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John DoughertyNovember 22, 2023
The movie poster of the original Rocky filmWikimedia Commons

The Catholic Movie Club is a short weekly essay pulling out spiritual themes in our favorite films. You can discuss the movies with other readers in the comments on this page or in our Facebook group. Find past Catholic Movie Club selections here.

The first image you see in “Rocky” (1976) is the face of Christ, painted on a church wall over a banner that reads “RESURRECTION A.C. [Athletic Club].” Below, two men are beating each other bloody in a boxing ring. Cigarette smoke hangs thick in the air; spectators toss trash at the fighters. You can almost smell the sweat and cheap beer. The banner’s reference to new life feels like a cruel joke: This is where dreams go to die.

But impossible as it seems, this is a resurrection story.

‘Rocky’ is a reminder that impossible things have happened before. And, if we believe, they can happen again.

Directed by John G. Avildsen and written by Sylvester Stallone (who also stars), the film follows the winner of that inglorious fight: Rocky Balboa, a down-on-his-luck boxer in Philadelphia. You might call Rocky an underdog, but to his friends and neighbors he’s just a “loser,” a “bum.” He fights in hole-in-the-wall matches for paltry cash prizes, collects money for a loan shark and lives in a dingy apartment littered with empty beer cans. He looks after his heavy-drinking best friend Paulie (Burt Young) and attempts to flirt with Paulie’s sister Adrian (Talia Shire), a chronically shy pet shop clerk. While he’s got the body of a Greek (well, Roman) hero, his life’s pretty much at a dead end. Early in the film, he removes a picture of himself as a child from his mirror, as if the memory of all that youthful hope and potential is too painful.

But then, a twist of fate: Rocky is invited to box Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), the heavyweight champion of the world, in a title match. For Creed, it’s a publicity stunt, but for Rocky, it’s the chance of a lifetime. He begins to believe in miracles.

Aside from his shot at Apollo, those miracles are mostly ordinary: He forges a deep and tender connection with Adrian; he wins the respect of Mickey (Burgess Meredith), the grizzled gym owner who previously dismissed him. But, maybe most extraordinary, Rocky rediscovers his faith in himself. He confesses to Adrian that he knows he’s not Creed’s equal but that winning isn’t his true goal. What he really wants is to “go the distance,” to last the full number of rounds in his match against Creed, something no other boxer has done. “That bell rings and I’m still standin’,” he says, “I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.” For Rocky, the most miraculous prize wouldn’t be a champion’s belt but regaining his own self-worth.

To be a person of faith means to live in the real, often disappointing world while also believing that impossible things have happened before and can happen again. We pay taxes, get oil changes and deal with joint pain; we also believe that God became man, healed the sick and rose from the dead. That should expand the horizons of our hopes and make us refuse to accept that what has been is all that can be.

“Rocky” isn’t just a film about a guy who gets a better exercise regimen; it’s about a man who starts to believe in miracles. Jesus tells us: “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Mt 17:20). We hear that so often that it becomes a bumper sticker instead of a radical truth. When we have faith, “impossible” ceases to have any meaning. When we have faith, we set the stage for miracles, even in the unlikeliest places.

The fight that concludes “Rocky” is very different from the one that opens the film: Rocky and Apollo battle in a huge arena under the glare of spotlights and the hungry eyes of television cameras, surrounded by a roaring crowd that includes politicians and celebrities. And this time Rocky isn’t just surrounded by hostile strangers, but a miraculous little family including Mickey, Paulie and Adrian. When you think about where we first met him, it all seems impossible.

But this is a resurrection story, and what is resurrection if not the impossible becoming possible? Impossible things have happened before. And, if we believe, they can happen again.

“Rocky” is streaming on Max, Amazon Prime and DirecTV.

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