The Ascension of Christ in film: literalism, symbolism, etc.

Today is the Feast of the Ascension, when Christians remember how Jesus was taken up into heaven 40 days after his Resurrection. It’s one of the stranger bits in the Gospels — both difficult to understand, given our modern cosmology, and difficult to pull off visually — and most of what we know about it actually comes from the Book of Acts. So it’s not too surprising that most films about Jesus have tended to skip this episode.

Nevertheless, a few films have depicted the Ascension, often by mixing it with elements from other stories in the gospels, and even those that don’t depict it have often made a point of ending on a note that suggests Jesus has transcended this life in some way that parallels the Ascension. Here are a few examples.

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Like DeMille before him, Aronofsky tips his hat to Doré

One of the most haunting images in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah concerns a mountain peak that has not yet fully submerged. People cling to the peak, desperate to survive, and cry out for help from the Ark that drifts by in the background — but no help comes. Instead, a giant wave crashes against them all.

When I first saw the film, I remarked to the publicist who saw it with me that the image had reminded me of a painting, though I couldn’t put my figure on who or what it had reminded me of, specifically. The publicist suggested Hieronymus Bosch, a Dutch painter from the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

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Amistad Gives African Americans Their Due / Abolitionists fare less well.

It is a bitter irony, much noted by critics, that many films dealing with the civil-rights movement and its legacy — Mississippi Burning, Cry Freedom, and, most recently, Ghosts of Mississippi, to name three prominent examples — have minimized the role of black activists within their own movements while extolling the (at times fictitious) heroism of white people who came to their rescue. But what is equally true, and not so frequently noted, is how these films secularize their white heroes and, through them, the process of racial reconciliation. If religion is visible at all, it is typically found among racial minorities or on the lips of white villains.1

Ghosts of Mississippi is a classic case in point. The film tells the true story of Bobby DeLaughter, an attorney who successfully prosecuted Byron De La Beckwith in 1994 for murdering civil-rights activist Medgar Evers some 30 years before. In the film, the black activist and his family take a back seat to the white lawyer and his domestic troubles, while the film’s only clearly articulated reference to religious belief comes in a racist rant of De La Beckwith’s. But when I interviewed the real-life DeLaughter for a secular publication, he told several stories of the prayers that had been said by himself, by members of Evers’s family, and even by the foreman of the jury. These prayers, he believed, helped bring the killer to justice, but there is no trace of them in the film.

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