Kenneth Branagh’s Very Christian Cinderella

ella and prince


By Very Rev. Robert Barron

Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella” is the most surprising Hollywood movie of the year so far. I say this because the director manages to tells the familiar fairy tale without irony, hyper-feminist sub-plots, Marxist insinuations, deconstructionist cynicism, or arch condescension. In so doing, he actually allows the spiritual, indeed specifically Christian, character of the tale to emerge. I realize that it probably strikes a contemporary audience as odd that Cinderella might be a Christian allegory, but keep in mind that most of the fairy stories and children’s tales compiled by the Brothers Grimm and later adapted by Walt Disney found their roots in the decidedly Christian culture of late medieval and early modern Europe.

In Branagh’s telling, Ella is the daughter of wonderful parents, both of whom instill in her a keen sense of moral virtue and joie de vivre. The girl’s idyllic childhood was interrupted by the sudden illness of her mother, who, while on her death-bed, delivered to Ella the injunction always to be “kind and courageous.” Her father then remarried and brought his new wife and her two daughters to live with him and Ella. Some years later, Ella’s father left on a lengthy business trip. Before he set out, she enjoined him to send back to her the first branch that his shoulder would brush while on the journey. A few weeks later, a servant arrived with the branch in his hand and the dreadful news that Ella’s father had become sick and had died. The now utterly isolated Ella became the victim of her wicked stepmother (played by the always compelling Cate Blanchett) and her obnoxious stepsisters, who visit upon her every type of cruelty and injustice. They even take away her bedroom, forcing her to sleep by the dying embers of the fire to keep warm. The ashes that stain her face give rise to the cruel nickname her stepsisters assign to her. Significantly, the cat belonging to Ella’s stepfamily is called Lucifer.

So we have a beautiful, vivacious, and morally upright young lady whose life becomes a nightmare through the intervention of untimely death and wicked oppression. So thorough was her loss of dignity that she finds herself covered in dust, her beauty obscured. It does not require a huge leap of imagination to see this as an allegory of the fall of the human race. God created us as beautiful, indeed in his own image and likeness, but through sin and the ministrations of the devil, we descended into dysfunction, and our beauty was covered over. In the technical language of the theologians, though we had kept the image of God, we had lost our likeness to him.

To return to Branagh’s traditional telling of the tale: while out riding in the country, Cinderella encountered a magnificent stag that was being pursued by a hunting party. Subsequently, she met the leader of the hunting brigade, a handsome young prince, the son of the King. The two almost immediately fell in love. Because she returned home without identifying herself, the prince called for a ball and invited all of the young women of the realm to come, hoping to lure his mysterious beloved. Though her stepfamily tried desperately to prevent her from attending, Cinderella, through the ministrations of her fairy godmother, managed to get to the ball, where she, of course, entranced the prince. Once again, she was compelled to return early, and the lovesick prince sought her desperately until he found her and married her.

We are tempted, no doubt, to see all of this as the stuff of ordinary romance, but we should look more deeply. First, the stag is a traditional sign of Christ and thus his presence as the object of the hunt is meant to signal his presence at the symbolic level of the narrative. Moreover, the prince, the son of the King, who falls in love with a woman despite her lowliness, is an obvious evocation of Jesus, the Son of God, who was sent to become the bridegroom of the human race, whose spiritual beauty had been covered over by sin. The prophet Isaiah predicted that the “builder of the human race” would come one day to marry his people, and the motif of the sacrum connubium, the sacred marriage, runs right through the New Testament. Indeed, the fathers of the Church took particular delight in ringing the changes on this theme, emphasizing that the Prince of Peace, the Son of God, in marrying the human race, lifted us up out of our lowliness and bestowed upon us all of his own benefits and dignity. This is precisely why the early theologians of the Church specified that the sacrum connubium involved an admirabile commercium (a wonderful exchange), God taking our sin from us and giving us his grace. In the symbolic language of our story, the unmerited love of the prince indeed transformed Cinderella into a princess.

The surest sign that this transformation has occurred—and it is one of my favorite elements in Branagh’s telling—is that Cinderella, upon escaping from the cruel oppression of her stepmother, turned to the wicked woman, not to curse her, but to offer a word of forgiveness. There could be no more compelling proof that she had thoroughly taken on the character of the bridegroom.

