Monday 4 June 2007

Twelve great filmic Christ figures

by Kim Fabricius

Here is an even dozen of my favourite filmic Christ figures. By “Christ figure” I mean a protagonist who fulfils the following criteria:

  • The character comes from another world/environment.
  • The character is “other”, alien, strange.
  • The character transcends his/her/its surroundings.
  • The character is salvific, i.e. bestows blessings like inspiration, liberation, transformation, reconciliation, justice, healing to other people or a community.
  • The character arouses opposition and/or suffers.
  • And, crucially – it eliminates a host of famous potentials – the character does not maim or kill, i.e. is fundamentally non-violent (there go westerns like Shane and science fiction flicks like Terminator 2).
  • To narrow the field further, the character cannot be biblical, or even religious (so no priests or nuns), nor historical (e.g. Ghandi or Schindler), nor come from an animated film (sorry, Shrek!).
Here they are, then:

1. Luke – Cool Hand Luke (1967)
2. Randle McMurphy – One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
3. Rocky – Rocky (1976)
4. ET – ET (1982)
5. Babette – Babette’s Feast (1987)
6. Edward – Edward Scissorhands (1990)
7. The groundhog (totemically) – Groundhog Day (1993)
8. Andy Dufresne – The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
9. Forrest Gump – Forrest Gump (1994)
10. Babe – Babe: Pig in the City (1998)
11. John Coffey – The Green Mile (1999)
12. Amélie – Amélie (2001)

Okay, now point out to me my poor judgement and egregious omissions!


Ben Myers said...

I'm glad you included the irresistible Amélie -- definitely my own favourite on the list. I suppose her only problem as a Christ-figure is that she contradicts the prophecy of Isaiah 53:2: "he had no beauty that we should desire him..."

byron smith said...

Rocky - fundamentally non-violent?

I'm also a little confused as to the necessity of the first two criteria.

Halden said...

Andy Dufrense should have been much closer to the top, and I too am a bit befuddled by the whole Rocky thing.

But this list is nothing if not something I never would have thought of, that's for sure! :)

Anonymous said...

I very much agree that Cool Hand Luke should be #1!

Anonymous said...

NB: The films (check it out) are listed in chronological order of production.

As for Rocky and violence - hey, boxing's a sport: Rocky wouldn't hurt a fly!

Anthony Douglas said...

What about Jim Caviezel in...

The Thin Red Line, playing Witt? (1998)

Anonymous said...

I don't know if he was excluded based on the "historical" clause, but certainly this list should include Paul Rusesabagina from "Hotel Rwanda"

Otherwise, I must say that there are more filmic Christ figures outside "Jesus movies" than in them - with the possible exception of Jesus of Montreal.

ken said...

I would definitely add "Michael" from "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover"

ken said...

Oh, and the little girl from "Whale Rider" --- Paikea

Anonymous said...

Hey Kim. Interesting idea (althogh I'm disappointed that Woody Allen didn't make the cut). The Scottish philosopher/theologian Donald MacKinnon (who was also a film buff), suggested that the gospels could be read as tragedies. I think this is an interesting (if provocative) suggesion, and worth pursuing. I wondered what you thought of this, particularly as none of the films you have listed strike me as tragedies. I can't think of any mainstream Hollwood film that would count as tragic (although I can think of plenty of sentmentalised parodies of tragedy, e.g., Schindler's List). That said, I'm not sure whether Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altmann, or Martin Scorsese ought to be thought of as mainstream Hollywood directors; in any case, some of their films might be considered tragedies.
But the father in Cormac McCarthy's The Road might just count as a kind of tragic Christ-figure (although this, of course, is a novel not a film).

Anonymous said...

The most moving and profound Christ figure I've ever seen in film has to be Bess in Lars von Trier's "Breaking the Waves" - she wholly fulfils Mackinnon's criteria that any attempt at atonement by a human is necessarily a dark and ambiguous phenomenon. Very tragic, harrowing film but absolutely superb.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Ken. I much prefer the young girl in that wonderfully heart inspiring film the Whale Rider.

