Religion and Film (religionandfilm) wrote in filmandreligion,
Religion and Film

The Messianic Complex.

The Messianic complex in Film
By Leonard O Goenaga

Most of us (if not all) have sat through those wonderful films with the good-guy and the bad, and have watched as our hero single handedly saved the day (Star Wars anyone?). It’s probably the most cliché scenario in all of film: The Good Vs the Bad, and the actions of one man having single-handedly tilted the balance in favor of good.

Yet where exactly does this heroic concept come from? There’s many ways to argue it, but what exactly is it that appeals to us about good conquering? Why do we rejoice in the defeat of evil? What is evil? What I’m getting at is what is it about this hero ‘saving’ others that offers a profound insight into the our own human nature?

In various films we find something I call the messianic complex. In order to touch upon this, we must first define what makes up a messiah and savior...

“A Leader or Savior of a particular group or cause”
“The promised deliver of the Jewish nation prophesized in the Hebrew Bible”

“a person who saves, rescues or delivers.”

What exactly makes someone a Messiah? By our first definition, a Messiah could be as equally evil as good; after all Hitler was the Messiah of Nazi Germany, yet Hitler is probably the last person you’d think of when I’d say Messiah. But why is it that the ‘good’ messiah’s appeal to us? Why is it we share this universal concept of Evil, and desire a Messiah to play a role in what we appear to share as universal goodness?

That’s are all wonderful questions, but we won’t be finding answers in philosophical discussions about the nature of man, the concept of evil, and the question of goodness. Rather, we will look at the power of film as a medium and expression of ideas to draw idea’s on what makes a Messiah, and what this can tell us about our own human condition.

We have defined Messiah, so now let us define the human condition. I enjoy fragments of how Wikipedia puts it:

“The term is also used in a metaphysical sense, to describe the joy, terror and other feelings or emotions associated with being and existence.
What is the meaning of existence? Why was I born? Why am I here? Where will I go when I die? The human struggle to find answers to these questions — and the very fact that we can conceive them and ask them — is what defines the human condition in this sense of the term.”

In other words, what can the messianic role in film tell us about our own existence, and our own meaning? What type of truth can the Messianic role in film tell us of ourselves?

The three films that will fill this discussion is that of “Shawshank Redemption”, “El Jardin Del Eden”, and “Acts of Worship”. The latter two are Indy Films, while the first is one most of us recognize. These three films, which appear completely different in their storyline, all can tell us something about the Messianic role. By comparing the three, we will draw similarities on what it means to be a Messiah, and what relationship hope, faith, and salvation (concepts you find in the human condition) share with these Messianic roles.

Now I’m going to take it as given that you have some knowledge of the three films. If anything you can get some by reading synopsis’s online, or renting the movies yourself.

We start by evaluating three characters. Our first three characters are Red (Shawshank), Digna (Acts of Worship), and Jane (Garden of Eden). All three of these characters would initially appear to us to be taking on this savior role. We’ll break down the 3 cases with an explanation. As we discuss these characters, look for the idea of a ‘Garden of Eden’ (Place of Happiness and paradise), the idea of hope, the idea of inner-peace, submitting, the action of searching, and the idea of being ‘saved’.

I. Red

In Shawshank Redemption we have the character of Red. You would initially think that the movie was focused on Dufrain, but after evaluating it I would say it’s meaning is grounded around Red. Red has been imprisoned in Shawshank for years (30+). All throughout his stay he is the guy who can get you what you want. Whether a rock hammer, or a poster, he appears to be the man that can help others by getting them something that gives them meaning. So how does Red fit the role of a savior? For that we must look at where Red derives meaning from. What gives Red a meaning to his existence is helping others. This is a key concept because we will see how this is reflected in our other two would be ‘saviors’.

