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The Myth of the Redeemer in Contemporary Cinema  
Written by Mark Greene

Both Hollywood and the independent film community have produced a number of films in the last two decades which have as their central theme the myth of the redeemer figure: a being, usually male, who comes to Earth and builds a following by virtue of his integrity, special powers and compassion for humankind.

Both Hollywood and the independent film community have produced a number of films in the last two decades which have as their central theme the myth of the redeemer figure: a being, usually male, who comes to Earth and builds a following by virtue of his integrity, special powers and compassion for humankind. The most prominent examples of this film genre are Jesus of Montreal (1), Man Facing Southeast (2), Starman (3), The Man Who Fell to Earth (4), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (5) and, in some relevant aspects, the character of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars trilogy. (6) Each film communicates in its own way what Paul Schrader calls the transcendental in that they are " . . . works which relate the human experience of transcendence, which express not the Transcendent but the human who experiences the Transcendent." (7) In the process of his own self-examination and self-discovery, his superordinate nature is revealed both to himself and to those nearest him. Focusing inward, he fights battles of a psychological nature and conquers his interior foes thus setting an example of integrity and conviction of belief to his followers. In turning a cheek to the external oppressors who inevitably appear on the scene, he sacrifices his corporeal existence on the human plane and leaves behind an example of spiritual transcendence to those who knew him.

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His final victory is one of transmutation in that he is resurrected to a higher level of being, or as C. G. Jung writes, ". . . the resurrection of the dead is the raising-up of the corpus glorificationis, the "subtle body" in its state of incorruptibility." (8) Another victory is won in the hearts of his followers whose lives have been significantly altered as a result of being with him. His redemption is collectively experienced since it is his followers, and we, the film watchers, who witness his act of transcendence; his struggle and subsequent death represent a transmutation from the basic matter of life into the divine spirit. As a psychological event, the theme brings home the idea that "we are not completely subjected to the powers of annihilation because our psychic totality reaches beyond the barriers of space and time." (9) We, as viewers, experience the transcendental protagonist.

Jesus declares to his disciples "Ye shall receive power, after that the holy ghost is come upon you" (Acts 1:8). (10) Here it is implied that the essence of the divine will become incarnate within the believer who bears witness to the immortality of the soul. Jung describes this process from the point of view of the participant by stating that the individual who witnesses such a transformation undergoes an "indirect rebirth," where one "has to witness, or take part in, some rite of transformation . . . through his presence during the process, the individual participates in divine grace" (11). The ritual of the Eucharist of the Christian church is an example of such a participatory rite. As will be argued later, the contemporary modern ritual of movie-going shares the essence of such participatory rites of transformation.

The death and rebirth of the god or goddess has been a central theme of nearly all religions since the beginning of recorded time. It has been suggested that the fear of death prompted early humankind to create stories where death never signifies the absolute end, but where "death is universally found to be part of a cycle of death and rebirth, or to be the condition necessary to imagine transcendence of life in an experience of resurrection." (12) In studying many such myths, Henderson finds that another theme appears regularly, that of initiation. He argues that the rite of initiation is a reflection of an archetype which allows for the transition in development from one level to another within the individual. (13) Perhaps this variant of the death and rebirth myth sheds some light upon the redeemer films in question. Could it be that the emergence of this myth at this time is a call from the collective unconscious for the Western world to rise up, as it were, to a higher level of consciousness?

This myth has had its greatest popularity and longevity when the theme of death and rebirth as a cycle of nature is integrally a part of it. Beginning with the Babylonian goddess Ishtar's descent into the underworld (not unlike the Sumerian goddess, Inanna), a variant of the basic myth occurs when the goddess's purpose in going to the land of the dead is to "procure the life of her son-lover, Tammuz, he who yearly came to life in the springtime as a vegetation god and subsequently died again in the winter." (14) This basic theme of the mother-sister goddess fetching her son-daughter-brother-lover from the land of the dead every Spring so that the crops can grow again is also manifest in the myths of Isis and Osiris, Cybele and Attis, Aphrodite and Adonis and Demeter and Persephone.

James Frazer, points out that "A constant feature in the myth of Adonis was his premature and violent death." (15) Perhaps the crucial message encoded within the mytheme is that in order to create, something must be sacrificed. Or, in something dying, something new will be born. Clearly, this motif describes the vegetal cycle of growth manifest in the production of seed and death of the plant. The seed then buried in the ground is a laying to rest of vestiges of the former incarnation. In the springing of life from this old seed, a miraculous story is contained and perennially repeated. Since the advent of an agricultural society, humans have witnessed this cycle of death and rebirth. Perhaps it represents one of the most powerful mysteries concerning our lives on the planet. Now that the majority of the population of the developed world no longer participates directly in agriculture, perhaps new vehicles for old stories are required.

