The Dangers of Faith and Reconciling the White Savior Trope in DUNE: PART TWO

If you’ve seen Dune part one, you know that Dune: Part Two being a good film is a foregone conclusion (It’s great I assure you!). So instead of boring you with the accolades of one the most consistent sci-fi auteurs working today, I want to dig into the way these two films look at faith and religion. Personally, I have a rather complex relationship with my faith. While I consider myself a Christian and I do believe in God. I honestly struggle quite a bit with not only what people who claim to be Christians do in the name of their faith these days, but the countless wars and deaths attributed to our holy wars. I think this relationship really applies to the thematic strands that tie together the plot of Dune: Part Two, the lengths people will go, or not for faith, and how there is a clear distinction between independence and codependence when it comes to one’s spirituality and beliefs.

What sort of inspired this take was Javier Bardem’s Stilgar, Paul’s personal hype man and leader of the Fremen sect who took him in. Stilgar is a steadfast believer in Paul as an off world messiah, whose arrival will signal their freedom from the Harkonnen oppression and delivers a performance that while embodying the pure hope of salvation, he also personifies the utter complacency this prophecy has created. You feel like Silgar believes with every fiber in his being that Paul is indeed this Christ-like messiah, and his hope in these moments when the prophecy is realized is palpable. But the other side of that coin is – as such a powerful warrior, could he have led the Fremen to freedom on his own? Dune: Part 2 is scathing in Denis Villeneuve’s take on the dangers of faith, something even stated aloud by Princess Irulan, when her father toys with the idea of Paul’s assassination. 

This Dune film series so far examines religion as a device to enslave, to suppress and also unite a people. The crux of this being, I mean why start your own revolt and risk your own life when someone is eventually prophesied to do so? It does this while still making the audience painfully aware of the fanaticism these beliefs can also create and fuel, something we were very aware of during COVID; that people are willing to die for a belief even if it contradicts actual proven fact. But that is still just piercing the surface, so let’s start with that. While Dune is full of religious subtext, there is also some exploration on the problematic theme of the myth of the white savior. Paul is of fair complexion compared to the Fremen around him, and that only helps to not only amplify his otherness to those around him, but charges his character and the situations a bit more racially than I expected.

But I think probably the smartest move director Denis Villeneuve could make is trying to infuse this nearly fifty year-old story with a more contemporary awareness, with such a possibly problematic protagonist. He paints Paul as painfully aware of what this weight and the repercussions to not just himself, but these people he’s grown to call his own. Spiritually Paul appears to be agnostic, and refutes these beliefs and claims when pressed, unless his mother’s and unborn sister’s life is in question. This is directly in contrast with Stigar’s more fundamentalist beliefs that gleefully notes only a real messiah would be so humble as to constantly say he is not the messiah. Paul spends two acts reminding everyone he is first a man who just wants to live a simple life among the Fremen, getting revenge on the people responsible for his father’s death, while continuing his romance with his love Chani (Zendaya) to earn his place among the Fremen, who believe everyone is equal – except their messiah. 

To sort of negate the white savior trope, instead of learning some lesson thanks to his ascension at the end and his time spent with the Fremen, Paul is forced to choose ignorance, lose his true love, and forget the billions that will die in his holy war. There’s an interesting bit in there about Paul choosing to try and ignore his birthright as well, to sort of live this simpler life. This is signified by Paul’s removal of the House Atreides signet ring, when he states that he has “now found his path” in the desert. When Paul is left with no other option, but to lead the Fremen into war against the great houses, a future he has seen foretold by his visions, he is forced to once again place the signet on his finger retaking the mantle as Duke Atreides. I think the choice of knowing the terrible consequences, rather than some farcical enlightenment allows the audience to sympathize with Paul making this sacrifice on the behalf of the people, because of how complacent and blind these supplanted beliefs have made them. 

At the end of the film, we discover that Paul in fact not only embodies their messiah belief that was implanted in the Fremen culture by the Bene Gesserit, but he also is the Kwisatz Haderach, another prophesied messianic character that was foretold by the Bene Gesserit. That said, the crux that Denis is sure to not let us forget, thanks to Zendaya’s more empowered take on Chani, is how these prophecies have lulled her people into obedience. Instead of rising up to take the planet back themselves sooner, they’ve simply waited for this off-worlder and outsider to free them. This is something that is echoed when Paul storms into the southern meeting with the leaders making them painfully aware he is only fulfilling his role, because they refused to be empowered by his successes and became his believers instead of brothers in arms. 

While sticking close to the text, Denis has made some very clear choices to highlight these passages on independent thought and belief through Chani, who was much more subservient in the book. Instead she plays the role of the director coming in to remind the viewer that beliefs can cripple a people, and it’s something that firmly resonated with me. There is nothing more dangerous than blind faith in any sort of idea or thing, and even if we do believe in some sort of organized religion we should always be constantly questioning the intention of those who push certain beliefs, like Chani, to uncover who’s agenda these things benefit. Does it truly look to empower those who believe in it or subjugate them or look to exclude those that are different. While the film is visually spectacular, and completely solid story-wise, it’s this extra effort to update the more dated tropes and themes that I think earned my admiration to fine tune the message for today’s audiences. 

Previous post Review: ORION AND THE DARK Brings Anxiety to Animation
Next post Sleuths for Truth: A TRUE DETECTIVE Roundtable – Season 4 Finale and Aftermath