Depictions of Religious Characters

Both The Passion of the Christ and The Seventh Seal contain many characters branded by religion—those who preach it, those who claim to follow it, and those who have studied it. As viewers, we cannot assume that what the directors portray in the film reflects their beliefs; we can, however, assume a small amount of human bias that goes into a personal creation. Mel Gibson, the director of The Passion of the Christ, claims to be Roman Catholic, while Ingmar Bergman, the director of The Seventh Seal, is rumored to be atheist, or at least struggled against his father who was a Lutheran minister. While their religious backgrounds and beliefs may not directly factor into each director’s portrayal of religious characters in their respective films, we can observe that they show them in an overall negative light.

In The Passion of the Christ, Gibson depicts Jesus very differently than he does the other religious leaders. For example, Gibson focuses on Jesus’ moments of nearly supernatural mercy. When Christ hangs on the cross after enduring the most brutal of beatings and evil mockery, he cries, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

In contrast to this overwhelming show of grace, the Pharisees and Sadducees, the two most prominent groups of Jewish leaders, watch as Roman guards beat Jesus within inches of death–a sentence which they had brought upon Jesus. Moreover, Pontius Pilate, a Roman under the commission of Julius Caesar, declared Jesus to be innocent and washed his hands of any guilt from convicting Jesus. Multiple instances of the Jewish leaders laughing at a bloodied Jesus, spitting on him, and the act of convicting him sheds a negative light on these very religious people. They seem cruel, hateful, evil, foolish.

In The Seventh Seal, Bergman portrays religious people in a similar light. During the time of the Black Plague, large groups of fanatical Christians called flagellants would march together and beat themselves, with the mindset that the plague was a punishment from God and that they must punish themselves further to rid Europe of this epidemic. In a powerful scene showing these self-flagellators, their preacher shouts angrily at the crowds, pointing out specific persons, condemning and blaming all, and preaching of death and destruction.

Bergman portrays the flagellants as an eerie crowd, insane and haunting, as they chant and whip themselves. He shows the preacher, a representative of the flagellants, as equally crazed with the thought of impending doom and full of anger and condemnation.

One of the final scenes in the movie shows religious leaders burning a child who they believed to be a witch. The idea of witch-hunting traveled to America long after the Black Plague ravaged Europe, and many know it to be a product of foolish mass hysteria and a frantic search for scapegoats for social problems. The fact that these leaders decide to burn this child alive show them as simple-minded and evil.

Overall, the way each director chooses to portray religious characters in their two very different films is quite similar. While bias naturally factors in, we can’t determine if this shows the point that each director was trying to get across the audience.

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