Passion stories for nonbelievers

Building/Consensus | Culture
I was trying to figure out how The Passion‘s resonance with believers can be understood by non-Christians. Were there any equivalent movies that could be made, or had been made? Movies about faith and inspiration which are overtly religious demand not just a suspension of disbelief, but a suspension of belief— one’s own– which make them difficult to watch.

A letter writer to the Boston Globe suggested that a similar movie could be filmed about the death of Rabbi Akiva, a leader against the Romans a century after Jesus. Akiva’s torturous death, as described in the Talmud, is just as gruesome as in The Passion, and becomes, to Jews at the time, the most famous Jewish martyr. The penultimate Jewish martyr film is of course Schindler’s List (1994), which reached out to both Jews and Gentiles. But I don’t see it as a film that anyone watches over and over to renew their faith (not that I expect will be done with the Passion either).

I have other candidates. Some of the classic, and most admired American movies have touched upon themes of sacrifice, redemption, faith. Consider The Shawshank Redemption (1994), the Star Wars trilogy from 1997-83, and perhaps the greatest political movie ever made in America, On the Waterfront.

In the movie, Marlon Brando as dockworker Terry Malloy must face his conscience and break the back of corruption on the waterfront of New York Harbor. Brando’s performance is transcendent and is one of the greatest on screen, ever. He’s supported by Karl Malden as Father Barry, who ministers to the longshoremen on the docks at his own peril (“Boys, this is my Church!” he retorts “If you don’t think Christ is here on the waterfront you got another guess coming.” Terry’s brother Charlie, played by Rod Steiger, betrays him and pays for it. At the end of the film, Brando endures the most horrific of beatings by the dock boss. All he has to do, Father Barry tells him… is get on his feet, and walk… walk to the warehouse so the men can get to work. (Note: I’ve started a discussion on this topic in the BeliefNet forums.

I should point out the irony that the screenwriter* of this most Christian-themed movie, were Jews. The writer, Budd Schulberg, explained to an auditiorium at Fordham University how he was able to capture the spirit of the real-life dock preacher whom Father Barry was based on, Father John Corridan:

“It was not a big leap for me,” Mr. Schulberg said. “I thought of Jesus as a very, very moving Jewish prophet. I agreed with so much of the social message of Jesus,” and “I was very affected by the depth of the commitment of people like Father Corridan.”
On the Waterfront and Jesuit Social Action, May 2003

The audience identifies with Brando, as the Christ-figure, naturally. Not with the crowd who looks on in silence as he gets beaten up, and certainly not with the villainous Johnny Friendly as he administers the beating. On the other hand, devotees of The Passion, and Passion plays in general, explain that they identified with the crowd. How is this so? I will ask on BeliefNet.

*Correction: perhaps four people read a version of this piece which said that the director of the film (Kazan) and the producer were Jewish. There is no evidence to suggest that Kazan was Jewish; he was of Greek heritage.