Friday, March 01, 2013

films that haunt: a tortured Christ and Zero Dark Thirty

Each month I publish a film review, for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 80 plus films later, here is the review for February.

Zero Dark Thirty
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

This movie explores a dark period in world history. Intelligently acted, tautly scripted superbly directed (by Kathryn Bigelow, Academy Award winning Director), it shines a spotlight on the ethics of being human today.

It begins in darkness, the only action the recorded voices of the dying in the Twin Towers on 9/11.

It concludes in darkness, with a midnight attack by elite troops on a sleeping Osama Bin Laden. At times comic, as suburban streets fill with neighbours woken by helicopters and gunshots, it shows the brutal killing of Osama and his wives. The climax might be predictable, but the suspense is superb, the emotion in the theatre palpable.

It uncovers darkness, the use of torture in black sites hidden across nations. Based on first hand accounts, “Zero Dark Thirty” visualises the systematic abuse of human rights and human persons by the United States post- 9/11.

The descent into this moral abyss proves important, revealing information about the identity of a courier close to Osama Bin Laden. The response to the torture scenes in the movie has been predictably varied. A glorification? A distortion? An honest naming of reality?

What follows torture are the years of dogged leg work. Cell phones are tapped and spotters circle crowded city streets searching for a number plate in a haystack. A building is identified. For over a hundred days, the US military weigh the options.

All the while, the terror continues. Scenes play out against the bombing of the Hotel Marriott in Pakistan or television footage of the London bombings.

Christians have a complex relationship with violence. Central to faith is the Passion, which each year recounts a torture. Sleep deprivation, humiliation and physical violence are inflicted upon the Christ.

This is graphically captured in a common Easter Friday image, “The Tortured Christ,” a sculpture by Brazilian artist Guido Rocha. Christ hangs on the cross as skin and bone, screaming in pain and suffering.

“Zero Dark Thirty” explodes our piety. It is one thing when the tortured are the innocent. It enables a sharing in suffering. For theologian William Cavanaugh, Christians “make the bizarre claim that pain can be shared, precisely because people can be knitted together into one body” (Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ, 280).

But what happens when the tortured are not the innocent, but potentially are terrorists. Does Christ share their pain? In communion, should we?

Perhaps these questions are in fact the bitter herbs of Passover? They invite us to face the enormity of Jesus’ invitation to love our enemies. They suggest we swallow an outrageous hope, that love will redeem all dark places, terrorist and torturer, the darkness of all black sites.

It makes the ending of “Zero Dark Thirty” even more poignant, the tears rolling down the face of CIA heroine, Maya (Jessica Chastain). This is a film of lament, an invitation to swallow the bitter herbs of a world in darkness.

Update: For an extended list of Holy week movies :

  • On Monday, The Insatiable Moon (2010), while reading Mark 11:15-16.
  • On Tuesday, Serenity (2000), while reading Mark 14:3.
  • On Wednesday, Gran Torino (2008), while reading John 12:23-14.
  • On Thursday, Dark Knight (2008), while reading Mark 14:10.
  • On Friday, Never let me go (2011), while reading Mark 15:33.
  • On Sunday, Never let me go (again) and Invictus, while reading Mark 16:6-7.

Because –

The fact that popular media culture is an imaginative palette for faith … the church has to take that imaginative palette seriously… if part of the pastoral task of the church is to communicate God’s mercy and God’s freedom in a way that people understand then you have to use the language that they’re using, you have to use the metaphors and forms of experience that are already familiar to them. Tom Beaudoin

Posted by steve at 08:57 AM


  1. The unspeakably vile sado-masochistic snuff-splatter film/movie in which the “hero” was systematically (even lovingly) beaten to death, reviewed in this essay summed up the darkness of the time, and of the decades to follow.

    The outfit featured on this site was very much involved in the applied politics described above. It was actively supported by right-wing Christians, both “Protestant” and “catholic”.
    It was even given implicit/explicit support by the vatican! Why? Because it was active in the fight against the political implications (for the right-wing powers that be) of the then popular Liberation Theology.

    For a more detailed copiously footnoted description of the action on the ground, and the dark players involved check out The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein.

    Comment by Frederick — March 1, 2013 @ 12:24 pm

  2. thanks Frederick. I’ve also written about the Passion – published in a Christian magazine here –

    What zero dark thirty does is, I think, even more disturbing for faith and ethics. It is one thing, as I note the in the review, to explore suffering when the victim, is, in the minds of many, innocent – as Jesus was, as many of those tortured in Chile were.

    But in zero dark thirty, those being tortured are, potentially, active participants in violence themselves. This makes quite confrontational the Christian claim, of shared suffering. Every time the host is broken, are we sharing the humanity of Al quada?

    Yet Jesus does say, Love your enemies. Is this one way to enact loving?


    Comment by steve — March 4, 2013 @ 8:35 am

  3. A late tangent: your Beaudoin quote is making the same point Kester Brewin is being quite passionate about right now:

    “It’s my strong belief that some of our greatest thinkers, philosophers and theologians are our great writers, film-makers and dramatists – yet they are also the least tapped and most ignored. We are foolish to underestimate the power of their vision and the richness of their teaching. The great artists – in whichever form or genre – are without exception those who best interrogate the human condition. Philosophers and theologians do the same work but come at the problem head-on, often resulting in sore heads and bloodied noses. Instead, as the great poet Emily Dickinson wrote:

    Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
    Success in circuit lies,
    Too bright for our infirm delight
    The truth’s superb surprise;

    The job of the artist is no more than to tell the truth, but at a slant – and it to these ‘slanted’ sources that these pages very deliberately turn, partly to inspire others to begin to see the great mass of serious and insightful thinking that lies beyond academic tomes.”

    Comment by Keith Wansbrough — March 19, 2013 @ 12:12 am

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