When you see this film, I would invite you, even as you take in the fantasy and romance of it, to appreciate it too as a deeply Christian story.

Barron 108Father Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and the Rector/President of Mundelein Seminary. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, “Catholicism” and “Catholicism:The New Evangelization.” Learn more at www.WordonFire.org

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  • Andre B

    without … hyper-feminist sub-plots

    What on earth? Is this something people are worried about? Too much content being directed at or concerned with women?

    • GHN

      Perhaps it’s when a movie passe the Bechdel test.

    • RissyAnne1

      I would not consider that something being directed at women as being “feminist”. That’s simply something directed at women. Feminist implies an underlying motive to portray the female as unusually strong.(not the term UNUSUALLY as opposed to women who are already strong people) Hyper-feminist would be refusing to allow a female character to ever submit(not in the bibilical sense) to another person, or to a man. Because some feminists consider any lack of independence by a woman to be troubling. Frankly, I’m sick of hyper-feminist stuff…..I don’t recognize myself in most of the movies out there…..they actually make me sad, the characters seem so sad. I love things about women, but anymore the women they portray are oftern “hyper-feminist”(Father Barron’s word) I’ve always simply called them “modern-type”……just the term I use…..

      • Andre B

        Unfortunately, we’re likely to be left wondering what Barron meant by “hyper-feminist”.

        As to how you’re describing terms…well I think you’re saying more about yourself than anything.

        Feminist implies an underlying motive to portray the female as unusually strong.

        That might be how you perceive the term, but the definition of a feminist is simply somebody that believe in equal rights for women. Period. Again, if you are reading some negative connotations into the term, that’s on you.

        Frankly, I’m sick of hyper-feminist stuff…..I don’t recognize myself in most of the movies out there…..they actually make me sad, the characters seem so sad.

        I mean, maybe I’m missing something. I see a subset of men making similar complaints, but as somebody that considers himself a voracious consumer of TV and film, I’m just not seeing this avalanche of hyper-feminist “stuff”. What I do see is that there are now, just recently, a concerted effort to depict women as people with agency, and not just props on the arm of whichever leading man is cast. Even these small gains still demonstrate a bias against women – where typically only young / athletic / beautiful women are cast in lead roles. So yeah, basically I see people complaining that there are ANY examples at all of strong, independent women. But maybe Barron meant something different by “hyper-feminist”.

        • RissyAnne1

          I could be wrong about what he means by “hyper-feminist” but I’m positive he doesn’t mean that has too much content being directed at women. And that’s only because I know he happens to like that type of stuff. Always talking about female saints. And simply from his books and films. So I made an educated attempt to figure out what he meant. I may have seen more feminized content than you have. I attended two women’s colleges. I do like a lot of women’s things, but there are a lot of sub-plots where I swear they make a character just to show that todays women are different from….well….every other period. Although these movies are generally completely directed at women and you possibly may have not even seen except with your girlfriend, depending on how you like romances. However, yes, pretty much everything on cable depicts women as arm-candy….I can’t STAND cable for that reason. They are mainly arm-candy and then they throw a bone to the girls and make one insanely powerful women, who, in the end will melt for the right guy….

        • Emilianne Hackett

          hyper-feminist means that women are strong, powerful, capable, and men are weak, incompetent, stupid or evil. Hyper-feminism elevates women at the expense of men. It does not make women equal to men, it makes them better than men.

          • Andre B

            As nonsensical as that definition seems, given the terms it is composed of, it certainly makes more sense given Barron listed it with several other Conservative boogey-men.

    • Emilianne Hackett

      Feminist does not mean directed at women, and I don’t think anyone should have to ask what Father Barron means by hyper-feminist.

      • Andre B

        “Feminist does not mean directed at women”

        Please, where did I say that was what ‘feminist’ means? I was trying to figure out what he could possibly mean by ‘hyper-feminist’.

        “I don’t think anyone should have to ask what Father Barron means by hyper-feminist.”

        Well, I’m sorry to be so obtuse. Perhaps you can tell us what Barron meant. Do you think he meant ‘unusually concerned with the equality of women’?

