During Lent, we traditionally turn our hearts and minds to the suffering of Christ, as well as the fundamentally broken relationship between humanity and God that necessitated his sacrifice. Usually this comes in the form of fasting, abstaining from indulgence or, in some cases, a meditative consideration of Christ’s life and our own sinful nature.
This year, as we continue our journey through the COVID-19 pandemic and many of us remain worshipping or observing our faith at a distance, the ideas of abstaining and meditating take on new meaning. We’ve had to willingly sacrifice some of the freedoms we took for granted for the love of our neighbors, as well as consider what a new world that better reflects God’s desire for justice looks like.
Fortunately, we don’t have to go through this journey alone. There are many great examples of art that reflect the themes of sin, redemption, and renewal we experience during the Lenten season. Here five films to consider in that light.
Ash Wednesday reminds us that the fallen nature of humanity is both spiritual and physical. “For dust you are and to dust you will return” might as well be the tagline for Annihilation, which uses its science-fiction plot to explore subjects of death, self-destruction, and a changing of states.
Biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) serves as the audience surrogate on an expedition into The Shimmer, an area of Florida swampland that’s undergone bizarre evolutionary changes and expansion following a meteor strike. As Lena and her teammates meet their fates inside The Shimmer, writer-director Alex Garland considers the ways we think about our own inevitable ends.
Garland uses metaphors of chronic disease (specifically cancer) and evolutionary biology to show how The Shimmer operates. Like a tumor, The Shimmer’s growth and destructive nature seem unstoppable and inevitable. Alongside the grotesquery, however, there’s a sense that the mutating life inside The Shimmer (some examples of which—like a deer with flowering antlers—are lovely) represents not an end to be feared, but a form of renewal that’s reminiscent of Revelation 21:5, “I am making everything new!”
Annihilation reminds us that we live in a broken world, where our eventual death is assured. Similarly, Lent teaches that disease and destruction exist because of fundamental flaws, which can only be fixed through Christ’s sacrifice. Garland’s film points to the Ash Wednesday-appropriate message that we have a choice over how we accept the knowledge of our mortality. Even in our own failings, there is always the option for grace.
Logan, the coda to Hugh Jackman’s iconic 10-film run as the X-Men’s Wolverine, examines the toll that years of violence, regret, and loss have taken on a superhero who’s always had a contentious relationship with his powers. Now advanced in years, Wolverine’s body is breaking down. His once-instant healing factor no longer works. His retractable adamantium claws now draw blood when they emerge. Nearing the end of his life, Wolverine faces a question of identity: is he only a tool of destruction or can he transcend his past?
The possibility of redemption comes with Laura (Dafne Keen), one of a group of human-engineered mutant children targeted by their creator, Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant), for extermination. Laura, like Wolverine, was created to be a weapon, but she rejects that identity. There’s an opportunity, however, for Wolverine to save her from the pain he’s had to experience, and through that, perhaps find peace.
Writer and director James Mangold’s metaphors are unsubtle but powerful. Logan makes frequent references to the final scene of 1953's Shane, in which the titular gunfighter asserts that a violent man (even a heroic one) has no place in a peaceful world. This reflects both Wolverine’s understanding of himself and the sinful nature of humanity that keeps us apart from God. Wolverine eventually redeems himself and saves the escaped children by becoming a Christ figure, impaled on a tree and stabbed through the side. In order for the mutant children to reach their promised land and ensure a better future, their conflicted savior’s sacrifice is required.
The Dark Knight
During Lent, we recognize our inherently sinful nature. We know that we require the sacrifice of Good Friday and the resurrection of Easter to bridge the broken relationship between ourselves and God. None of us is without sin. We all need forgiveness.
This message is also central to the second film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, reminding viewers that even the noblest among us have breaking points and that good people can make horrible mistakes in the name of trying to do the right thing. The Dark Knight is about moral failure, as every heroic character in the film experiences it at the hands of Heath Ledger’s Joker.
