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March 15, 2004

Cinema, the Bible, and Redemption
Farhad Ghassemi  [info|posts]

crux.jpg from From Ben-Hur (William Wyler-1959) to The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson-2004), before this period, and probably after it, the Bible and its stories have been and will be recited and narrated in many movies. This is of course not accidental as even from a secular point of view, religion is always a subject of interest, and shares many common areas with art and culture beyond our control. Nevertheless, whereas many of these movies tell the stories and recite verses, they are unsuccessful in capturing that fascinating moment of inspiration and deliverance that one would possibly seek in the metaphysical world. In this article, I would like to give three examples—although there are more—of the movies that have achieved in delivering those moments through the texts of the Bible. It is somewhat surprising that they come from unexpected corners, from directors that we are not sure if they are religious, and in characters whose lives do not stand up with those regularly-known religious merits.

The main theme of Blue (Krzysztof Kieslowski-1994) is cultivated around a famous passage of the Bible written by Paul to Corinthians. It reads:

"If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child; I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love." The New International Version Bible, I Corinthians, 13

In the movie, Julie (Juliette Binoche), after being badly injured, survives an accident in which she loses her husband and her child. She unsuccessfully attempts to kill herself and later finds out that her husband had affairs with another woman and that woman is now pregnant. Her husband, a musician like herself, was working on an unfinished piece of music for the unification of Europe before his death. Despised with the reality of her life, Julie does not want to finish her husband’s work but their common friend, Olivier (Benoît Régent), insists in her doing so. The movie is the story of Julie overcoming this distaste for life and finishing the unfinished piece whose song is from the above verses. Throughout the movie, as Julie struggles with her feelings, we hear the incomplete parts of the music come to her mind in crucial moments of her life. In one great examples of such scenes, Julie is in the swimming pool and as she climbs off the edge of the pool, we, all of a sudden, witness her being hit by the music and a moment of inspiration.

In Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino-1994), Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) is a professional hitman who recites his own version of Ezekiel 25:17 to his victims before he kills them:

"The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger, those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee."

In one of such incidents, Jules and his colleague Vincent Vega (John Travolta) escape a death coming from bullets fired by a man who ambushed them. The incident touches Jules and he decides to quit his job and 'walk the Earth like Caine in Kung Fu.' Vincet, unable to make sense of what his colleague thinks argues with him over his decision in a restaurant:

Vincent: That's good, man. You're starin' to lighten up. You have been sittin', there, all serious and shit.
Jules: I just been sittin' here, thinkin’.
Vincent: About what?
Jules: About the miracle we witnessed.
Vincent: Miracle you witnessed. I witnessed a freak occurrence.
Jules: What is a miracle, Vincent?
Vincent: Act of God.
Jules: And what's an act of God?
Vincent: When, um, God makes the impossible possible. But... this morning I don't think qualifies.
Jules: Hey, Vincent. See, that shit don't matter. You're judging this shit the wrong way. It could be God stopped the bullets, changed Coke to Pepsi, found my car keys. You don't judge shit like this based on merit. Now, whether or not what we experienced was an according-to-Hoyle miracle is insignificant. But what is significant is, I felt the touch of God. God got involved. ...

In Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese-1980), the biblical reference is not even in the body of the movie and only appears as a twist when the movie ends. Raging Bull is the story of Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro), a middleweight boxing champion, who seems to know his way in the ring but outside, his insecurities lead to a miserable life that only brings suffering to him and his loved ones. Jake, aware of his weaknesses but incapable of overcoming them, punishes himself harshly by letting his opponents batter him in the fights. The movie starts with Jake rehearsing a monologue for a nightclub performance. He is 42 years old and his boxing career is over. The movie then takes us to his past to tell us his story. When it comes back again to the present, we recognize a man whose spiritual journey seems to be reaching a turning point in accepting his faults and becoming content. The movies ends with these verses from the Bible:

So, for the second time, [the Pharisees]
summoned the man who had been blind and said:
"Speak the truth before God.
We know this fellow is a sinner."
"Whether or not, he is a sinner, I don't know."
The man replied.
"All I know is this:
once I was blind and now I can see."
The New English Bible, John 9,24:26
visitor at March 16, 2004 08:50 AM [permalink]:

Thanks for the article. Still I cannot see the connection between Kieslowki's Blue and the quoted pasaage from the Bible. Could you elaborate on that?

Farhad Ghassemi at March 16, 2004 12:00 PM [permalink]:

Oh, thank you for bringing that up. The lyrics of the song that Julie eventually composes are taken from that passage. To see exactly which verses, you can check the Wikipedia entry for Blue at:

Also, the screenplays of Raging Bull and Pulp Fiction are available on the Internet. They can be found at these addresses among others:

For the ending of Raging Bull, originally this verse was chosen but it was altered later:
"Verily, verily I say unto thee,
Except a man be born again,
He can not enter into the kingdom of heaven..."
John 3-3

Wellesley Girl at March 16, 2004 01:31 PM [permalink]:

How was this related to IRan!!!!????

SG at March 16, 2004 03:50 PM [permalink]:


It is related to Iran through the last entry (by Arash Jalali), because the idea that someone's suffering can redeem the sins of the rest of humanity is as unfathombale, one must admit, as the "passion" of Imam Hossein and the processions of Ashura! The similarities between Hossein's martyrdom and Jesus's suffering don't end there, but I'll leave it to scholars of comparative religion among us ;-) to elaborate on the similarities.

proofreader at March 17, 2004 07:10 AM [permalink]:

"infamous"... I do not think this word means what you think it means...

Farhad Ghassemi at March 17, 2004 09:54 AM [permalink]:

True. I meant exceedingly famous. I changed it to famous.