In a shocking turn of events, a bigwig Hollywood producer was found to be a big, hypocritical bully who abused women. Oh wait, were we actually shocked by that? Have you seen any movies lately? Indeed, should we be surprised when the institution that promotes a thoroughly worldly, well, worldview acts that way behind the scenes? I still believe Hollywood can and does create movies that speak to significant truths, moral quandaries, and the nature of man. Such films may be rare, but they do exist. Blade Runner anyone?
With this recent revelation of the seedy side of Hollywood, though, I was reminded of a reality for any filmmaker: how hard it is to depict actual innocence. What I mean by that is, it is hard to create a character who is truly innocent, a character we deeply sympathize with, a character who is so much better than ourselves. Sure, many good men and women have been created as fiction or revealed by documentaries. Many legal stories have been told about legally innocent people on trial. And these days, it is normal to depict characters who are actually bad guys and yet remain the heroes of the tale. These are our postmodern “antiheroes.”
The problem is that when a character is depicted as good, he or she can become boring or unbelievable quite quickly. The audience will not relate to the character because they will be “too good.” The audience will find themselves disinterested in the character because they have no depth. So they need some degree of fault so they can be relatable, or perhaps even redeemable. Some of the better depictions I know of in this vein are Gladiator’s Maximus and Chariots of Fire’s Eric Liddell. Both characters were men of honor and integrity. One was even a believing Christian!
Still, the greatest story ever told is the story of a truly innocent man who died for our sins. The story of Christ is, in a sense, the only story that matters. It is the meta-narrative of fall and restoration, sin and redemption, brokenness and reconciliation. These then end up being the themes of great stories, precisely because they point to the larger story of the innocent Christ and his sacrifice on the cross. Occasionally, even the weirdos in Hollywood manage to tell this story well.
Still, there have been some characters, at least that I have noticed, that are truly innocent, not just good people. How are they innocent if they are also stained by sin? Well, usually, they are “different” in a way that causes less observation of feelings or surroundings. Or, they are not fully human. (Yes, they are forensically guilty as are all born of Adam. But the audience does not think of them in that light.)
Think of Forest Gump. Looking back, why did so many people react to that film emotionally? It is a strange story in many respects, wandering from this era to that with no real story arc in mind. But it is the innocence of the lead character that drives the story. It is his unquestioned love for Jenny; it is his devoted service to his fellow soldiers and Lt. Dan; it is his unthinking greatness on the football field. His devotion and charity were pure because he lacked the same level of awareness as others.
Think of Spock from Star Trek. The single most obvious Christ-like depiction I am aware of in film is in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn. (Well, other than Jesus in The Passion of the Christ!) In addition to Ricardo Montalban’s famous physique, that film is a classic because of Spock’s sacrificial solution to a grave problem. It is his innocence that gives that film depth and staying power. And why might you shed a tear for him at the end of that film, but not for Captain Kirk in the more recent reversed version of the same story (Into Darkness)? Because Spock, being only half human, is innocent. And Captain Kirk is just another good guy.
Yes, it actually takes characters who are either not fully human or possess “less” intelligence for Hollywood to depict a Christ-like figure. I imagine you can also think of other movies were characters garnered sympathy through their innocence. Sean Penn in I am Sam; Lenny in Of Mice and Men; heck, even Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2! (Sarah Connor did remark that he would be a perfect father after all.)
Well, I am not a film critic nor am I the son of a film critic. I am just reminded of how utterly unlike us Jesus Christ is because he is truly innocent. Perhaps the films mentioned or others like them can help us to see just what was sacrificed on the cross, and how deeply unfair such a sacrifice was. And perhaps those we know in our life who possess that innocent quality can be valued for the true gifts that they are.
I know that I can often lose sight of just what a profound injustice the cross was, because I find it impossible to imagine true innocence. And yet, that is what we believe about Christ. It is all the more astounding then, as Paul says in Romans 5, Jesus died for sinners like you and me: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”