This may be Batman’s saga, but Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent experiences the most significant downfall. Gotham City’s crusading district attorney is held up from the movie’s earliest moments as one of the city’s few incorruptible public servants. Batman (Christian Bale) is even prepared to hang up his cape and cowl, thinking Gotham finally has the hero it needs: someone who can work within the system, rather than as a vigilante. Dent is repeatedly called the city’s “white knight,” in contrast to Batman’s dark one.
When the Joker, working with Gotham’s criminal underworld, starts terrorizing Dent and Batman, the fragile nature of that bright future is shown. Dent’s sense of justice causes him nothing but suffering; that desperation brings him down to the level of the villains he’s trying to put away. The Joker’s unpredictable tactics corrupt Batman, too, leading him to create an illegal citywide surveillance system to the disgust of his ally, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), who tenders his resignation on the spot. By the final credits, Dent is dead and Batman, taking the blame for his crimes, is a fugitive. In Gotham, as in life, there is no such thing as a white knight.
The Dark Knight is about moral failure, as every heroic character in the film experiences it at the hands of Heath Ledger’s Joker.
Patient viewers will find a rewarding parable about our separation from God in Lucky, a 2017 independent film from director and actor John Carroll Lynch. This was Harry Dean Stanton’s final film role before his death at age 91; knowing Stanton passed away shortly before the film’s release gives Lucky extra resonance. It feels as if the actor himself is making peace with his own life, wondering whether he can gain acceptance and comfort after his death.
Stanton’s Lucky lives in a tiny desert town, where he follows the same daily, unexciting routine. One morning, out of nowhere, Lucky has a fall. There’s nothing wrong—he’s in remarkably good health for a lifelong smoker of his age—but the incident rattles him. Once a self-professed atheist, the idea of a vast nothingness awaiting Lucky after death suddenly seems terrifying and his formerly easygoing nature suddenly gives way to anger, causing him to lash out at the people who care about him.
Late in the film, there’s a poignant reveal. Every day, Lucky passes by a gate, stops for a moment, and yells an expletive before walking on. It’s not until the end of the film that we find out what the place is: Eve’s, a bar Lucky was kicked out of for refusing to follow the rules. Beyond the gate of Eve’s is a lush garden that’s nothing like the desert wasteland surrounding it.
The single shot of the entrance to Eve’s throws the rest of the film into a totally new context, so that everything suddenly snaps into place. Lucky has been cast out of the garden and had to make do in the wilderness. Our own exile from paradise is likewise the consequence of our human failure—demonstrated time and again in the Bible—to follow God’s guidance for a fruitful life. Lent is a time to face our failings on that front and turn a new leaf.
A cursory Google search for “Groundhog Day and Christianity” brings up nearly 600,000 results—including an excellent TC essay by Aarik Danielsen. Weatherman Phil Connors’s journey from selfish snobbery to opportunistic hedonism to eventual enlightenment has many spiritual connotations. One of these is that we can still find meaning and purpose in the sometimes purgatorial nature of everyday life, but we can’t get there by being the same people we’ve always been. For true spiritual growth, renewal is necessary.
When Phil (Bill Murray) first arrives in Punxsutawney, Penn., to cover the annual groundhog celebration, he’s annoyed. He’s had to do this every year for the last four years and believes it’s beneath him. When he realizes he’s trapped there in a time loop—and on a freezing day in February, no less—it feels like a sick joke. After realizing there are no lasting consequences to anything he does, Phil becomes a hedonist. He eats everything he can find, steals a sack of cash from a bank truck, and seduces every attractive woman around him, including his sweet, optimistic producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell), who—over time—he comes to truly love.
As Phil spends so much time around the residents of Punxsutawney and tries to make Rita love him for real, rather than through manipulation, Phil slowly begins to find the value in serving someone other than himself. It’s only then that things start to get better. Phil recognizes that he no longer wants to be the person he was, that he can be a new creation. During Lent, we also recognize that our redemption in Christ means we’re no longer bound to the repetitive, empty lives we had apart from God. As Danielsen notes in that essay, “When we become new creations in Christ, every day is pregnant with such potential. Even if it starts the same as the day before.”