No violence was necessary, just a return to the old (and always new) way of respect, cooperation and the forgotten Wisdom of the Elders.

Quite frankly I find the idea of "redemptive violence" to be a load of crapp. Violence of whatever kind, either individual or collective, always plants the seeds for more violence somewhere down the line---the immutable law of karma.

My Spiritual Master talks instead of the very real and humanising notion of emotional conversion, wherein one turns away from ones self possession to joy and service to all beings.

The best example of all is in the conversion experience wonderfully described by Charles Dickens in the Christmas Carol---and wonderfully played by Alistair Sim.

One of my favourite examples of emotional conversion was portrayed in the original Japaness film Shall We Dance, which along with Whale Rider, is my favourite film.
Again, no violence or heavy message---just a turn around into happiness and relationship.

Jon said...

Babe must be partly animated...

Pigs could fly?

Anonymous said...

I'd like to suggest also the boy Trevor in Pay It Forward (2000), and the alien Prot in K-PAX (2001).

Without giving a spoiler, I acknowledge that Prot arguably fails one of Kim's criteria - but arguably, he doesn't!

Oh, and how about Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man (1988)?

Ben Myers said...

Oh yes, Whale Rider was a real triumph: a stunning film.

duckmonkey said...


Brilliant idea, though I think there are many other characters that should have been included above these. Not that this list is deficient, by any means. It's just that there are a lot of lesser known films that are far superior. I'm going to post my own list shortly. This is a great idea -- I love film, so I'm surprised I never thought of this. :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all the suggestions so far. That, of course, is one of the perks, even points, of doing lists: hot tips - in particular, Whale Rider: I've seen it commented on theologically somewhere. I'll look out for it.

Great point about Donald MacKinnon and tragedy in the gospels (I've heard some great stories about him when he was at Cambridge - he was quite eccentric, not to say mad! - and he was an important influence on the young Rowan Williams) - and the absence of "darker" films in the list. I also feel a bit guilty that all the films are pretty modern - another gap worth filling.

And as for "redemptive violence" - yes, in my view too, an irredeemable theological oxymoron.


David W. Congdon said...


Oops. The "duckmonkey" logo is actually my wife's. Apparently I was logged in under her name. :)

In any case, you'll find my list posted on my blog now. Or you can just click here.

a. steward said...

I've never seen the movie, but apparently they made Melville's Billy Budd into one in 1962. I don't know about it, but he's a pretty sound Christ figure in the book.

βασίλης ψύλλης said...

kim, if under the term Christ-figure you mean a "Messiah", should have among in your criteria that he was expected by men (a quite big human collectivity who was waiting him for a, more or less, certain purpose);
if you mean Jesus, as a historical character with specific personal manifestations, i wonder if it is possible to count any criterion as definitive.
anyway, in your list i didn't see Johannes in Carl Dreyer's "Ordet"--Christ-figure par excellence.

David W. Congdon said...

I think by "Christ-figure" we mean a character with salvific influence upon those around him/her/it. It's certainly not a high Christology! :) But again, these are like the "little lights" of which Barth speaks in CD IV/3.

Jon said...

What about Passion of the Christ - isn't there something in there...?

I know that's a ridiculous suggestion!

What about sci-fi? I guess they're too dead giveaway. But Grant Macaskil would never forgive me unless I mentioned Buffy

Anonymous said...

The restriction to non-violence is a pretty good way to rule out those who are more like Christ as he is presented in the book of Revelation, i.e. a conqueror going out to war.

In that light, I would add Superman, whose latest appearance in film was consciously modeled on Christ. Brian Singer even admitted that it was deliberate. He's not a Christian, but he respects much in Christianity and consciously worked some Christian imagery into some of the lines, particularly near the end.

It's egregious to leave out Gandalf and Aragorn, both of whom were deliberate Christ-figures of different sorts. And how could you not count Aslan?

Fred said...

Anne Mullany from sex, lies, and videotape

This post reminds me of the Christlike hippie character in Percy's Lancelot.


