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Million Dollar Baby: One of the best movies of spiritual substance ever made

Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby ranks among the best movies of spiritual substance ever made. Given that Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ was also released in 2004, and is focused on one part of the gospel narrative, my conclusion may surprise. In fact, Million Dollar Baby has more of the real Christ in it than Mel Gibson's blockbuster. Here's why.

As previously reported,The Passion of the Christ is based upon one very narrow slice of the New Testament narrative. It's about the crucifixion of Jesus, and it focuses to the point of obsession on just one aspect of that, namely, the physical suffering of Jesus, capturing, as a camera can, all the surface detail of Christ's wounded and bleeding flesh.

In the entire New Testament there are only a few sentences that focus on such details, and Gibson has made an epic mountain out of the few scraps of factual information available to him. The rest is fiction, borrowed from sources outside the Bible, as I and others have thoroughly documented. The result is a testament to the personal faith of Mel Gibson and a serious distortion of the biblical message.

For more on The Passion of the Christ

The biblical narrative is not about physical suffering, it's about the redemptive act of God in and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and that story is told against the sweeping backdrop of God's activity throughout the history of the world, from beginning to end. The gospels are about humanity's struggle with the forces of evil and death, and the journey from conflict and alienation toward forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption. In all of this, the figure of Jesus stands out, not because Christ suffered uniquely, but because we find in his triumph, a powerful prefiguring of our own hope. He is, as one biblical writer put it, "the pioneer and perfecter of our faith."

Like Mel Gibson, Clint Eastwood understands that suffering is very much part of the human story, but Eastwood finds a way to probe beneath the details on the surface to illuminate the inner depths. On the surface, Million Dollar Baby is about a young woman's struggle to find her own salvation from the debilitating circumstances of poverty and child abuse. Her path toward liberation is an unlikely one: professional boxing. And she selects, as her mentor and trainer an unlikely savior in Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) a gifted coach, who has thus far failed in his own ambition to train a champion. But beyond that, Frankie is struggling not only with a sense of failure, but more powerfully with a sense of guilt. For those who have faced it, there is nothing more debilitating than the feeling of having come to a dead end in life, not as a result of outside circumstances, but as a result of a character flaw that lies within.

The third major character in the drama, is Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris (Morgan Freedman), one of Frankie's fighters, whose professional career was ended in a fight that cost him the use of one eye. Frankie blames himself for the fighter's partial blindness.

The fourth character in this drama who needs mentioning, is a Roman Catholic priest; Father Horvak (Brian O'Byrne) is actually a stand-in for institutional religion. Eastwood's portrayal of Horvak is my only major objection to this movie. Had this character been portrayed with greater subtlety and depth, the movie would have attained even greater heights. Near the end of the film, Horvak delivers to Frankie a guilt enducing, pro-life rant. Rather than engaging Frankie as a true priest and pastor, he walks away from a member of his own parish at the critical turning point in his entire life. Such behavior is inexcusable on the part of any human being, let along one who is called to be a representative of Jesus Christ.

Having mentioned the single flaw that struck me about Million Dollar Baby, I will conclude this review with a short list of reasons why this movie deserves all of its Academy Awards and more. First, the acting of Clint Eastwood, Hillary Swank and Morgan Freeman is totally convincing. Second, this is a great story, well told. Third, it deals with universal themes that are not only of the moment, but for all time. Fourth, the movie marks Clint Eastwood's flowering as a director. It is wonderful to see a man in his seventies at the height of his talent. And finally, its surprising conclusion is powerful, taking, as it does, a series of unexpected turns that left me, and other members of the audience, both stunned and inspired.

Why do I think that there is more of Christ in Million Dollar Baby than in Mel Gibson's splatter film? Because the real Christ rules in the lives of human beings who struggle through the ordinary circumstances of their own lives toward the light, rather than in religious icons such as The Passion of the Christ. Million Dollar Baby mirrors our own fight for the light.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.