In today's age of the instantaneous image, the ninety minute movie has the power to convey lessons of epic proportion to the viewer. Imagine, for a moment, what is entailed in the making of a filmic biography. A person's entire reported life, say Jesus of Nazareth's, must perforce be boiled down to the seminal events which define it. In turn, these events are depicted in a series of scenes which when tagged together in a motion-picture hope to convey the essence of said person's life. Inherent in this process is a wide margin of directorial license which, even in the best of cases, still cannot possibly convey an entire lifetime into a ninety-minute feature film. In the final analysis, the totality of the subject at hand dies a death of his own. Except for a handful of people, it is the new filmic image of said person which will inform the collective psyche from now on. Although other artistic modes of drama such as story-telling, theater or dance share the same limitation, it is in film, however, that the phenomenon is incalculably broadened due to structure of the medium itself. Film, a perceived movement of projected images across a screen is by definition an illusion; a chimera achieved by a series of still images succumbing to death. Out of this death arises a new life, one which now moves.

The film viewer's physiological apparatus blurs the rapid succession of images, in this case twenty-four frames per second, into a representationally accurate visual narrative. Psychologically, it is the viewer's willing suspension of disbelief which allows the film to function successfully as a mythic vehicle and a good piece of art. In this sense, film truly becomes a mythic medium in that it explains "not the way things are . . . but the way things appear to me." (16) By simply bearing witness to the filmic experience, the movie-goer participates in a modern version of the cyclical mystery of death and rebirth.

It can be argued that film is the most powerful conveyor of myth available to modern society because its form acts as conduit for the scientific nature of our age while its function as teller of myths transcends the physical and brings the viewer to the state of awareness required for the participatory act of transcendence. The image of the Holy Ghost descending to earth and incorporating itself is analogous to light passing through the frames of film in a projector in order to manifest itself concretely upon the screen. The flaw in this analogy is that film is simply a simulacrum of the divine incarnation as the image contained within the frame is not transformed but is merely amplified upon the screen. It is in the mind of the viewer where the true transcendence needs to take place.

Although television with its live quality and global span brings images to the viewer in the privacy of the living room, it is the cinematic experience which is arguably today's most collectively ritualized means of communication. People line up outside of the theater to purchase ingress. Once inside, all members of the audience become equal in their role of participant in the mysteries of which they are about to behold. The group's sharing of the moment with one another in the darkened room adds to the uniqueness of the experience. By participating in one of the movies of this paper, a context is created wherein the individual can transcend the level of base matter of the body and connect with the divine spirit. The content of the myth coupled with the structure of the medium lend itself to facilitating such an experience for the viewer.

Lucien LÚvy-Bruhl coined the term "participation mystique" to describe how primitive beings experience the world. It is the mystic experience of living where "everything is holy, numinous, interconnected, emitting light, power, manna." (17) This inter-relatedness is reminiscent of what the Western mind hopes to find in heaven or how satori can be described intellectually. In describing the primitive's relation to the natural world, LÚvy-Bruhl writes:

"...occult powers, mystic influences, participation's of all kinds, are mingled with the data directly afforded by perception, and make up a whole in which the actual world and the world beyond are blended. In this sense their world is more complex than our universe, but on the other hand it is complete, and it is closed." (18)

In the contained environment of the movie theater, the white screen emits light and produces images which are imbued with power. It is in these darkened halls, which are to be found with greatest frequency amongst the people of advanced societies, that the modern individual participates in the mystical without really being conscious that this is happening. Here is an example of what Turner calls the liminoid rite. Accordingly, going to the movies is modern society's attempt to take its "mythographic task seriously" while perhaps unaware of the "danger of finding itself overwhelmed by cheap pseudomyths" which pervade the modern cinema. (19)

