The concept of angels has changed drastically from their origins in the ancient world and sometimes bizarre imagery captured in the Bible to a romanticized version created through Renaissance art. Yet 20th-century cinema has transformed angels once again from a superhuman, powerful winged being and guardian into a shockingly humanoid, even flawed creature that emerges from a parallel plane of existence to empower a protagonist’s journey. Often, the angel produces a glamour, spell, or alternate universe in which the hero can learn essential lessons.
Similarly, many films have used the premise of hypnotism or spellwork to achieve the condition in which a formerly ordinary protagonist must see the world in a fundamentally different way in order to grow. In these films, the character capable of engineering such a feat is not portrayed as a mage or a witch but rather as an angel, if not by name, or the New Age version, a guru.
Angels compose most of the main characters in Dogma, a surprisingly nuanced offering by Kevin Smith, who usually relies upon self-destructive characters and minimal plots to mock current society. Dogma, however, builds a robust mythology in which heroine Bethany (Linda Fiorentino) learns that she is the Last Scion (the last living descendant of Jesus) and must stop two fallen angels, Loki (Matt Damon) and Bartleby (Ben Affleck) from undoing all existence. While the angel characters are portrayed as flawed humanoids “just trying to get home” to their original plane of existence, it’s the Metatron, the Voice of God (the always excellent Alan Rickman with indeed a heaven-uva voice) who drives the plot, first bringing Bethany the message that she is Chosen and later helping her in her existential crisis.
Perhaps the most feminist of the Farrelly Brothers’ offerings, Shallow Hal includes a vaguely supernatural and definitely philosophical plot in which the womanizer Hal (Jack Black) is hypnotized by Tony Robbins (yes, really) in order to see only the beauty within people. Oddly, this also means that people’s personalities are reflected in their outward appearance (and thus even hot girls and guys with horrible personalities are portrayed as hideous and old in Hal’s eyes). The film definitely exploits fatphobia as Hal’s ignorance of Rosemary’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) actual appearance leads to humorous scenes in which he adoringly describes her as a “fox” while others see only an overweight woman. Yet it’s the transformation experienced by Mauricio (Jason Alexander) who, in a discussion with Tony Robbins about perception and reality, begins to overcome his misogyny, and Hal’s realization that he loves Rosemary no matter what her appearance, that make this movie a charmer. Although Tony Robbins is not an angel per se, he is capable of empowering people to change their perception and thus their reality, enabling Hal to fall in love and Mauricio to accept his own twisted secret.
Jim Carrey is the poster boy of neo-fantasy comedy in which the protagonist experience some sort of paranormal distortion that changes how he sees the world. In Liar Liar, a boy’s wish, presumably fulfilled by an angel, prevents his lie-happy father, Fletcher, from telling any falsehood. Intriguingly, this also means that he has no filter. The film is brilliant for showing how much lying is a part of the everyday person’s existence, whether telling a beggar we have no money to avoiding talking about s-e-x to our friends and family. Liar Liar is a classic romantic comedy in which the hero must overcome his own flaws in order to find love. Although an angel or a guru is not directly present, it’s heavily implied that the power of a child’s wish is sufficient to call some sort of supernatural presence.
Another Jim Carrey offering, Yes Man, features a super-cautious, self-isolating protagonist, Carl, who goes to a self-help seminar offered by Terrence Bundley (Terence Stamp), who encourages him to say “yes” to everything. Although the guru enables Carl to hypnotize himself into a positive outlook, strange things happen when Carl says “no,” as though some higher being is intervening: a twisted guardian angel forcing Carl to run a maze. Doing so, as though through compulsion, changes Carl’s entire life. Although this includes a love interest, Yes Man veers beyond romantic comedy as it explores the ramifications of a life lived by accepting all opportunity offered to him. Terrence later lifts the “spell” after the lesson has been learned.
It’s A Wonderful Life
No discussion of angels would be complete without analyzing Clarence, the ever-so-ordinary angel sent to save the life of George Bailey. Although It’s A Wonderful Life retains the mythology of the guardian angel, Clarence is essentially an interfering stranger — with some supernatural powers. He’s got his own self-interests at stake: he wants to get his wings by helping George. Apparently, bureaucracy exists even in heaven, as higher angels debate whether Class B angel Clarence is ready to stop a suicide.
Clarence is up for the challenge. He thrusts George into a world in which he was never born, so that George may see how awful it is. It’s borderline narcissistic—do any of us really have such an impact on the world that a town would be a slum without us?—but meant to convince George that his life has value. It’s certainly a charming story, if a little dark for a Christmas movie!
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