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?
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