As the movie progresses, we learn about an old man named Brookes. Upon exciting the jail, he is plugged into the outside world. We would initially assume that he has left the hell of Shawshank and entered into the blessed outside world, or what we would assume to be the ‘Garden of Eden’ (paradise). Yet what happens of Brooks? He kills himself. He found meaning taking care of his bird and helping others in his occupation as librarian. We would assume that Red, being much like Brooks, would end up killing himself. When Red exits what we assume to be ‘hell’, he merely enters another in the form of meaningless existence. He even follows the same occupation as Brooke as a cashier, and the irony overflows in that he even stays in the same residency. It appears that Red has lost his meaning; which initially he believed was helping others. Yet Red does not kill himself. He takes upon the promise of Dufrain and goes on a ‘search’.

It is his willful decision of searching that is key (submission). Within the backdrop of the hypocritical religious system of the jail, Red never tries to find internal peace. Rather he finds meaning not with being at peace, but through trying to save others through helping them (such as the role he takes as trying to be somewhat of a savior to Dufrain by helping him get things). Though all this work, in the end, is meaningless. How does Red gain inner peace? How does Red find paradise? Did he finding it in others? No. Did he find it in what we would believe to be paradise (life outside of prison?). No. Did he even find it in the temporal physical paradise of the beautiful beach? No.

It was his faith, and his free willed decision to take the path towards internal peace and meaning; which is represented by the journey he makes to the wall and him willfully deciding to follow Dufrain (even though Red tells Dufrain that he would be useless to him outside the jail)

It is him finally discovering that it isn’t his actions that bring about paradise, but that it’s being content with who he is inside that bring it about. It stresses the idea that someone cannot only come and save you. Yes, Dufrain came and showed himself as someone who was in paradise even in prison, because he had hope and faith and was internally content; but Dufrain didn’t ‘save’ red.

Rather, Red saved himself…

II. Digna

Now we take up Digna. Digna is a rather admirable figure in herself. She is an ex-heroin addict struggling with the lure of addiction throughout her stressful occupation and life. She is even successful in her job.

Before we compare Digna to Red, lets compare the environment of both Red and Digna. Red = hell of the jail. Digna = the hell of the slums. In addition, we have this same backdrop of unsuccessfully religion. We are bombarded with constant images of Religion, and they appear somewhat unsuccessful and useless in the backdrop of the miserable existence of the slums. In Red’s case, we have hypocritical religion, while in Digna’s it’s rather ineffective.

So how are Red and Digna alike? Digna finds meaning in helping others as well. Just as Red derives meaning in helping his jail mates, Digna finds meaning in helping fellow druggies. It’s funny: Instead of Red and Digna trying to help themselves, they are helping people like them instead. Digna tries to help Alex (a heroin addict), yet even in the backdrop of ineffective religion, she cannot help herself. Instead of trying to find internal peace and paradise, she tries to change others and change her environment (the slums) into a paradise.

Red tries making the Jail into a better place by getting people what they want.

Digna tries to make the slums a better place by helping druggies.

Yet it is Digna’s lack of finding inner peace that leads to her temptation into doing drugs, and dying from overdose.

III. Jane

Jane is another very interesting character. As above, let us compare the environments first.

Jane has crossed into poor Mexico in hopes of finding meaning and ‘paradise’. Yet instead of looking inside out, she tries to help the Mexican people. This is made evident in her trying to help a native by getting her a job. Our environment is once again the same. All-throughout the film we have images of Religion as ineffective; especially in the poor background of Mexico.

So Jane is wandering around, trying to find herself in helping others, and rather failing. Even when she helps a Mexican native cross the border and find the “paradise” of the ‘Garden of Eden’ Inn, she fails in him and a child leaving her. Every time she tries to help others, she fails to find that meaning. This is even made obvious when the Mexican stops her from helping a Mexican family send a dead child back to mexico.

It’s interesting that our three characters are in nasty environments (that we would believe to be hell), and they get to places that we would believe to be paradise, or the Garden of Eden (literally in Janes case), yet even when they get there they really don’t find paradise. What is this trying to tell us about our human condition? Maybe it’s trying to tell us that the human condition of finding meaning isn’t a literal adventure that you take to find a temporal environment. Also, maybe it’s trying to tell us that we also won’t find paradise in merely helping others. Yes; helping in love is incredibly noble, but the feeling we get from these three films is that it doesn’t ‘save’ us.

