The Christ-like Gaze in Film

Scott Green / Bleecker Street

As an art form, film is largely about seeing something in a particular way—and helping audiences see it that way, too. In moving pictures, the artist literally uses an eye-like device (camera) to tell a story by seeing subjects—people, places, things—in a certain way, through variations in angle, distance, pace, composition, lighting, movement, and more. Sometimes a filmmaker is aware and intentional about the particular way their camera sees. At other times the viewer or critic is the one who notices a film’s particular gaze (we might also call it an aesthetic or sensibility) that the filmmaker didn’t knowingly intend. In either case, films are distinguished from one another in large part by the different modes in which they see what is in front of the camera.

As a Christian and a lover of cinema, I’m intrigued by the idea of a “Christ-like gaze.” Is there a discernible aesthetic, a way of films seeing their subjects, that reflects what we know from Scripture about how Jesus saw things? What might such an aesthetic look like? And whether the filmmaker knowingly employs this aesthetic or not, how might Christian viewers identify it when they see it?

In my experience, many of the films that come closest to exhibiting what might be called a “Christ-like gaze” were not made by Christ-followers. Sadly, too many overtly Christian films don’t actually have a particularly Christ-like aesthetic. And the films that do have this aesthetic often have it by accident. By common grace—and in a Western culture irrevocably formed by Christianity in spite of its present secularity—artists of no faith can still create good, true, and beautiful things. This is especially possible in a visual medium like cinema or photography, where the objectivity of the camera sometimes overpowers the subjectivity of the artist.

If a film’s camera acts as an eye, it can have a “Christ-like gaze” in a way that Christian viewers might detect while the filmmaker cannot. Just as the disciples saw the same things Jesus did—literally—and yet often failed to comprehend what they were seeing, so also can a filmmaker and a film viewer (or two film viewers) see the same thing but in a different way. This is one of the reasons why thoughtful, careful interpretation of art is just as important as thoughtful, careful creation of it. We need Christians who can recognize and praise a film when it has a Christ-like aesthetic, and we also need Christians who can convey this aesthetic in the films they make.

Too many overtly Christian films don’t actually have a particularly Christ-like aesthetic. The films that do have this aesthetic often have it by accident.

Why do some secular films—with no Christian “message” at all—stir our souls and resonate spiritually, while some films with clear Christian messages feel cold and fall flat? I’d like to suggest the aesthetic of a film—the way it sees—matters more than we think it does in how a film connects spiritually. Many Christian films don’t resonate because they focus mostly on what the camera sees and not how the camera sees it.

The following are three initial ideas (of many we could doubtless come up with) for how Christian filmgoers might recognize a Christ-like gaze in a film, and how Christian filmmakers might adopt this gaze as they make their films. These three aesthetic suggestions might help ostensibly “Christian” films feel a little bit more Christ-like.

1. Compassionate Nearness, Not Dispassionate Distance

How does Jesus see? This is a good question to start with as we consider the elements of a Christ-like gaze. Scripture often describes Jesus as having compassion while looking at some individual, group of people, or even a whole city.

In the story of Jesus raising the widow’s son from the dead, for example, Luke says, “And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her” (Luke 7:13). In Christ’s encounter with the rich young ruler, Mark says, “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him” (Mark 10:21). “When he saw the crowds” in various cities and villages, Jesus “had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). When he saw another great crowd, he “had compassion on them and healed their sick” (Matt. 14:14).

Time and time again, when Jesus sees people, he has compassion. He has a tender, loving gaze; one that is clearly moved by beholding image-of-God-bearing beings who are suffering, sinning, and lost. Jesus looks at people through a lens of love, and Christian artists should do likewise.

What would this look like in a filmmaking aesthetic? First, I think it means the way we depict characters—whether protagonists or antagonists—starts from a place of respecting their innate dignity and potential as humans created in the image of God. This means attempting to understand and depict their complexity rather than writing them into superficial, one-dimensional boxes that serve tidy narrative functions. It means compassion for them as they are, even if they have made or are making self-destructive choices. Some films have a tone that finds sinful, destructive choices comical. These films view people with cynicism and hopelessness, almost relishing the pathetic behavior that leads to avoidable destruction. For all their many merits, the films of Woody Allen and the Coen brothers often display this cynical, dispassionate gaze.

