The Year in Liturgical Cinema: Ash Wednesday and Lent

The second essay in The Year in Liturgical Cinema was posted at Christianity Today. (You can read the first essay on Epiphany here). This is a series exploring the theological themes of the Christian liturgical calendar and finding those themes within films. I explored Ash Wednesday and Lent, looking at films regarding human mortality and our need for repentance. I compared this year’s big award winner, The Revenant, with its thematic parallel in a Liam Neeson action thriller, The Grey, then pulled in a final film, Akira Kurosawa’s masterful Ikiru:

The dead man pulls himself out of the grave. Spittle flies from his mouth and mixes with the surrounding snow as he crawls through slush, grime, and blood. He’s been left for dead, abandoned by his companions in the wintry North American wilderness after his narrow survival of a vicious bear attack. He wanders through the wilderness, driven by vengeance.

The Revenant was recognized this year as an immersive, visceral cinematic experience. We follow Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) on his journey across the beautiful-yet-brutal landscape.

“Revenant” means “a person who has returned, especially supposedly from the dead.”

Glass is hounded by death, as everything in his environment seems bent on trying to kill him. The surrounding creation is cold, both physically and emotionally, uncaring about his plight for survival. Nearly every human being he encounters along the way attempts to kill him. The lone Native American who helps Glass is hung by French trappers with a sign around his neck: “We Are All Savages.”

Death triumphs over mercy in this savage world. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu shoves our faces in the violence and depravity of it all. Death is inevitable for every human being; it surrounds us, and we cannot escape it.

The Revenant’s thematic twin is Joe Carnahan’s 2012 survival film, The Grey. The film follows Ottway (Liam Neeson) and his oil worker companions as they navigate the Alaskan wild after surviving a plane crash. Surrounded and hunted by a pack of vicious wolves, the men are picked off one by one, a series of deaths in the authoritative grip of nature.

As in The Revenant, death surrounds these men. But while the film could have remained a middling Neeson action thriller—Taken, but with wolves—The Grey is a film about the human capacity for dying well. Nature does not seem to care about each man’s family or faith, but we do not die with indifference. There is grief, contemplation, remorse, an evaluation of one’s life and existence in this world. The cycle of death is found in all of nature, but the unique contribution of humanity to this cycle is our ability to find redemption in death.

You can read the rest of the essay here. What other films about facing death and our need for repentance come to mind? Share them in the comments!

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