What does it mean to be saved? I would think it would mean to be rescued from your environment; whether it be the hell of a poor Mexico, the jail of Shawshank, the slums of the Inner City ghetto, or even the outside world in general. Rather paradise, and being saved in it, means to find internal peace.

Internal peace is something that you can carry with you wherever you go. In Dufrain’s case, when he enters Shawshank, he doesn’t find paradise in his library (although we might think he does). Heck, he doesn’t even find paradise in the physical paradise of a paradise (The Mexican Beach). Rather he had paradise all along. He had it inside of him, and he was able to carry it with him in the hell of the prison and the outside world. No matter his location, he had it with him. No one could even take it away from him; as we see in the case of the Sisters and the evil Warden.

Then let us look at Red. Red joins Dufrain on the beach, and doesn’t find paradise there. After all, he received meaning from helping others, and as he said he would be useless to Dufrain on the beach because “it was different”. Yet isn’t it ironic that he finds paradise at that point that he submits and realizes that it’s not his efforts to help Defrain that gives him meaning, but on being internally content. The Mexican beach is symbolic of this. It shows us Red in an environment where he’s completely useless but finally in ‘paradise’.

We can even made this comparison to Alex in ‘Acts of Worship’. She leaves her hometown to find meaning in the city, yet she finds nothing. Rather it is the act of her submitting to God that she finally finds internal peace. It’s ironic that she finds peace in herself and this leads to her allowing to be in ‘paradise’ back at the place she left to begin with.

So what does this tell us about the messianic complex and the human condition? It shows us that the ‘good guys’ and saviors can come and show us a way, but they cannot literally save us. Our messianic complex isn’t something that we fulfill by going out and saving the day, but rather by saving ourself. These three films teach us that paradise is not a physical place, but being at peace in any place. These films show us that the only real savior is not he who tries to find meaning in helping others, or even a place of peace, but rather that we are our own saviours.

It is the act of humbling ourselves and understanding that our actions and environments are not paradise, but that paradise starts from inside of our being. What does this say of the human condition to find meaning? I would think it says that meaning comes from being humbly content with who you are, and this will result with being content wherever you are.

The Garden of Eden isn’t a place you can buy a ticket to, or buy your way into (by helping others), but rather it’s a place that can only be entered through being humbled and understanding that your own efforts cannot saved you. You are saved in knowing this humility and peace. Although we as humans try so hard to go out and find meaning, we forget that meaning has been with us since the beginning, and waits for us to as we try to find it ourselves. It’s a profound truth about why we exist: to find meaning, and where this meaning is.

In other words, you are not a savior, or a messiah, but rather you have been saved to begin with, and you merely need to recognize this.

God Bless!

Topic of Discussion: What other roles do you find characters playing? In what other films do you find this 'Savior/Messiah' theme?
  • Post a new comment


    default userpic
    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.
I'm sorry, this was really long for me to I hope that I got the jest of the question when I reply.

One of the movies that has had an incredible impact in my life has been Braveheart.

I love the passion that Wallace has for his bride "depiction church as the bride of christ" and his country (earthly kingdom). The spark that turned into a raging fire that couldn't be put out. Turning with fire in his eyes, Wallace replied,"Why is that IMPOSSIBLE? BECAUSE YOU SAY IT IS?" Nothing was impossible for Wallace. Nothing is impossible to him who believes for something more...He lit the country ablaze. Igniting and resurecting hope deferred. Injustice would no longer lead the day. He paved the path for freedom. He depicted the Messiah. He gave His life as ransom.
I also admired Robert Debruce's character who was torn between two sentiments. One being brave and uncompromising and the other being the compromising man of the day in order to lead his nation. The first won out but this was not without much agony. It was Robert Debruce that led Scotland to freedom after Wallace was betrayed and excuted by compromising men. The human condition is full of compromises. Good and evil. What is just what is unjust?