Bronislaw Malinowski would have said earlier in his career that the appearance of the redeemer myth in the movie halls is fulfilling a specific function in our society. He would have observed that the cinema as a conveyor of " . . . myth functions to fix custom, sanction modes of behavior, dignify institutions or found a system of magic--even though the natives themselves may not be aware of these functions." (20) At this time, Malinowski was adamantly opposed to any sort of utilitarianism and so would not have seen the appearance of the redeemer myth in modern cinema as fulfilling any particular need for society. Instead, he would have argued that any one of these films is an expression of aesthetic and spiritual beauty for its own sake. Later in his career, however, Malinowski shifted the base of his theories over to what he called functional pragmatism or simply, functionalism. Strenski argues that the reason for this shift was to create a more practical anthropology which would carry weight in the humanitarian arguments he made to the practical administrators of the colonies who controlled the primitive societies he studied. He feared for the preservation of the "native cultural integrity."(21) Thus was born a pragmatic theory of myth stating that language, and thus myth, have a "biological utility for human survival." (22) In this manner, myth became for Malinowsky, "indispensable and vital - therefore something a society needs and without which it cannot continue to function." (23) Perhaps, we too as modern participants in the myths witnessed in the movie theater need our films.

Considering this point of view, the appearance of the redeemer myth in contemporary cinema indeed points to a specific need on the part of modern society. Malinowsky believed that myth, "expresses, enhances and codifies belief...contains practical rules for the guidance of men (and is) a pragmatic charter of primitive faith and moral wisdom." (24) To what extent is the appearance of the redeemer myth in the late twentieth-century film serving as a practical rule for guidance? Malinowski would say that these films have appeared in order to bring society back to God or to symbolically lead the viewer inward towards a confrontation with his or her demons so that a transcendence of the base into an external manifestation of grace can occur. What, then, in us needs to die and be reborn?

Although the biblical account of Jesus' death and resurrection fails to mention his descent and return from the underworld, "according to apocryphal accounts, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday Christ descended into hell and rescued ancient worthies--the so-called harrowing of hell." (25) In the films of this study, no physical journey is made to the underworld. Each protagonist as redeemer figure, however, does embark upon an inner voyage to his own personal hell. In Man Facing Southeast, Rantes is given strong medication in an attempt to cure him of his messianic delusions. As a result, he enters a severe depression marked by fits of anger and catatonia. In The Man Who Fell to Earth, Newton uses alcohol to numb himself to the reality of his surroundings. In Jesus of Montreal, after being whacked on the head by his cross, Rene awakens to perceive the world around with disquieting clarity before he dies. In E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, E.T. apparently dies when all hope of vanquishing the fear and prejudice of his captors vanishes. In analyzing the five films for an answer to the question of what in us needs to die in order to be reborn, perhaps Claude LÚvi-Strauss can help out.

LÚvi-Strauss would compare the structure of each of the five films since they are five distinct variants of the redeemer myth as they appear in our society. He would also include in his study various referent sources of the death and rebirth myths since he made it clear that his "structural method cannot be demonstrated by reference to one, or even a few examples." (26) He would have to agree that in the case of the five films of this study, the referent story qualifies as a myth, since it is "a strongly structured, important story." In fact, if a myth is not strongly structured, LÚvi-Strauss relegates it to the level of mere story. (27)

In applying a LÚvi-Straussian analysis of the life of Jesus, the following "cosmological schema" can be created (union w/Holy Ghost and Father):

Just like "The Story of Asdiwal," the life of Jesus contains several supernatural visits. (28) He is conceived as a result of the Holy Ghost's visitation upon Mary. Later in his life, he is baptized by John and according to Matt. 3:16, "He saw the spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him" (King James). After he is crucified, he goes to the underworld and then returns as described above. Edinger writes, "Christ's resurrection has its parallel in the reconstitution of the dismembered Osiris by Isis." (29) Finally, Christ's ascension into a cloud returns him to heaven.

What remains at the end of the story, however, is this set of unresolved binary oppositions:

spiritspace flesh

divine spacehuman

redemption spaceoriginal sin

Self spaceEgo

Oppositions which have as their essence the fundamental paradoxes of creation. According to LÚvi-Strauss, myths "incarnate central contradictions upon which a social system may be founded - something that culture heroes such as Oedipus and Asdiwal discover to their grief and broadcast to their societies in the myths about them." (30) Indeed, Western civilization has been split over the mind versus body issue ever since Plato's times. The entire legacy of the Judeo-Christian tradition is based on the fall from paradise. To what extent we are created in God's image has obsessed Western theology for thousands of years. Jung describes the process of individuation as the movement of the center of consciousness to a point somewhere between the Self and the Ego. Reducing the myth of the redeemer to its binary opposites reveals the core issues of Western civilization's concerns for the last two thousand years or more.

