This week I continue to explore theological themes in relation to screenwriting, considering them metaphorically because in my view, we see these themes in movies all the time. By understanding them, we can use these theological themes to enhance the meaning and depth of our stories.
For background on the general subject, you may read this post here.
“A six-pointed star, a crescent moon, a lotus–the symbols of other religions suggest beauty and light. The symbol of Christianity is an instrument of death.” — Frederick Buechner
Crucifixion was a particularly gruesome form of execution used by many ancient civilizations, but most notably by the Romans throughout their empire. Like many forms of capital punishment, crucifixions were public deaths intended as visual reminders to subjugated citizens not to defy the state.
Arguably the most famous crucifixion is that of Jesus which is why the Cross has become a central symbol of Christianity. But what does it mean?
As Buechner notes, it certainly signifies an “instrument of death,” the means by which Jesus’ life was ended. But there are plenty of other levels of meaning of event ranging from hope to despair, humanity to inhumanity, obedience to sacrifice. After all, the day of Jesus’ date with the Cross is known per the liturgical calendar as Good Friday.
Obviously with such a powerful symbol, through the years filmmakers have used the imagery to elicit emotional responses and enrich their story themes.
In the 1995 movie Dead Man Walking, convicted murderer Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) is executed in front of his victims’ parents. In his final moments, he ask for forgiveness. “Mr. Delacroix, I don’t wanna leave this world with any hate in my heart. I ask your forgiveness for what I done. It was a terrible thing I done, taking your son away from you.”
In the 1971 movie The Omega Man, Robert Neville (Charlton Heston) is the last remaining human on Earth after biological warfare has wiped out most of the world’s population, leaving behind psychopathic zombies. Neville, a scientist, discovers a serum which can cure those affected by the zombie disease, but is killed in the final scene, dying in the pose of the cross, here intended in part for the purposes of irony.
There are other times when the image has been used in a positive way, such as the climactic moment when Andy (Tim Robbins) escapes prison in The Shawshank Redemption:
Cleansed in the river and by the rain — a form of ‘baptism’ — Andy’s crucifixion pose suggests the death of his tenure in prison, and much like the resurrection of Jesus, so, too, Andy emerges into a New Life of his own.
More generically, writers can take the notion — “cross to bear” — and use that as another way of thinking about a character’s key flaw or some experience from a character’s past that weighs upon them in the Present. See Clarice Starling (The Silence of the Lambs), Ellen Ripley (Aliens), Maximus (Gladiator), Charles Foster Kane (Citizen Kane), Bill Munny (Unforgiven), Ryan Stone (Gravity), Carl Fredericksen (Up) to name but a few.
The Cross is an image with a myriad of meanings. Buechner’s last line for the description above offers perhaps the most powerful one: “It suggests, at the very least, hope.”
For my entire Theology of Screenwriting series, go here.