In honor of the holiday, Father Steve is thankful for CGI, epic battles of good v. evil, and Hollywood's never-ceasing fascination with the supernatural. Today, on the Word on Fire blog, he provides us with his review of "Immortals."
According to Hesiod, the originating principle of all things is chaos and it is from this primordial state of affairs that the gods emerge. The gods are the natural necessities—earth, sky, water, day and night, all of which are living beings characterized by intelligence, personality and will—and from these elemental powers the titans emerge, and from the titans, the Olympian pantheon.
The transition of power from one generation of divinities to another is wrought with peril for gods and men alike, as the chaos that begot the world threatens again to engulf the cosmos:
For a long time they fought, hearts bitter with toil
Going against each other in the shock of battle
The Titans and the gods…
The world as the ancient Greeks knew it emerged in the wake of this conflict. The defeated Titans languished:
By the will of Zeus, in a moldering place.
There is no way out for them. Poseidon set doors of bronze in a wall
That surrounds it…
Director Tarsem Singh’s “Immortals” is a creative re-imagining of Hesiod’s titanomachy. The film opens with troubling imagery of the titans in their moldering prison, defeated, covered in the dreck of the ages, staring blankly, chained together, and then suddenly emerging from their cage. Liberated by a masked figure.
The titanomachy of “Immortals” is then explained to us in a series of iconic representations that evoke the artistic heritage of the Orthodox Church (more about that later). The gods battled the titans. The titans lost. The benevolent gods retreated to Olympus where they have adopted a non-interventionist policy in regards to humanity.
However, a wicked king by the name of Hyperion (Mickey Rourke), angry with the gods for not sparing his wife and children the debilitating effects of illness and disease, declares war on both gods and men and seeks to unleash the titans to usurp the rule of the gods and subjugate humanity.
Enter our hero: Theseus (Henry Cavill), the child of a single mother and favored by the gods! Destined to find the Epirus Bow, a weapon created by the gods that turned the tide of battle in their war against the titans, Theseus has enjoyed the friendship of the ruler of the Olympians, mighty Zeus (Luke Evans) in disguise (in the form of John Hurt). A beautiful seer (Freida Pinto) has foreseen that Theseus has the power to defeat Hyperion. An action packed quest ensues in which Theseus demonstrates not only his prowess as a warrior but the nobility of his character. All this leads to a dramatic showdown between Theseus and Hyperion and a pitched battle between the gods and the titans.
“Immortals” is a visually stunning film and its imagery ultimately demonstrates itself more memorable than the characters and the details of the plot. The film proves in the end to be much more a series of tableaus, rather than a well-told tale. But even in this presentation, there is a certain mastery of the mythic material—it looks like the friezes that ran the length of the ancient temples and monuments of Greece. We moderns forget that these statues were once vividly painted and therefore as lifelike and vulgar looking as the characters are in “Immortals”.
It even pulls off representing the gods as active participants in the story in a way that I found to be effective. The gods of Tarsem Singh’s vision are not seasoned Shakespearian actors slumming in cinema, wrapped in white sheets. His gods are fancifully decorated and costumed (after all, their battle with the titans over, what else is there to do on Olympus but look the part of a divinity?). Further, the ambrosia imbibed by these gods seems to have had a beautifying, slimming and muscling effect on their immortal forms. We are a long way from Lawrence Olivier in the first “Clash of the Titans”.
It is easy just to watch “Immortals” rather than to think about it, but the writers want us to think (I think). Before it captivates us with its visuals, “Immortals” begs that we consider a quote of Socrates: “All the souls of men are immortal, but the souls of men who are righteous are both immortal and divine.” Socrates's wisdom drives the plot and serves as the moral of the tale with Theseus as the proof.
This is a film about gods acting like men, but it is also a film about a man who becomes a god and how he did it. Such a playbook for deification challenges Christian sensibilities, but the film is never irreverent or dismissive in its presentation of piety or religion. In fact, both qualities that are often pilloried in many other films, are held in esteem in “Immortals.” In very evident ways the film is about the efficacy of faith in the supernatural and consequences of rejecting such faith.
The violence and cruelty unleashed in the film emerges not from religion, but in defiance of its civilizing power and mystical intuitions. The gods in “Immortals” are benevolent, their perceived indifference to humanity is actually a manifestation of their respect for their mortal inferiors free will. They want us to be free and to solve our problems for ourselves, a rule that is so important to Zeus that he enacts a terrible penalty on any god who defies this law. Yet, these gods can, though incognito, be humanity’s friends, offering them wise counsel and even if need be, create a tsunami to defeat their enemies. There are benefits to having the god of the sea on your side.
The authors of the screenplay (Charley Parlapanides and Vlas Parlapanides) are the sons of a Greek Orthodox priest and from what they have created it seems as attuned to the paganism of their ancient Greek ancestors as they are to the imagery of the Greek Orthodox Church. The film is syncretistic in these regards and at times I was left wondering if they could really discern the differences between the gods, in their attitude and intervention, and the saints—but then again this has proved a difficult distinction for many to imagine and understand. The cosmology of the story is not only what I think to be a fair representation of ancient Greek religion and the piety that it provoked, but the film’s vision of the world is also Manichean and its understanding of deification might be best described as Pelagian.
Christianity advocates its own understanding of deification which is something that God in his grace accomplishes and then gives to humanity as his gift. As St. Gregory of Nazianzus put it, “God became as we are in Christ so that we might become like him.” St. Thomas Aquinas would put it even more boldly: “God became human so that we could become God.” Both saints are referencing the efficacy of what is called the “admirable commercium” or the “marvelous exchange”—the startling revelation that God in Christ, in accepting a human nature, gives to us the means to participate in his divine nature.
The Church agrees with Socrates that the souls of men are immortal, but it is not simply through our will to be virtuous, righteous or heroic that allows us to participate in the life of God. The opportunity to share in the divine life is extended to us by God in Christ and we are allowed to share in it in our weakness and in our strength.
This divine gift of participation in God’s life signals the difference between the cosmos represented by ancient Greek religion and that of the Christian Faith. Creation does not begin in chaos or end in chaos, but instead the world is inaugurated in the speaking of the Eternal Word as an act of love, a gift that invites humanity to fully realize its immortal destiny—to share in the life of God.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.