It is of interest to note that none of the redeemer figures in the films of this study are literally resurrected. The alien in Starman returns to his starship in the form of a light, much like the image of Christ's ascension. His way of resurrection is manifest by impregnating his earthbound companion. The spirit of Rantes, in Man Facing Southeast, is felt by the patients of the hospital as they hold hands in a tremendous circle in the courtyard after his death; yet there is no physical resurrection. In Jesus of Montreal, the redeemer figure's body is donated to science after his death. By providing sight to a blind woman with his eyes and life to a dying man with his heart. Rene does, in a sense become incarnate after his death. Nevertheless, it is not a literal resurrection. Newton, in The Man Who Fell to Earth, does not even physically die in the film. Perhaps it is his inability to remove the contact lenses of his disguise which constitutes a transformation to human form after the spiritual death brought about by his alcoholism is complete. Like Starman, the protagonist of E.T., returns home to a society which possesses a larger degree of compassion.

Each of the films vacillates when it comes to showing the viewer a concrete resurrection. Is it because the filmmakers fear the audience would reject such literalism based on the ancient myths? Or is it an unconscious way of saying that the transformation into the Holy Ghost or the reborn god must occur within us -- that a revitalization of the planet is necessary and we are the missing link in the archetypal image which will once again bring about the Spring?


  1. Jesus of Montreal. Dir. Denys Arcand. With Lothaire Bluteau, Catherine Wilkening, Johanne-Marie Tremblay and Remy Girard. Orion, 1989.
  2. Man Facing Southeast. Dir. Eliseo Subiela. With Hugo Soto and Lorenzo Quinteros. Trans Europa SA Cinematografica, 1986
  3. Starman. Dir. John Carpenter. With Jeff Bridges, Karen Allen, Charles Martin Smith and Richard Jaeckel. Columbia, 1984.
  4. The Man Who Fell to Earth. Dir. Nicolas Roeg. With David Bowie, Candy Clark and Rip Torn. Cinema 5, 1974.
  5. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Dir. Steven Spielberg. With Dee Wallace-Stone, Henry Thomas, Peter Coyote and Robert MacNaughton. MCA/Universal, 1982.
  6. Star Wars. Dir. George Lucas. With Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Alec Guinness. 20th Century Fox, 1977.
  7. Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (New York: Da Capo Press, 1972), p. 6.
  8. C.G. Jung, "The Different Aspects of Rebirth" in Spring (1944) pp. 1-25.
  9. C.G. Jung, CW vol. 18, para. 1572.
  10. King James Bible, in Greatest Books Collection v3.01. Software. (World Library, 1992)
  11. C.G. Jung, "The Different Aspects of Rebirth" in Spring (1944), p. 2.
  12. Joseph L. Henderson and Maud Oakes, The Wisdom of the Serpent: The Myths of Death, Rebirth, and Resurrection (New York: George Braziller, 1963), p. 4.
  13. Ibid., p. 4.
  14. Ibid., p. 16.
  15. James George Frazer, "Dying and Reviving Gods," in The New Golden Bough (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1961), p. 173.
  16. David L. Miller, Lecture, "Mythopoiesis:The Mythic Imagination Beyond the Postmodern." Theories of Mythology. Pacifica Graduate Institute. Carpinteria, 12 Dec. 1994.
  17. Lucien LÚvy-Bruhl, Lucien, Primitive Mentality (London: Gresham Press, 1923).
  18. Kathleen Jenks. Lecture, "Cultural Foundations of Depth Psychology." Pacifica Graduate Institute. Carpinteria, n.d.
  19. LÚvy-Bruhl, p. 445.
  20. quoted in William G. Doty, Mythography: The Study of Myths and Rituals (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1986), p. 130.
  21. quoted in Ivan Strenski, Four Theories of Myth in Twentieth-Century History: Cassirer, Eliade, LÚvi-Strauss and Malinowski (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1987), p. 51.
  22. Strenski, p. 59
  23. Ibid., p. 61
  24. Ibid., p. 64.
  25. Ibid., p. 64
  26. Edinger, Edward F. The Christian Archetype: A Jungian Commentary on the Life of Christ (Toronto: Inner City Press, 1987), p. 109.
  27. Strenski, p. 130.
  28. Claude LÚvi-Strauss, "The Story of Asdiwal," in Sacred Narrative. Ed. Alan Dundes. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), p. 310.
  29. King James Bible
  30. Edinger, p. 116.
  31. Strenski, p. 132.

Copyright 1995 Mark Greene. All rights reserved.
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