapes the commands he gives his followers. If there is any violence in Christ's example, it is an aberration from the basic pattern of his life, not something that can be normalized and imitated uncritically.

Moreover, the violence that we see in seemingly "Christ-like" figures in film have little if any material connection to the reasons which gave rise to Christ's outbursts against the Pharisees and the abuses in the temple. In other words, there is a reason why Christ was upset, and unless those reasons are present, any attempt to ground violence on the basis of Christ's example are in fact groundless. That is to say, there is a concrete and particular basis for righteous anger, and I do not believe any Christ-figure in film faces these same concerns.

Finally, we live in a violent culture, a society of death, one might say. Christ came to bring life in abundance; he came as the Prince of Peace, as the messiah who restores justice and upholds the oppressed. Any filmic figure who undermines at least a basic concern for peace and justice is not a figure I wish to associate with our Lord and Savior.