I have discussed in previous posts the religious value that film holds. When most audiences strike up conversations about religion and film, our discussions usually begin with recent films like God’s Not Dead, Son of God, or Exodus. Or, we might also talk about films that are seemingly void of religious content in order to point out the moral and spiritual degradation of our society—The Wolf of Wall Street or Fifty Shades of Grey come to mind.
Yet, these conversations do no justice to the religious potential that film has. Film does not offer viewers a religious experience based primarily on content—moral, religious, or otherwise. The spiritual depth of film lies primarily in the subtle power of the language and conventions of film, the close-up for example.
Let’s take as our case study two Christ-figure characters on nearly opposite ends of the Christological spectrum: Willem Defoe’s Jesus from Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Brandon Routh’s Superman from Brian Singer’s Superman Returns (2006). Of course, one character represents an adaptation of the New Testament Jesus Christ, while the other is a comic book adaptation of a messianic hero. Both are textbook examples of cinematic Christ-figures. And, as cinematic Christ-figures, Jesus and Superman contribute to the dialogue on Christology. How we depict our messiahs in media speaks volumes about how we view the Christ of our theology. I argue that the Christological depth of these two characters is found in the subtlety of the films’ close-ups. If we take a quick look at a couple of shots from both films, we will see an important Christological distinction between the two characters that illustrates the true power of film.
First, in the opening sequence of Last Temptation, the film introduces the character of Jesus with a bird’s-eye shot of him lying in a fetal position in the dirt followed by a close-up of his face as he wakes from his disturbing dreams.
The camera takes the perspective of someone looking down at Jesus. He is wearing earth-tones and literally wallowing in the dust. The fetal position suggests he is born not from heaven, but from the earth. His hair is disheveled and his face is unshaven. And, the voice-over speaks of torturous visions and self-loathing.
In contrast is one of the early sequences of Superman Returns in which the audience is allowed a peak at Superman’s personal musings, his own thoughts of what it means to be a savior. The camera begins from a perspective of someone looking up at Superman as he floats above the earth. When the camera moves to a close-up of his face it maintains this low-angled perspective. Superman is depicted as the perfect specimen of heroic humanity with his perfectly coiffed hair, his piercing blue-eyes, and his clean-shaven face.
In these two sequences from two different Christ-figure adaptations the audience is invited to embrace either of two sides of the dual-natured Christ. The Last Temptation invites the spectator to identify with the humanity of Jesus in a way that no other film has done before or since. We are asked to not just assume that Jesus is human because he takes human form, but we are invited to relate to the sniveling, self-loathing, tortured soul of Jesus as he writhes in the dirt. This fact is probably the real reason why the film is so controversial. For, while the dream sequence depicts Jesus getting married and having children, it is the film’s constant and subtle reminder of Jesus’s unabashed humanity that sits so awkwardly with Christians who hold Jesus high as an object of worship and reverence.
Yet, it is the “secular” film of Superman Returns that depicts a Christ-figure that Christians feel more comfortable with. He is a Christ who hovers above us, eagerly waiting to come to our aid because he has the supernatural power to do so. He is good and perfect and above us, both morally and literally.
Last Temptation depicts the humanity of Jesus. Superman Returns depicts the divinity of Christ. And, both films do so, not just in the grandeur of moving-making magic—the sets, the costumes, the lighting, the makeup—or in the totality of the plot, but in the simple and subtle use of the close-up.
This is what endows movies with such potential for providing powerful religious and spiritual experiences: the cinematic progression of images that are able to express things that simple words cannot.
The renowned film critic, Andre Bazin states in one of his early essays that, “The cinema has always been interested in God.” For Bazin, that means that the most successful depiction of religious matter in cinema are films that do not overtly attempt to represent the divine, but those that deal with the psychological and moral aspects of faith instead. In other words, it is not the direct and manifest depiction of divinity that resonates favorably with audiences, but the more indirect and metaphorical approach of simple film conventions, like the close-up.
So, next time you are watching a movie and feel your heart tugging you into a moment of religious reverie, take a close look to notice the subtlety, the small things on the screen and revel in the real magic of movies.