Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The theological anthropology of The Revenant (2016)

I have recently watched The Revenant (2016), starring Leonardo DiCaprio. It is a fantastic movie about survival and revenge, based on the true story of a man named Hugh Glass. It is expertly made and contains the style and touch typical of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's movies. He did well last year with Birdman, and he did very well this year with Revenant.

There is a lot that could be said about the movie, but in this short posting, I want to focus specifically on the theological anthropology implicit in the film. There is a certain portrait that Inarritu paints of the human person, and it is worth noting. Some spoilers follow.


One of the most impressive aspects of Inarritu's film is the way in which human beings are simultaneously depicted as parts of nature and yet above it in some important ways. Naturally, because the film deals with the story of a lone man's survival in harsh and unfavorable natural conditions, an otherwise urban and unfamiliar audience is given a peek into what life in "the real world" is like, and what ordinary life was like for many people before the mass urbanization and colonization of the west. It's not a particularly welcoming environment: frigid temperatures, hostile animals, shelter is to be constructed only with great difficulty, and so on. We also see, however, that human beings are capable of manipulating the environment and making it suitable for their own ends. This is what Romanian Orthodox theologian Dumitru Stăniloae referred to as the "humanization" of nature: the natural order contains within it the raw materials and the ability to be transformed so as to be a suitable home for human beings, and in this way it is humanized.

In The Revenant, human beings are shown to be a part of the natural order: they need food and water and shelter to survive, same as every other sort of animal. But they are above it, in that they are capable of mastering it and manipulating it to their own ends in a way no other animal is. The humans have learned to manipulate fire and weaponry and tools in order to establish a safe place for themselves in which to live. Glass, for example, out of his knowledge of the natural order and its laws and characteristics, is able to cauterize his serious wounds from the bear attack by using gunpowder and lighting a fire using a flint. (The bear's wounds, on the other hand, proved to be its death, because she lacks this power to manipulate nature for her own survival.)

Another way in which human beings rise above the natural order, however, is through their moral sense. The human person has a sense of right and wrong, a sense of order and chaos, a sense of what is good and what is evil that can guide her actions in the world. She has a sense that living life merely as animals is not good enough. Though Glass shares with the bear a paternal (or maternal) instinct to protect his young, yet he also comes to realize that revenge is in God's hands, not his own. This is a lesson he learns from a Pawnee Indian, whose entire tribe had been slaughtered by Sioux. He tells Glass that revenge is in the Creator's hands, not in his own. What is especially fascinating about this is that the Pawnee Indian waxes theological with Glass while eating raw meat from the carcass of a buffalo. The image is positively savage: a frightening man squats over the open wound of a dead animal and eats flesh, blood soaking his hands and the bottom half of his face; yet this same dreadful sight believes in a Creator of the whole world, and a moral order that is maintained even if not at the time at which we would prefer. Glass and the Pawnee Indian demonstrate the magnificence of the human creature as a being who can rise above the level of other animals, and can penetrate into deeper mysterious about the greater purposes and order of the universe.

And yet if it is possible for nature to be humanized, it is also possible for humans to be "naturalized," which amounts to a devolution to the status of animals. The Pawnee Indian is lynched by a migrating group of French traders, who incidentally have kidnapped the daughter of the chief of a local Ree tribe. On the Pawnee's dead body hangs a sign which reads (in French): we are all savages. This is, of course, a reference to the habit of the Americans and French to refer to the Indians as savages. This usage is ironic, since the "savages" are in more or less every way similar to their "cultured" counterparts: they have complex familial relationships, they have profound theological convictions and an awareness of God's existence, they have a sense of right and wrong and affirm a moral order and structure which guides their actions, etc.

Are we all savages? Is a human being any different than a bear, or a wolf, or a buffalo? It is noteworthy that the most villainous characters in the film are those who live their lives as if they were no better than other animals: survival and self-preservation are their highest goals, to be achieved at any cost. The heroes, on the other hand, those with whom we sympathize the most, are those who exhibit a capacity and to rise above the level of mere nature. Not only are they natural creatures, but they are also humans, which are per se above nature even if part of it as well.

Inarritu's film puts forth the human creature as a paradoxical demonstration that there is an order of reality beyond nature. Glass, the Pawnee Indian, the Ree chief -- all these demonstrate that the human creature is not simply one more piece of the natural order, determined to survive at any cost, caring for nothing more than self-preservation. Far from it. They demonstrate a sense and awareness of something higher, something more valuable, something more important. At the same time, they display certain continuities with nature: they fight, they eat, they sleep, they drink, they cling to life in the face of the threat of death, etc. If the human person turns her gaze towards nature and limits herself to that, then she truly becomes an animal and a villain -- like Fitzgerald. But this turn would be a waste of her potential and beneath her, when we can see clearly that she is capable of so much more.

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