A Christ-like gaze, by contrast, may depict characters who unravel because of sin (done to them or by them), but the depiction is mournful, a lament. Though it may reflect anger at sin and injustice, the Christ-like gaze doesn’t laugh at the sinner or run away from the sinner in disgust. It moves toward the sinner with grace and compassion, not dismissing the gravity of the sin but recognizing the need for relationship—not abandonment or cynical detachment—if the situation is to be redeemed.

The Christ-like gaze doesn’t laugh at the sinner or run away from the sinner in disgust. It moves toward the sinner with grace and compassion.

Two 2018 films, Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace and Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete, exhibit this grace and compassion well. Both films follow the plight of a young person who experiences homelessness because of complicated circumstances. In Leave No Trace, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) is a 13-year-old girl whose father (Ben Foster) is a veteran with PTSD who can’t function in society and prefers to live in the forest with his daughter. In Lean on Pete, Charley (Charlie Plummer) is a 15-year-old boy who ends up alone on the streets through a series of unfortunate events.

Rather than judging these kids’ predicaments (including the various ways parental choices have put them in danger), these films simply meet them in their difficult circumstances, rooting for them with deep compassion. Visually, this often looks like camera work that is more intimate and close up; perhaps more handheld, evoking an invisible, God-like presence hovering around and pursuing a subject, always near in times of trouble. Lean on Pete features many long takes with a camera following its young protagonist, usually from a short distance behind him, as he runs or walks around the harsh landscapes of the Western United States. This visual evokes a fatherly compassion, a camera that is watching over this lonely, fearful boy even when he doesn’t know it.

The films of the Dardenne brothers (e.g., L’Enfant, The Son, The Unknown Girl) also demonstrate this view well. Their subjects are almost always struggling from system-and-self-inflicted suffering, and yet the way the camera beholds them is not cold and distant. It is warm and near, calm and consoling even as the stress of its subjects increases. Through the camera’s fatherly nearness and other aesthetic means (I think of the brief bursts of Beethoven’s ‘Piano Concerto No. 5’ in The Kid with a Bike), the Dardennes create an aesthetic that sees with a compassionate nearness in a Christ-like way.

2. Attentive, Not Manipulative

Another mark of the Christ-like gaze in a film is attentiveness. It is a sense of presence where the subject in front of the camera (whether a person or an environment) is noticed, observed, and respected rather than manipulated for mere utility.

Jesus was no utilitarian. He spent time with tax collectors and other outcasts over long meals; he stopped to chat with strangers. He was interruptible. When blind beggars called out to him from along the road, Jesus stopped (Mark 10:46–49). When a Samaritan woman came to the well where he was sitting, Jesus conversed with her (John 4:1–26). He noticed people the rest of the world overlooked. He paid attention to them and in so doing, dignified them. For Jesus, relationships and people mattered more than efficiency.

Sometimes filmmakers (like any artist) approach their craft with such a rigid vision and utilitarian aim that their subjects are instrumentalized and thus demeaned. Every character and every shot serves the plot and the director’s vision. In the rush to mount an argument or express some “message,” there is no room for attending to beauty or quietly observing the nuances of life. This is where many “Christian” films suffer. Out of fear that some important theme or moral will be missed, many Christian films adopt a bare-bones, efficient aesthetic that values message transmission above aesthetic observation. But this tradeoff often backfires, because while the message comes through it is often stripped of humanity and the vital textures of lifethe very things that actually make messages stick. When characters in a film only serve the filmmaker’s agenda, they are pawns more than people. They can feel alien and unfamiliar. When a film’s camera only notices what it needs to notice to advance the plot, it reveals an unloving, incurious, and dispassionate posture toward the world.

When a film’s camera only notices what it needs to notice to advance the plot, it reveals an unloving, incurious, and dispassionate posture toward the world.

A Christ-like gaze in a film, on the other hand, takes time to notice things. Its primary value is not efficiency. It is patience and presence. What does this look like aesthetically? It often looks like avoiding reliance on dialogue and letting images speak. It looks like longer shot lengths, allowing the camera to linger on a character’s face for a few beats even after they’ve stopped talking. It often involves a slower, more unhurried pace that allows space for viewers to more fully appreciate what they see. The excellent 2017 film Columbus is a good example of an unhurried, observational gaze that delights in the everyday beauty of its characters and settings.

