Catharsis in Film. Definition and Examples.


Definition: Catharsis in film refers to the emotional release or purging experienced by the audience through intense or dramatic scenes. It allows viewers to empathize with characters and experience relief, satisfaction, or emotional resolution resulting from the film’s emotional journey.

Catharsis occurs when the audience connects deeply with the characters and their journey, resulting in a profound emotional response.

This release can be a combination of various emotions, such as joy, sadness, fear, or relief, and it often leaves the audience feeling cleansed or emotionally satisfied after the movie’s climax.

How Movies Give the Audience Catharsis

In storytelling, catharsis is often achieved through portraying intense and emotionally charged events, such as the death of a beloved character, a climactic battle, or a powerful revelation.

These moments provoke strong emotional responses from the audience, allowing them to deeply connect with the characters and their experiences.

By vicariously experiencing these emotional extremes through the characters on the screen, the audience can process and release their emotions, resulting in a cathartic experience.

You might like Anticlimax in Film.

Famous Movies That’ll Give You a Carthatic Experience

Here are a few examples of catharsis in famous movies:

“The Shawshank Redemption” (1994)

The film follows the story of Andy Dufresne, who is wrongfully convicted and imprisoned.

The movie’s climax, where Andy escapes from Shawshank State Penitentiary, brings the audience a sense of triumph and liberation, leading to a cathartic release.

“Schindler’s List” (1993)

This historical drama depicts the horrors of the Holocaust and the efforts of Oskar Schindler to save Jews from Nazi persecution.

The cathartic moment in the film comes towards the end when Schindler breaks down, regretting that he could have saved more lives.

The emotional weight of this scene leaves the audience with a profound sense of grief and empathy.

“Oldboy” (2003)

This South Korean thriller tells the story of a man seeking revenge after being imprisoned for 15 years.

The film’s climax, where the protagonist uncovers the shocking truth behind his captivity, leads to a cathartic release for the character and the audience as they confront the devastating consequences of revenge.

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004)

This romantic science-fiction film explores the complexities of memory, love, and loss.

The cathartic moment in the movie occurs when the main characters, Joel and Clementine, fight against the erasure of their memories, choosing to embrace the pain and challenges of their relationship.

This bittersweet conclusion offers a cathartic release for the audience, evoking emotions of both sadness and hope.


Catharsis is a term that originated in Greek tragedy and was later adopted by literary theory.

In storytelling and film, catharsis refers to the emotional release or purification experienced by the audience or reader due to witnessing the dramatic events and conflicts within a narrative.

According to Aristotle, who first introduced the concept of catharsis, it is the process through which the audience experiences a purging of their emotions, particularly fear and pity.

He believed that by depicting tragic events and the characters’ suffering, the audience can empathize and ultimately find relief from their emotional tensions.

This purging of emotions is believed to bring about a sense of emotional balance and clarity.

The examples I gave from famous movies above illustrate how catharsis in the film is achieved through various narrative techniques, evoking intense emotional responses from the audience and providing a sense of emotional resolution or release.

If you enjoyed this one, check out how to use backstories in your film.


  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns and the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

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