You used Hitler as an example. Let me say this, Hitler is in no way any kind of an example. He was very self righteous. Have you read his biography yet? A messiah saves. How was he saving??? Where was the freedom? Where was the justice? When the messiah came to set men free that was from was themselves, their depraivity. He was most severe not upon the sinners of the time but upon the pharassees (today we would say the pastors. He has little room for self righteousness and a lot of room for compassion and mercy.
In our eyes we would never see Hitler as some sort of savior; yet in the eyes of his followers he was. He was seem of saving them from the evil minority race, as well as political turmoil. He was seen as eradicating the Jews and others, who were seen as subhuman and considered to be poison to their political system. Surely we do not see him as a Messiah, yet others would see him as someone saving them from something. It's merely an example to have us question what exactly does it mean to have a savior? Is it merely someone who saves us from something?

I agree with you when you say he was self-righteous, and I take it a step further to say the man was pure evil.

Yet look at others examples (Such as Mao, the radical Islamic Terrorist, and even the acts of murder by former Communist Russia; all these had socities that saw their actions as saving them from something. Not everyone, but some).

I agree with your statements of the Messiah completely. I'm just using the message I believe the movies to be expressing.

The Mission (1986): paths of faith
King Arthur (2004): Interpretations of belief
Black Snake Moan (2007): Distortions of faith in society.
Saved (2004): Public perceptions
Good stuff. I'll definately look into those movies. Would you mind telling me a bit more about the concept of faith in Black Snake Moan? If it really has some religious themes I might as well go out and watch it (but it looked kinda just about sex).

You also listed some other good stuff. Hopefully I'll get a chance to watch those as well.


10 years ago

Deleted comment

The concept of sacrifice is a VERY interesting thing. I'm hoping to write an article about the role of sacrifice in films, and what exactly it explains in relation to the Human Condition. After all, as humans, how can us sacrificing ourselves for others be logically explained? Shouldn't we, if you assume we are products of evolution, submit to the theory of 'survival of the fittest' and watch for our own survival first? Some I guess would argue the motherly role, or the role of saving ones own species, but I would argue in favor of a concept called 'love'.

Thanks for the post, I'll try to look into the film. I've never seen it.
Two comments:

First, I disagree with the idea of Red as Messiah. the themes you reffered to as messianic in Him I don't agree with... rather, I take the traditional tack of Dufraine as Messiah, for a few reasons... 1. Dufraine was innocent. He enetered Shawshank (which I would equate with earth, rather than hell) without having committed any wrongdoing. 2. Even in Shawshank, surrounded by corruption, abuse, and people who hated him, he still did no wrong. He stood up for his morals, and attracted people like Red to him. 3. Once he left Shawshank, his presence was still felt; he had excorcized death ( the corrupt warden, who you could equate with Law) and he offered others hope for when they got out. 4. Once Red got out, he did not go where he was supposed to. As you mentioned, he was very similar to Brooke, and yet something changes; I would argue that it was Dufraine's presence in his life which made him decide against suicide. And finally, Dufraine gave Red purpose, in the search for the box he had left behind.

Dufraine is far more the messianic figure than Red, and Red is very much the one who is saved.

Second comment: One of my favorite messianic movies is Hellboy. Huge redemption paralels in that one, but I don't really have time to get into it at the moment.
Interesting points. I tried to make the point throughout the article that neither Red, Digna, or Jane were Messiah's or Saviours. The point I was hinting at was even though they would try to be saviors (in the sense of saving others and aiding them) through their actions, they were never really messianic/saviours. Rather they themselves needed to be liberated.

I would argue that Dufrain didn't save him; but rather Dufrain saved himself and was an example to Red. I would say that Dufrains presence didn't give Red meaning just as Red's presence didn't give Dufrain meaning. Rather, instead of Dufrain saving Red, he showed Red what it takes to save himself. It was Red's free-willed decision and submission that lead to his own internal paradise.

I would saw he just saw in Dufrain what it took to save himself; not that Dufrain saved him.

ALSO: Could you talk about the Messianic role played in Hellboy one day in a post? It would really help out my community and my grade. Whenever you have time. Thanks again for commenting.