Often the attentiveness of a Christ-like gaze means letting yourself meander and including shots and moments that may not serve the plot but are nevertheless beautiful. Terrence Malick shoots his films in this way. His cameras are hyper-attentive to the world around them. Whether a sprinkler on a Texas lawn or a Sonic fast-food restaurant in rural Oklahoma, Malick’s gaze is observational and perceptive in a way that re-enchants the viewer to the beauty of everyday life. He dignifies and honors the creation he beholds through his eagerness to turn the camera on birds, butterflies, and unknown characters who don’t serve the plot. He’s also willing to improvise, use non-actors, and let serendipity drive the creative process.

A certain organic quality and looseness of form—an interruptibility in which unforeseen beauty and “holy moments” are more important than hitting all the planned beats—also characterizes the Christ-like gaze in film. Recent films like Chloé Zhao’s The Rider and Sean Baker’s The Florida Project also model this gaze well. They manifest deep compassion for their subjects through attending to them and observing their unique dignity and beauty rather than making them mercenaries to a lifelessly utilitarian agenda.

3. Willingness to See Suffering, But Not Without Hope

A gaze that is truly attentive to our fallen world often beholds suffering. To be present in the world, to be in relationship with people, is to witness all manner of pain and heartbreak and horror.

Jesus saw suffering. He wept when he saw the dead Lazarus (John 11:35), even though he knew he could (and would) raise him from the dead. He weeps because there is something to weep about. Jesus doesn’t skip over the lament. When he saw Jerusalem in Luke 19:41, he wept over it. And in his own life he encountered and willingly endured suffering, of course, culminating in the horror of the cross.

A Christ-like gaze must not avoid suffering, naively turning away from something just because it is hard to watch. Too often “Christian” movies avoid suffering because it’s too bleak or a downer; or they sanitize the suffering to the point that it loses potency. The recent faith-based film Paul, Apostle of Christ does an admirable job of giving proper attention to suffering, but too often these faith-market films move too quickly from conflict to resolution, minimizing the tension that is the source of life’s drama. But Good Friday is not a mere setup for Easter Sunday. Good Friday has profound aesthetic meaning in its own right that should not be passed over. Any movie that adopts the perspective of Jesus cannot skip through suffering.

And yet. The resurrection is real. There is hope. A Christ-like gaze sees suffering but never wallows in it. Brokenness and suffering aren’t ends to themselves. Sometimes artists are prone to glorify suffering. There are many films that wallow in suffering and contain little if any hope (certain Lars von Trier or Darren Aronofsky films come to mind). If faith-based films err on the side of Easter, these too-bleak films err on the side of Good Friday. But a Christ-like gaze recognizes both suffering and hope. It is soberly aware of suffering without glorifying it; stridently hopeful without being saccharine.

A Christ-like gaze recognizes both suffering and hope. It is soberly aware of suffering without glorifying it; stridently hopeful without being saccharine.

Recent films like Leave No Trace and The Rider depict plenty of hardship and suffering, but not in an exploitative or gratuitous way. These films are peppered with moments of grace that provide relief and hope for beleaguered characters—whether the kindness of a stranger, a warm fire in a cold forest, the embrace of a friend, or the companionship of a horse. The characters’ problems are decidedly not all tidily resolved by the end. But there has been growth. There has been a change. New life, a new start, is on the horizon, like the first faint light of a sunrise.

A Christ-like gaze often sees this faint light with squinty eyes. But it is there, even if just a glimmer.

Some films with a Christ-like gaze may feel dark and hopeless for 90 percent of the runtime. Then, in the final moments, there is a glimmer. I think of Children of Men, Manchester by the Sea, L’Enfant, or The Pianist—somewhat punishing films where the hope or resolution only comes in with the final scene (sometimes final shot). First Reformed director Paul Schrader, in his book The Transcendental Style in Film, describes this in terms of stasis: “a frozen view of life which does not resolve the disparity but transcends it.” Stasis often occurs in a film’s final moments or final shot—when the plot’s tension or “disparity” is not completely resolved, but “frozen” into stasis in a way that feels cathartic and transcendent. It’s that moment when the screen goes black and the credits roll, and the final image of the film lingers in your mind.

In films that embody a Christ-like gaze, these final images of stasis convey calm and hope. It’s the lone palm shoot on a war-torn beach in the final frame of Malick’s The Thin Red Line. A pair of golden hour smiles in the final shot of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. A departing train in Hostiles. Having loved, noticed, and seen the suffering of its subjects, a Christ-like gaze ultimately longs to see them heal, change, recover, restore. Resurrect.

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