The approach of Easter is a good time to explore what’s behind the recent increase in movies dealing with mainly Christian religious subjects, whether in a positive or more critical light. A sign of the times is the number of faith-related films that premiered at January’s Sundance Film Festival, which also featured a Faith in Film panel for the first time.
There’s no doubt 2014 was exceptional in that, as Jonathan Merritt wrote, “more biblical blockbusters were released in the last 12 months than in the previous 12 years.” Unfortunately some — Noah, Exodus: Gods and Kings — were busts, either critically, at the box office or both. Others, such as Son of God, Heaven is for Real, and God’s Not Dead, all released about this time last year, have found their audience largely among the converted. Quality matters too. Bad religious movies invite ridicule rather than respect — e.g., Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas (winner of worst-film Razzies; a 0 per cent score on rottentomatoes.com).
Notwithstanding this mixed picture, the members of the Faith in Film panel, organized by Tim Gray of GrayMedia, were upbeat about the future of faith films broadly defined. DeVon Franklin, president of Franklin Entertainment and author of Produced by Faith, argued that the faith genre shouldn’t be put in a box targeted only to churchgoers. (As a Columbia Pictures executive he produced The Pursuit of Happyness and Heaven is for Real.) Bill Reeves, founder of Working Title Agency, observed that there is an audience which has been “tremendously underserved.” Whereas “Jesus talk” was once a sure way to clear the boardroom in Hollywood, there is now a realization of the commercial potential.
A question remains, at least in the North American context, about how deep this Hollywood conversion goes. Is it mainly about successfully targeting a receptive Christian audience (as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ did a decade ago) rather than raising challenging faith issues? Indeed a question that Gray posed was: “How much of real life can you show in a faith film?” Franklin responded that there is a wide range of sinful situations depicted in the Bible. Filmmakers who are religious need to be able to tell powerful stories that ring true to life. However, Reeves made the revealing comment that “Christians like to be told that they’re right.” And Adam Hastings, a marketing director at Pure Flix (producer and distributor of God’s Not Dead and Do You Believe?, the latter released March 20 in the U.S.), acknowledged that its family-oriented films explicitly promote Christian beliefs.
I would worry if the trend toward “faith films” produced only those deemed to be inspirational or catering to a convinced Christian market. There’s a danger in proselytizing that claims to offer all the answers. Journeys of faith — including in the gospels if one take them seriously — include struggles with doubt, temptation and the unknowns of the human condition. Some of the greatest and most enduring movies about faith have been made by agnostics who wrestled with that condition — outstanding examples being Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew.
This brings me to writer-director Rodrigo Garcia’s remarkable Last Days in the Desert (http://www.lastdaysinthedesert.com/) which had an auspicious debut at the Sundance festival as noted in an earlier article (PM, Feb. 11). The synopsis is summed up as: “To prepare for his mission, the holy man went into the desert to fast and pray, and to seek guidance.” The holy man is Jesus of Nazareth, here called by the Hebrew name of Yeshua, and the reference is to the period described in the gospels when Jesus fasted for 40 days and night in the desert where he was tempted by the devil. However, Last Days is no literal rendering of that narrative. Garcia, who was raised Catholic but does not consider himself a devout person, introduces new elements into the story to probe the father-son relationship at its core.
As the movie opens Yeshua (Ewan McGregor) has already been fasting for many days, beseeching “Father, where are you?” In an almost hallucinatory state he also encounters a demonic spirit in his own image who tempts and taunts him. While the Father is silent the Devil issues verbal challenges. As Yeshua struggles to overcome doubts about his mission he shouts into the wilderness, “I am not a bad son!”
Yeshua then comes upon a family of three that tests his resolve. The imposing father (Ciarán Hinds) works with stone while the son (Tye Sheridan), on the cusp of adulthood, craves wider horizons. The mother (Ayelet Zurer), stricken by terminal illness, accepts her son going beyond the desert but the father will not allow it. Yeshua, a carpenter’s son and healer who can offer assistance, becomes drawn into this family drama even as the devil tries to trip him up.
When tragedy strikes, as it so often does in life, Yeshua’s role is not to magically remove the pain and death that is part of the human condition. It is to bear with that condition and move forward. Accompanied by the son, he leaves the desert to accept the mission that will have its redemptive consummation three years hence in Jerusalem.
The striking last scenes show the passion of Christ on the cross, the burial and the empty tomb.
A final image jumps to the present day as several tourists gaze over the desert landscape in which this story unfolded millennia ago. The ending leaves open the question of why it has such an enduring presence and what it means for us today.
Amazingly Last Days was shot in southern California using only natural light, luminously transformed into an austere biblical environment by Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Birdman). McGregor, outstanding in the dual role of Yeshua/the Devil, told the Sundance audience he had immersed himself in reading Scripture and books about Jesus. Hinds and Sheridan (The Tree of Life) are also excellent in embodying the other father-son dynamic.
As Garcia has said: “My main interest became the relationships between sons and their fathers, and the things that must often transpire in order for a boy to become his own man. Jesus, arguably the most famous of sons, must make the difficult decision whether or not to play a role in the tug of war between this particular father and son. The task is complicated by his own shadow, a demon attempting to confuse and torment him along the way.”
Lasting faith isn’t a matter of blind obedience. Every genuine spiritual journey, like that of Jesus in the desert and subsequent ministry, must face trials and tribulations. The good news, which Garcia’s movie invites both believers and non-believers to reflect upon, is how compassion, forgiveness and self-sacrificing love can overcome what the world throws at us. In the struggle of faith lies a hope for humanity that will never lose its relevance.