Anonymous said...

Superman and the Mel Gibson film? I would be inclined to re-title the movies The Passion of the Superman and Superchrist - cinema gloriae.

David W. Congdon said...

Cinema gloriae -- very nice! Indeed, the reason I love directors like P. T. Anderson is that he makes cinema crucis.

Fred, thanks for mentioning Walker Percy and Lancelot -- an under-read author and an under-read book. Both are fantastic.

joel hunter said...

I second Vassilip's choice of Johannes in Ordet. As for sci-fi, how about James Cole in 12 Monkeys?

Anonymous said...

How about:

1) John Keating in Dead Poets Society

2) Frodo Baggins

3) The horse in Seabiscuit

4) Jimmy in Hoosiers

5) Jar Jar Binks (just kidding)

Anonymous said...

David - I'm giving a paper on P.T Anderson's "Magnolia" at the American Academy of Religion in San Diego in November this year. They're also screening the film. Come along!

Ched said...

So, I'm guessing Jack Bauer is out of the running?

Anonymous said...

Pablo Neruda -- Il Postino (The Postman, not to be confused with the similarly titled ill-fated Costner flick).

If you could have the imagination to construe the violence theologically, Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven. Imitatio Christi is a little too narrow to contain some of the best Christ figures. Chew on that!

Ben Myers said...

Il Postino -- great suggestion, Anon!

Shane said...

A Mathematical Curiosity:

The number of Christ figures the one perceives in contemporary cinema is directly proportional to the vehemence of one's rejection of natural theology.

C = bN,

where C is # of Christ-figures, N is vehemence of rejection of Natural Theology and b is a scaling factor (measured in barths).

The paradoxical quality of this function is evident in the case where N expands without bound. As the rejection of God's operation within nature to protect the unique mediatorial role of Christ approaches infinity, the number of Christ figures in contemporary culture also expands without bound--making every character in every contemporary movie, book, and song a Christ-figure.

Prof. Barth could not be reached for comment as his rapid subterranean rotation had caused the ground near his grave to break asunder prohibiting communication.

Ben Myers said...

Good point, Shane. In fact, Barth himself loved going to see films, and he was infatuated with the gorgeous Marlene Dietrich. In a letter, he speculated about including her in the Church Dogmatics: "I don't know where she will have a mention in the Dogmatics -- perhaps in eschatology." So that proves your point!

byron smith said...

Frodo, Aragorn and Gandalf all capture different elements of a Christ figure, though all but Frodo fail on violence. I could be just forgetting something, but is Frodo ever violent?

Anonymous said...

How about the 'mad' scientist in Instinct (played by Anthony Hopkins - but perhaps he hasn't completely repented of his violence

How about the retired violinist/choirmaster in 'as it is in heaven'

Aric Clark said...

Wow, the nonviolence angle really does cut out a lot of obvious and cool Christ figures - Neo, from The Matrix, for example.

However, sticking within the parameters I'd have to say my two favorite are both little girls: from The Whale Rider and Pan's Labyrinth.

Anonymous said...

That's really interesting, Ben. I can definitely see why Barth would like Dietrich. Who doesn't?
re: redemptive violence... yes, it is definitely an oxymoron, and it shouldn't be confused with the very different notion of tragedy. And yet, don't certain scenes in the drama of Christ compel us to wrestle with the possibility that there might be a shadow-side to redemption? If the finitude that the Word takes on in the
incarnation is real finitude, then we must at some point talk about the costliness of the via crucis, and not just a costliness that Christ internalises, but a costliness that others must bear on acocunt of Christ's actions. MacKinnon suggests that Lenin is a kind of parable of Christ in this regard. I reckon that (as someone else mentioned above), Buffy might be equally fitting. Admittedly she does put a human being into a coma (Faith), and she does kill Angel when he has a soul, so the non-violence clause would rule her out. And she is a tv. charachter. But she does save the world. A lot. And Joss Whedon never lets us forget the cost of the redemption she brings, either to herself or to others. It is a real costliness, and one that we can't imagine being put right.
Two questions here... 1. is it possible to think redemption without sentementalising it? Whedon, I think, does finally fail here, (as do movies like The Shawkshank Redemption) but perhaps there is no way of not failing? So the question is whether certain failures are more appropriate than others here? (I wonder whether Bonhoeffer's comment about Christology and silence is to the point). 2. It seems to me that the most valuable films are not ones in which we can discern Christ figures per se, but one's that make us, as students of theology and believers, work harder, films that make it more difficult for us to say what we must say about God's redemptive work. I think "The Hours" is a good example of this kind of film. I was wondering whether anyone had any suggestions about other films in this regard?

