I find that many filmmakers symbolize significant changes in their characters’ journeys by a little something called “Christian shorthand.”
After all, if nearly a third of the world’s population has a common visual language, why wouldn’t an artist employ it in order to lend subtext, layer, or even exposition to a scene? If someone has saintlike qualities, give them a halo! It’s pretty, and also gives the slower members of the audience a tip-off.
However, being from a lesser-represented religion myself, I find that many times these symbols go waaaaaay over my head. As much as I think it’s important to read the New Testament and the Koran, I have done neither in my life.
So here: a non-comprehensive list of what I’ve gathered so far in my understanding of Christian imagery on film.
If the character dunks in a pool of water (or has water poured on their head):
Aha! Your character is being baptized! This is symbolic of transformation, of renewal, of transcendence. They are becoming new, taking a new path. Your character will now be open to new experiences.
As seen in: Netflix’s Unorthodox (2020), the story of a Jewish woman who leaves her restrictive community.
If your character is referred to as “The Chosen One”:
Oop! Betcha thought we had the market cornered on the term “chosen”, but that’s only because the Christians took what we believe to be true of us all and applied it to that one good dude, Jesus Christ. Indeed, when a character is Chosen, he (or, less likely, she) is intended to be a Christlike figure.
As seen in: The Matrix (1999), a movie brought up in every “edgy” Jewish philosophy course circa 2000-2012.
If your character has dark hair and a dark attitude and meets a foil who is blonde and squeaky clean:
I’m not saying every brunette is depicted as Satan’s mistress and every blonde is an angel walking the earth, but there is a strong resonance with physical beauty being related to godliness and ugliness being related to man’s worst impulses come to life.
As seen in: Shiva Baby (2020), a movie about a young Jewish girl who finds out her sugar daddy is married to a (converted) Quinn Fabray from Glee.
If your character has something rubbed onto their forehead:
Congratulations, they’ve been anointed! On Ash Wednesday the priest puts ashes on your forehead, as a reminder to repent and that we’re all but dust in the wind. It is part of many religious ceremonies in the Bible involving rulers and priestly things. Your character is going to be a ruler or a priest now.
As seen in: Kings (2009), a modernized TV retelling of the story of Shaul and David from the historically/culturally/genetically/intrinsically Jewish Book of Samuel.
If your character walks on water:
More water imagery! Yay! This is a very Christlike ability and like the Chosen One above, it intimates in a very overt way that your character has become enlightened. Your character has crossed a harsh desert of God’s tests, and has emerged victorious – like Jesus.
As seen in: Walk on Water (2004), an Israeli film about a Jewish Mossad agent hunting an aged Nazi war criminal.