        • Nonsanta Maria

          It came across to me as a big ole raspberry blow directed at the writers of Maleficent for straying from the “prince saves damsel in distress” story we’re used to. Because for some people, telling a story in which women succeed at something that men failed at, is akin to a bra burning, tampon throwing, slut walk mob.

  • blablabla

    Really enjoyed the movie with the girls. Prince Charming wasn’t all that! The actors were great esp., the fairy godmother and the step-mother. I loved it, and I usually don’t like the movies. It definitely brought back memories growing up in a traditional home, until I got married, but my prince charming was far better.

  • Vision_From_Afar

    There’s finding symbolism, then there’s a square peg in a round hole. Hammer it enough, carpenter, and I suppose it’ll go in.

  • MichaelNewsham

    -Every human culture from Lascaux on has depicted people hunting deer (Australasia excepted- no deer), and stag hunting is often associated with elites- they get to eat the deer while the poor get smaller game.

    – every culture has stories about a high-status male who falls for a beautiful lower-status female -and vice-versa, which kind of destroys the whole meme, unless you believe “The Brave Little Tailor” is Satanic.

    As for those Grimm fairy-tales

    Grimm brothers’ fairytales have blood and horror restored in new translation:Wilhelm Grimm, said Zipes, “deleted all tales that might offend a
    middle-class religious sensitivity”, such as How Some Children Played at
    Slaughtering. He also “added many Christian expressions and proverbs”,
    continued Zipes….

    …Zipes writes that the originals “retain the pungent and naive flavour of
    the oral tradition”, and that they are “stunning narratives precisely
    because they are so blunt and unpretentious”, with the Grimms yet to add
    their “sentimental Christianity and puritanical ideology”.

    http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/nov/12/grimm-brothers-fairytales-horror-new-translation
    Note that these are the original folktales as recorded by the brothers, not some post-modern reinterpretation.

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  • kemalettin

    I want to share that:

    it is as definite and obvious that death will befall us as the night will follow today and winter, this autumn.

    from risalei nur collection

    http://www.nur.gen.tr/en.html#maincontent=Risale&islem=read&KitapId=22&BolumId=828&KitapAd=The+Rays&Page=248

  • Ragnell

    I wold point out that the stag is a very ancient pagan symbol of the male fertility god. The Grimms were influenced by Christian stories that had their roots in a pre Christian, Pagan culture. Your article is incredibly biased toward your particular religion, even to the point of implying that Cinderella’s character attributes are somehow confined to Christianity.

    This is a wonderful telling of an old tale with lessons on many levels. But it cannot be claimed to a Christian story, only a story that Christians, among others, can find virtue in.

  • Jim Carroll

    I went to see it last night with my daughter after we learned that the movie we REALLY wanted to see (Chappie) left town the day before. I was expecting the type of fairy tale/mythos/history retelling that seems all the rage nowadays: good is bad, bad is good or bad is really good but misunderstood/ahead of the times/whatever. Instead, it was a movie that both my 20-yo daughter and I thoroughly enjoyed!

    The ONLY thing that struck me was during the mother’s death scene. Yes, they had the doctor making the last house call and trying to comfort the father, but I think if this had been one of the Disney movies from the ’50s there would have been a priest on hand. Maybe not in the room but at least shown with the crowd of servants, ready to offer some support (if not the Last Rites).

    Loved it!

  • http://stanadermann.wordpress.com StanA

    I have read historians who relate the symbology of Cinderella as more pagan-centric: the cinder maid is the virginal form of the pagan goddess, the grave that grants the gifts is the pagan Earth Mother, the stag if present is the Horned God of fertility. If the church is represented at all it is in the step-family, with the stepmother as the oppressive Catholic church and the two stepdaughters representing the clergy and the aristocracy.

    Whether that is accurate is hard to say. Barbara Tuchman documents medieval prophecies of the overthrow of the oppressive church (see “A Distant Mirror”). The “persecuted maid” story itself predates Christianity and has been told in many forms with each generation putting their own stamp on it. Branagh may have in fact intended a more Christian representation, but if that’s what he had in mind then he and Father Barron are both engaged in the age-old Christian tactic of co-opting non-Christian symbology to promote their own religion.

  • blablabla

    Wowzers what a dress!. That would make one phenomenal wedding dress.