PS: Dufrains presence in Brooks life didn't save him. When Red left he was no longer around Dufrain; he just missed him. Red gained peace on his own when he went searching, not when he arrived on the beach. This is what I would argue.


10 years ago

I'm not sure if you would like to differentiate between a "Christ figure" and a "savior/messiah." For my purposes, I'm going to consider them the same.

In general, what I would consider a "Christ figure" does all or most of the following:

* Seems like a nobody at first
* Gradually, people begin to notice this person is special
* People find themselves strangely drawn to this person
* The person turns out to be very loving, and capable of saving someone or something
* Right after saving everything, the person goes away, or seems to die
* The person comes back, and everyone is happy

It's well-known that Frank Herbert was fascinated with the messiah phenomenon. So, his book Dune (and the movie) go into the issue at great length. Obviously, Paul Atreides is the Christ figure in this story. Similarities:

* Meets the prophecies about the Kwizatz Haderach
* Seems to have intuitive knowledge that others have to learn
* Has special powers
* Shows others how to use these powers
* Saves everyone
* Takes over the world

Frank Herbert even uses middle-eastern sounding names to lend credence to his messiah epic.

Another popular movie with a clear messiah is The Matrix, with Neo being the messiah. Similarities:

* Seemed to be a nobody at first
* Was prophesied
* Has special abilities
* Uses abilities to fight evil
* Has the power to free captives
* Seems to die, then is okay
...and this community is shot.

Re: Christ Figures


10 years ago

Re: Christ Figures


10 years ago

Re: Christ Figures


10 years ago

Re: Christ Figures


10 years ago

Your descriptions also largely coincide with the traditional Hero's Journey, which is the backbone of a lot of cinema.
Oops, that was directed at the above commenter, not this post!

I'll try to keep my response to movies that don't have a huge religious overtone. (Sucks because I love the righteous murder-type movies i.e. Boondock Saints & Frailty)

I always wondered how intentional the correlation between John Coffey(The Green Mile) & a savior was. It's very clear to me that he fits this role. The miracles -- a number of which saves lives -- and the ability to penetrate a man's thoughts.

What I found more interesting was his willingness to inflict damage. Sure, the character of Wild Bill was an abomination of a man, but he didn't deserve to die. And Percy, living the rest of his life in a catatonic state didn't seem right, either.

The most interesting part to me is the open nature that Edgecomb(Hanks) uses with him before his execution. This is an overgrown, African-American convicted murderer in the 1930's. Essentially he is lucky to be alive. The radiation of that X-factor seems to click with the guards, though, as Hanks talks to him as if he's in Confessional or the midst of a deep prayer.

I'll post another when I dig through the movies.
Consider the "Die Hard" genre. Seriously!

Here is the standard plot: (picture Bruce Willis)

1. Regular guy, let's say a cop, goes about his business.
Discovers something amiss.
2.It is out of his job description, but he follows it up anyway.
3. Attracts attention of the Big Bad Guys,
4. Is called in and given a chance to turn back
5. refuses, gets beaten up by the hired muscle
6. suffering, humiliation, and goes through some kind of explosion where we think he is dead
7. Comes out of the explosion debris, the greasy, grimy hero
8. actions of suffering, etc save the world.

Let's Compare

1. People think that Jesus is a regular guy
2. Even though, technically, JEsus' "job description" is suffering and death, he does have a choice about going to the cross. He chooses to go.
3/4 He is questioned by Pharisees & warned off by them. He goes in front of Pilate & Herod, and they give him a chance to "say the right thing" and get out of trouble: he doesn't
5. Scourged. Soldiers mock
6. crucifixion
7. rises from dead, complete with wounds in hand and side.
8. Actions save the world.

If you want to toss in the "being betrayed/abandoned by friends" that is a standard detective/thriller device as well.

Have some fun with this!
First, let me acknowledge my "debt" to pammalamma for bringing up these points.

second, I have significant amount of theological education, so while I encourage you to have some fun with this, I am not just clowning around :-)