Most movie-goers are familiar with the hagiopic, whether they know it or not. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ (2003) and Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) are both recent and fairly well-known examples, particularly among evangelical Christians. The hagiopic, a term coined by Pamela Grace the author of The Religious Film, is a “saint” picture, a biographical film devoted to a holy person. It is a film genre that is distinct from the biopic because the film is “concerned with the hero’s relationship to the divine,” and the world of the conventional hagiopic is a place where “miracles occur, celestial beings speak to humans, and events are controlled by a benevolent God, who lives somewhere beyond the clouds” (Grace 1).
As a specific genre the hagiopic offers its viewers a kind of ritual experience. The experienced viewer, familiar with the conventions of the hagiopic willingly joins in on the events that describe the suffering holy figure. It is an important film genre for offering religious experience to viewers because the hagiopic typically deals with important and universal questions of “suffering, injustice, a sense of meaninglessness, and a longing for something beyond the world we know” (Grace 3). Furthermore, those questions are not framed simply by giving pat, orthodox answers, but by dramatizing the inner conflicts of the holy protagonist in ways that are universal to human experience.
Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) is anything but a religious film by any stretch of the imagination. The film’s protagonist, a liberally perfumed concierge who “goes to bed with all” his friends, would not be considered anything even akin to the word holy by audiences that hold that term in high regard. Yet, the film utilizes the conventions of the hagiopic to achieve its depiction of the kind and charming M. Gustave as a priest serving his disciples in the last vestige of human civility on earth, The Grand Budapest Hotel.
The Grand Budapest is, according to Zero, “an institution”–a temple, if you will, to the religion of civility where the staff devotes their lives to serving their guests. As concierge, M. Gustave is the chief priest placing the needs of others before himself. While the guests feast on champagne and lavish dinners, Gustave eats cold cereal in his tiny, sparsely furnished studio.
There are a number of essential elements of Grace’s holy picture that are upheld by Anderson’s film and represented by the character of M. Gustave as a priest.
First, Gustave, as the high priest of the institution of the hotel and a member of his profession’s holiest and secret order The Society of the Crossed Keys, serves and ministers to the congregants of the hotel. He delivers sermons on Sunday to his staff. He ministers to widows (the elderly women at the hotel) and orphans (Henkels and Zero). He spreads the verses of his scripture (Romantic poetry) to those who are in need of comfort during moments of tragedy or those who wish to commemorate instances of celebration.
Second, Gustave administers sacraments to those under his care. He gives blessings to other priests. He accepts alms to light a candle in the Sacristy for his congregant. He administers the Eucharist of fine food and drink to those whom he ministers to–Mendl’s pastries and champagne are his body and blood of choice. And, he officiates the wedding between Agatha and Zero.
Finally, Gustave suffers and dies for the sake of his ideology and service to others. He is beaten a number of times over the course of the film, usually as a consequence of defending those in his service or upholding the ideals of his calling. Then, in his final act, Gustave sacrifices his own life for his successor and brother in arms, Zero.
The question for us as viewers is, why? What is the meaning of using conventions of the hagiopic as a subtext for The Grand Budapest Hotel? Why is important to have Gustave depicted as a representative of a kind of priesthood, a saintly figure who ministers to others through the institution of a grand hotel?
The answer is simple, really. Because, how you treat people in life really does matter.
Gustave represents the forgotten world of people who offer “faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.” Gustave is a kind and charming servant who regularly puts the needs of others before himself. In our current global situation in which religious zealots cut off heads of their victims live on the world wide web, or a depressed man commits suicide by flying a plane full of passengers into a mountain, or children kill other children with automatic weapons, don’t we all wonder what went wrong? And, for those who live in the Post-enlightenment, Post-church, Post-modern western world where both God and the author are dead, there is little doubt that we still ask the question.
Hence, Grand Budapest’s Gustave reminds us that, even though, the grand institutions that used to provide us with answers are slipping away (The Hotel or the Church), there remain certain ideals that we should cling to. Gustave’s ideology can be summed up in the words of Christ, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12 NIV).