Directed by Rolf Forsberg & Tom Rook
Inducted to the National Film Registry in 2012
I first watched it on July 14th, 2020
What It’s About:
Parable is a short Christian film where the world is represented as a travelling circus, and Jesus is depicted as a clown that goes around doing good deeds.
My experience with the film:
This is the final entry in my unofficial trilogy of “entries for movies that I watched last summer, but never got around to writing about for some reason” (see parts one and two). Typically, when I watch movies for this project, I take notes in a notebook to help me remember various noteworthy aspects of a film. I don’t usually write a blow-by-blow summary of the film, but this one was odd enough that I did so. Below is a complete transcription of my summary in my notebook. (Enjoy the humorously informal way I write when I don’t intend to share my writing with an audience.)
“Carries some water for a dude, take another dude’s place in a dunk tank, ‘saves’ a woman that’s part of a sword act, interrupts a live marionette show to dust off the feet of the kids in attendance, ‘frees’ the three performers in the marionette show, then hooks himself up to the harness where he is attacked by: the man who was throwing balls at the dunk tank (and later stole several balls), the sword act guy, and the guy selling tickets just outside of the sword act (who had his roll of tickets accidentally(?) messed up by one of the clown’s followers), while the dude running the marionette show watches. Clown is killed as a result of the attack (lets out a loud cry of agony), then the marionette dude briefly plays with his dead body like a marionette. We later see the clown’s three followers … hanging out? While a dude who looks like the marionette dude starts to put on clown makeup? Then the clown is once again seen on a donkey following the circus as it departs? Is this the OG clown? Or the marionette guy with makeup? Also, the clown like genuinely disrupted the sword act and marionette act, and one of his followers messed up the dude’s ticket roll? And the sword lady and marionette performers weren’t in danger? And why clean the kids’ shoes? I get the biblical parallel, but why? It seems like the only genuinely good things the clown did was carry the water for the first dude and take the second dude’s place at the dunk tank.”
In defense of my less-than-charitable take, I realize that the film is meant to be symbolic. As I briefly pointed out, I recognized many (if not all) of the parallels between this film and the Bible (e.g., the Clown taking on the burden of the water-carrying guy and taking the place of the dunk tank guy and the marionette performers, his death at the hands of an angry mob and the fact that marionette controls were shaped like typical Christian crosses rather than an X, etc.) But just because I understand what everything was trying to symbolize, that doesn’t really answer: why? When I think of most of Christ’s parables in the Bible, the ones that readily come to mind (the good Samaritan, the prodigal son, the talents, the seeds and four types of soil, the unjust steward, the ten virgins, etc.) make sense as a story, even if you aren’t aware of the underlying symbolism. Most of them, you could tell to a person without a religious background, and while not all of them are the most entertaining of stories on their own, they would still probably make logical sense as a story. If you were to show the film Parable (especially without the introductory narration) to someone without any knowledge of Christianity (even if they were perfectly knowledgeable about circuses), they’d probably be incredibly confused as to what was going on.
Likewise, most of Christ’s parables are meant to make a lesson easier to understand. Consider the good Samaritan. When a man asks Jesus what is meant by “love thy neighbor”, rather than lecturing the man on the specifics of the commandment, Christ tells a story of a man who had been robbed and beaten who is later cared for by a Samaritan (his cultural enemy) after two of his countrymen (and religious leaders at that) pass him by. The story teaches that we should be kind to those who need our help, even if they are considered our enemy.
The film parable on the other hand teaches … what exactly? Does it make the story of Jesus doing good and sacrificing Himself for others more understandable? Not really. If anything, it makes things more confusing.
That said, maybe I feel this way because I’m approaching this film with too much of a modern sensibility, or not enough of an artistic sensibility. Or maybe it’s the fact that I just think circuses in general are weird. (Which would also explain why I didn’t enjoy Cecil B. DeMille’s Best Picture winning film “The Greatest Show on Earth”, or the more recent musical “The Greatest Showman”, … or any Marvel comic book containing the Circus of Crime). This film is considered highly influential (it apparently inspired the musical Godspell), and in a few different resources that I found while researching the film, multiple people mentioned that the film was very meaningful to them personally. So this could very well be a case where a film doesn’t resonate much with me despite it being widely regarded by many.
Parable is available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S95afVrh0AI
To learn more about the history and significance of this film, I recommend the following resources:
- The official NFR essay about Parable: https://www.loc.gov/static/programs/national-film-preservation-board/documents/parable2.pdf
- An interview with writer/director Rolf Forsberg about the film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mcV6AGQ4QgY
- A humorous religious podcast discusses the film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UkLGqL0wyR8
- A more charitable exploration of the film that breaks down some of its symbolism: https://medium.com/of-intellect-and-interest/parable-1964-short-film-review-overflowing-with-symbolism-932903a9b8a1
- A brief New York Times article about the original release of the film: https://www.nytimes.com/1964/05/15/archives/parable-movie-splits-fairgoers-film-at-protestant-pavilion-proves.html [note that this digitization of the original article also contains a second article about the World Fair]
- The Wikipedia page for Parable: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parable_(film)
For the complete list of films in the National Film Registry, including information on how you can view each film, and links to every entry that I have written, please see my NFR Directory.