Yesterday was Easter Sunday, celebrating the resurrection of Christ. Just in case you didn’t know, Jesus of Nazareth is a pretty important guy in Western society. In honor of a man who may or may not have been the Son of God, here are the top ten ways in which his stories have influenced all other stories told even today, a couple thousand years after his death, with movie examples that spring immediately to mind.
- Perfection – Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010)
Jesus was the perfect man, the man without sin, a man so antithetical to human nature that he was born without sex and he died only temporarily. In an Academy Award-winning performance, Natalie Portman plays a ballerina obsessed with becoming perfect in Black Swan. Tragically, “perfection” is so unattainable that Nina Sayers must lose her mind to live it, and as she fights to destroy the “imperfections” in her deranged psyche, she ends up destroying herself in the process.
- Temptation – Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992)
The Lord beget Christ in the New Testament in order to learn why mankind incurred his wrath so many times in the Old Testament, and what God found out during his time as a man is that human nature is weak to temptation. Basic Instinct is full of characters whose lives are defined by sex and violence, between the enigmatic crime novelist Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) and the troubled Detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas). Douglas is an actor whose persona is at its best when he portrays flawed human beings, a formula which won him the Best Actor Oscar as Gordon “Greed Is Good” Gekko for Oliver Stone’s (no relation to Sharon) Wall Street (1987, a precursor to Martin Scorsese’s thoroughly sinful The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)); as Nick Curran investigates a murder case and ends up seduced by its prime suspect, his dance with darkness mirrors that of Jesus when Lucifer himself appeared before the Messiah in the desert – Jesus, of course, resisted Satan, but not even a perfect man is wholly (holy) immune to that initial temptation.
- Forgiveness – Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volume 2 (2004)
After realizing how hard it is to be human, God decided to go a little bit easier on us and not end the world when the Romans literally crowned him with thorns and nailed him to a wooden cross – “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” One would not expect “forgiveness” to be a theme in Tarantino’s four-hour martial arts revenge epic, especially not for the titular Bill (David Carradine). However, Uma Thurman’s The Bride ultimately feels conflicted about assassinating her former lover and the father of her child, even after getting raped, bloodied, and buried alive to finally face him; she figures out that a jealous Bill shooting her in the head on her wedding day and triggering the whole bloody affair was, itself, an act of revenge, and no good can come from an endless cycle of vengeance (a cycle which Tarantino promised to continue in the sequel to Kill Bill, with the daughter of Bill’s fallen cohort, Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), vowing to come after The Bride).
- Atonement – Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino (2008)
God doesn’t just hand out forgiveness like it’s candy – Judas had to hang himself after betraying Jesus; otherwise, people can just do whatever the hell we want, because God lets us get away with murder, right? Wrong – Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski is an unapologetic and lifelong racist, and racism is definitely not something Jesus would do (P.S. Jesus wasn’t white). To atone for his sins, Walt sacrifices everything to protect his Hmong neighbors from a gang, and Gran Torino ranks alongside Million Dollar Baby (2004) as Eastwood’s tearjerking masterpiece (and that’s counting American Sniper (2014) as part of his filmography; sorry, not sorry).
- Rebirth – James Cameron’s Avatar (2009)
Jesus was baptized, and one of the main tenants of Christianity is that anybody can be converted to Judaism at any age, without being circumcised (ouch), through a baptism or otherwise “baptismal” rite of passage. Like Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is part of an American military-industrial complex that persecutes people based upon the color of their skin (which, in the case of Avatar, is blue). In the end, though, Jake finds his redemption when changes his ways to such an extent that he literally becomes one of the blue-skinned Na’vi.
- Resurrection – Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
“Resurrection” differs from “rebirth” because “rebirth” is more preoccupied with “change,” whereas “resurrection” is more concerned with “resurgence.” Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne doesn’t actually come back from the dead when supervillain Bane (Tom Hardy) breaks Batman’s back and leaves him for dead in an underground prison, but the superhero’s return to Gotham City is no less miraculous. Batman doesn’t have to be “reborn” to defeat Bane – he doesn’t need to change anything about himself; heroism is the right thing to do, anytime, anywhere.
- Crucifixion – David Yates’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 (2011)
Before he could be resurrected, Jesus had to first die for our sins. In much the same way, Harry “Chosen One” Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) has to offer himself up to the “evil incarnate” of Ralph Fiennes’s Voldemort. Like Nina Sayers in Black Swan, Voldemort loses his humanity when he pursues something that’s not meant for humans – immortality; when he attempts to kill Harry Potter, he only seals his own fate.
- Immaculate Conception – George Lucas’s Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
The Christians believe in “original sin,” that man is born sinful because we are conceived in sin – what sets Jesus apart, however, is that he was conceived sinlessly. It is revealed in Phantom Menace that Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), the boy who will grow up to be Darth Vader, was fathered by the Force to defeat the Sith. Of course, it’s basic movie history that Anakin succumbs to the Sith, but, in Richard Marquand’s Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983), the titular Jedi returns when Vader casts Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor into the pits of the Death Star, and, as the last of the Sith, dies with him.
- The Number “Three” – Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)
The three wise men… the Holy Trinity… Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, the number “three” is everywhere. Vertigo is the greatest film ever made, and it has been proposed by critics that Hitchcock’s vertiginous murder mystery is as hypnotic as it is because it is structured in threes (three characters fall to their deaths… Kim Novak plays a character within a character within another character… “Madeleine Elster” makes her entrance three times). I once said on another one of my lists that I would never again rank Vertigo lower than first, but Jesus was a miracle-worker, after all; he turned water into wine, he walked on water, and he proved me wrong here.
- Good-Naturedness – Victor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind (1939)
Jesus healed the sick (even going so far as to raise Lazarus from the dead), he fed loaves and fishes to the poor, he saved an adulteress from getting stoned to death, and he hung out with lepers and prostitutes (i.e. Mary Magdalene). Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara embodies exactly none of these traits in this Civil War saga, but her foil character, Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland), does. As a result, Scarlett wastes twelve years of her life coveting the affection of Melanie’s husband, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), but, when Melanie dies, Ashley is so devastated by the loss of his saintly wife that not even then will he love Scarlett, whose obsession with him drives away her one true love, Rhett Butler (Clark Gable).
Whether you believe in him or not, Jesus had a lot of timeless lessons to teach. Many of them still resonate today, in that most modern of the arts, cinema. Perhaps his most important lesson of all, is this.
Man may not be God, but man is not the Devil, either, and at least we’re so much fun to watch.