Cinderella and Cinematic Saints

Disney’s recent live action film of Cinderella provides what has become — perhaps fortunately, perhaps unfortunately — a unique take on the fairytale. It is a straightforward, old-fashioned telling of the traditional story without any deconstruction, subversive twists, or rewriting of roles, all of which have become increasingly common in recent tellings of fairy stories from Wicked to Shrek to Frozen to Maleficent. (That statement is meant neither as a criticism nor as compliment, just a mere fact.)

In adapting Cinderella, director Kenneth Branagh said that he wanted to make a movie which showed kindness to be a superpower. That approach enabled him to preserve the classical elements of the fairytale and create a heroine who is intelligent and resourceful while refusing to become bitter and vindictive due to the misfortunes she suffers.

Aren Bergstrom of Three Brothers Film made an insightful comparison regarding Cinderella‘s “kindness as a superpower” theme on Twitter. Aren suggested that Branagh’s take on the classic fairytale heroine puts her in a similar league with cinematic saints like Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons and Joan in The Passion of Joan of Arc, a comparison which is not undeserved.

One recurring line in Cinderella is what Ella’s mother (Hayley Atwell) says to her daughter (Lily James) before she dies: “Be kind and have courage.” That line could also be applied to some of the most determined and most inspiring cinematic portrayals of saints from the past century.

In 1928 Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc, gave audiences what is possibly the ultimate cinematic example of a suffering servant. Comprised primarily of long takes and still close-ups, Dreyer’s film dwells on the sufferings of Joan through her trial and martyrdom, and with evocations of Biblical imagery, such as a crown of thorns and a lamb led to the slaughter, the film clearly suggests that Joan’s sufferings are a way for her to partake in the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ.

Throughout her tribulations, Joan of Arc, much like Branagh’s Cinderella, never becomes bitter or angry toward her persecutors. Sorrowful and fearful, yes, but both of them face their sufferings which dignity and all the courage they can muster (which must be pointed out, is far harder for Joan as she is being tortured and threatened with death). After their worst trials, both of them receive a gift of grace which brings them to a new and better home, something which is also true for the following examples.

Finally, I am sure this is a coincidence, but even if this pose is a common villain expression, the similarity between these shots of Cate Blanchett as Lady Tremaine and Eugene Silvain as Bishop Pierre Cauchon (Joan of Arc’s chief persecutor) is worth pointing out.

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Another cinematic saint who has even more in common with Branagh’s Cinderella is Bernadette Soubirous as played by Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette (1943). Bernadette may have come from a loving and supportive family, but her frail health caused her much pain throughout her life, pain which she always bore courageously as she treated everyone with love and kindness, even when she least wished to. On top of that, her visions of the Blessed Mother asking for a chapel to be built were received with skepticism by a couple of the religious authorities and outright disdain and threats by the town magistrates. The Song of Bernadette suggests that one reason the magistrates bully and threaten a young, defenseless girl is that in secular and agnostic post-revolution France, the officials did not care to see a mass-hysteria over what they viewed to be an antiquated belief system.

To my knowledge, there has been no backlash against Cinderella, but like Bernadette called attention to something which many thought of as passé, Cinderella portrays a world and style of storytelling steeped in classicism that noticeably contrasts our increasingly cynical postmodern culture.

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If Robert Bolt’s brilliant screenplay for the 1966 A Man for All Seasons does not constitute one of the most inspiringly quotable movies ever, then I don’t know what would. Cinderella‘s screenplay by Chris Weitz is not on the same level as that of A Man for All Seasons, but there is one line that captures Cinderella’s bravery and compassion, which she shows to everyone, even her step-family, even after they have been unusually cruel toward her. That line is, “They treat me as well as they’re able,” and it expresses a similar sentiment to the final words spoken by Thomas More after he has been found guilty of treason via an obvious perjury.

I am the King’s true subject, and pray for him and all the realm. I do none harm, I say none harm, I think none harm. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, in good faith I long not to live. I have, since I came into prison, been several times in such a case that I thought to die within the hour, and I think Our Lord I was never sorry for it, but rather sorry when it passed. And therefore, my poor body is at the King’s pleasure. Would God my death might do him some good.

Sophie Scholl may not be a canonized saint of the Catholic Church, but there can be little doubt that she is in heaven. As an active member of the White Rose, an underground resistance group to the Nazis, she was executed along with her brother Hans for treason against the Third Reich. Their arrest and trial are dramatized in the 2005 film Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. The film primarily focuses on Sophie, and the young protagonist is another example of a heroine who remains dignified and courageously kind in the face of adversity which can often seem inhuman.

One of the most noticeable similarities between Cinderella and Sophie is that both of them choose not to hold a grudge against those who cause their suffering. Indeed, Sophie’s calmness as she is interrogated takes an admirable level of self-control, much like Cinderella’s final action in Branagh’s film. Even when they are imprisoned unjustly, both women care for others who are worse off than they. Finally, both also have the humility to realize when they need help and spiritual guidance from someone else and accept it.

Although the film is a fairytale rather than a dramatization of an historical event, Cinderella features a protagonist with similar traits to some of the most dignified and determined saints who have graced the silver screen. However, it is fitting that a fairytale should continue this characterization. As I’ve said before, at a fundamental level, fairytales are morality tales for children. In opting for a classical retelling of Cinderella, with its saintly protagonist, Branagh’s film lauds two virtues which are found in some of the most famous cinematic portrayals of saints, two virtues which do have a sort of superpower to carry one through suffering to a new and better world: courage and kindness.

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