A very Christian 'Cinderella' Print
Word on Fire
Thursday, Mar. 26, 2015 -- 12:00 AM

Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella is the most surprising Hollywood movie of the year so far.

The director manages to tells the familiar fairy tale without irony, hyper-feminist sub-plots, Marxist insinuations, deconstructionist cynicism, or arch condescension. In so doing, he actually allows the spiritual, indeed specifically Christian, character of the tale to emerge.

It probably strikes a contemporary audience as odd that Cinderella might be a Christian allegory, but keep in mind that most of the fairy stories and children's tales compiled by the Brothers Grimm and later adapted by Walt Disney found their roots in the Christian culture of late medieval and early modern Europe.

Wonderful parents

In Branagh's telling, Ella is the daughter of wonderful parents, both of whom instill in her a keen sense of moral virtue and joie de vivre. The girl's idyllic childhood was interrupted by the sudden illness of her mother, who, on her death-bed, tells Ella always to be "kind and courageous."

Her father then remarried and brought his new wife and her two daughters to live with him and Ella.

Some years later, Ella's father leaves on a lengthy business trip. Before he sets out, she enjoins him to send back to her the first branch that his shoulder would brush while on the journey.

A few weeks later, a servant arrives with the branch in his hand and the dreadful news that Ella's father had become sick and had died.

Life becomes nightmare

Ella becomes the victim of her wicked stepmother (played by the always compelling Cate Blanchett) and her obnoxious stepsisters, who visit upon her every type of cruelty and injustice.

They even take away her bedroom, forcing her to sleep by the dying embers of the fire. The ashes that stain her face give rise to the nickname her stepsisters assign to her. Significantly, the cat belonging to Ella's stepfamily is called Lucifer.

Allegory for the fall

It does not require a huge leap of imagination to see this as an allegory of the fall of the human race. God created us as beautiful in his own image and likeness, but through sin and the ministrations of the devil, we descended into dysfunction and our beauty was covered over. Although we had kept the image of God, we had lost our likeness to him.

To return to Branagh's traditional telling of the tale: while out riding in the country, Cinderella encounters a magnificent stag that is being pursued by a hunting party. She meets the leader of the hunting brigade, a handsome prince, the son of the king. The two immediately fall in love.

Because she returns home without identifying herself, the prince calls for a ball and invites all the young women of the realm to come, hoping to lure his mysterious beloved.

Although her stepfamily tries to prevent her from attending, Cinderella -- through the ministrations of her fairy godmother -- manages to get to the ball, where she entrances the prince. She is compelled to return early, and the lovesick prince seeks her until he finds and marries her.

Christian symbolism

We are tempted to see all of this as the stuff of ordinary romance, but we should look more deeply. First, the stag is a traditional sign of Christ and thus is meant to signal his presence at the symbolic level of the narrative.

The prince who falls in love with a woman despite her lowliness is an evocation of Jesus, the Son of God, who was sent to become the bridegroom of the human race, whose spiritual beauty had been covered by sin.

The prophet Isaiah predicted that the "builder of the human race" would come to marry his people, and the motif of the sacrum connubium, the sacred marriage, runs through the New Testament. Early theologians specified that the sacrum connubium involved an admirabile commercium (a wonderful exchange), God taking our sin from us and giving us his grace. In the symbolic language of our story, the unmerited love of the prince transformed Cinderella into a princess.

The surest sign that this transformation has occurred -- and it is one of my favorite elements in Branagh's telling -- is that Cinderella, upon escaping from the oppression of her stepmother, turned to the wicked woman, not to curse her, but to offer forgiveness. There could be no more compelling proof that she had thoroughly taken on the character of the bridegroom.

When you see this film, I would invite you, even as you take in the fantasy and romance of it, to appreciate it too as a deeply Christian story.

Fr. Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and is the rector/president of Mundelein Seminary near Chicago. Learn more at www.WordOnFire.org