Anonymous said...

I love the way this post has provoked us to think about violence. Perhaps the interesting question we need to ask is how the characters in question transform the violent worlds they live in - not necessarily without using force, but without violating those around them. I like the movie Instinct (not be be confused with basic intinct) in this regard

Ben Myers said...

I think you've made an excellent point, Andre. Like you, I generally prefer morally ambiguous films over straightforwardly "redemptive" ones. As you say, The Hours (one of my favourites) is a brilliant example; perhaps other examples would be The Godfather, Dogville, Children of Men, and Candy (admittedly there is a redemptive theme in this one, but it's very unsentimental).

Anonymous said...

Kim. Although mine would be different, I like your list. I wonder if you'd considered Donnie Brasco (played by Johnny Depp) from the brilliant film of the same name? While he does do some maiming, I think he well fulfills the criteria you list. On the film, see

David W. Congdon said...


I'm quite pleased to hear that you will be giving a paper on Magnolia, and I can only wish I were doing the same. It's been a dream of mine for some time to give a paper on the theology resident in P.T. Anderson's films. I think I may work on a book someday -- something like The Gospel According to P.T. Anderson.

I wish I could be at the conference. Sadly, the distance and expense are too much.

Anonymous said...

Andre, i really appreciate your point regarding redemptive violence. I think that we need to admit that there is a "shadow-side to redemption." How can Jesus redeem unclean people without at some point, in some sense, get His hands dirty? "He who had no sin became sin . . ."

My other question is why are emotionally driven portrayals of Christ-figures written off as being excessively emotional or as being insincere (sentimental)?

Shouldn't stories that connect with the redemptive drama of Christ evoke strong, maybe even uncomfortably strong, emotions in us? Why is this bad or invalid? Why would you want to deal with redemption without invoking emotions, even over the top ones at times? To me we are often overly emotional creatures, so i don't see why we would want to eliminate that from redemption. I fear it is b/c somewhere along the line we have begun to believe we are above all that.

Am i missing something here?

Anonymous said...

Hey Derek. Yeah, I would want to make a distinction between sentementality and emotion. Basically, I think a sentimental film is one that does not make us, the audience, complicit, and so conforms to our expectations. It gives us what we want (or think we want), but doesn't challenge the way that we see things. We remain competent surveyors of the good and the bad, and are never confronted with the truth about ourselves. A good example of this is Schlindler's List (as the late Gillian Rose has pointed out). This would all need to be developed much further of course. But I definitely agree with you that we shouldn't rule out emotion at all. A good example of a film that is intensely emotional but not (on my reading) sentimental is Liv Ulmann's "Faithless (Trolosa)". "The Hours" is another good example. It's also worth mentioning Oscar Wilde here, who was a master at exposing a morality that had become sentimental. "A Good Woman" (an adaptation of Wilde's "Lady Windermere's Fan") is worth watching in this respect.

Anonymous said...

Hi Andre,

Thanks for that sharp comment. And it's good to see someone who knows and admires the late Gillian Rose, a mentor and friend of Rowan Williams.

Anonymous said...

... the donkey in Au Hasard Balthasar ...

D. W. McClain said...

How about Owen Wilson's Dignan in Bottle Rocket (1996)? Although his "Christlike" was necessary due to his own devices and schemes, his action at the end is really powerful.

Chris said...

Tyler Dureden - Fight Club See this post for expalnation

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