Don’t look, but Jesus is enjoying his moment in popular culture. Movies about faith are suddenly everywhere. Most are the “Transformers” of religious films: the target audience knows exactly what it’s going to get going in, gets that, and is glad they bought a ticket. Flicks like “Risen” and “God’s Not Dead” do not push any envelopes and do not deliver any surprises. While they may minister to the devout, which is doubtless a noble goal, the general public gives them a miss.
Then you have the big envelope-pushers—the films that challenge and protest the Bible and person of Jesus. The most famous, of course, was “The Last Temptation of Christ,” but there have been others. Most recently, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” used the biblical story of Israel’s escape from Egypt to argue for an atheist worldview.
It’s not common that a film like “Last Days in the Desert” comes along: An artsy and daring film that muses on divinity without challenging basic Christian orthodoxy; a film that believes beauty is as important as message, or rather, that beauty itself is the message.
More to the Desert than Artsiness
The story is extra-biblical. That is not to say anti-biblical, in the sense it challenges or disagrees with the biblical narrative. It is extra-biblical in that it imagines a story taking place during a time in which the Bible is silent, in this case during Jesus’s time of temptation in the desert before he set his face toward Jerusalem and sacrifice.
As Jesus (Ewan McGregor) battles thirst, hunger, physical exhaustion, and mental anguish during his 40 days of trial in the desert, he meets a family who lives there. Symbolic of all humanity, they are a bundle of loyalty and loves, resentments and murderous rage. Their great good warps easily into great wrong, and back again.
Jesus lives among them, a representation of Immanuel. He attempts to minister to them while combatting his own human weaknesses. He is haunted by Satan (mostly also Ewan McGregor), who takes the form of Jesus himself as well as other forms to torment him.
The primary quality that sets this film apart from much of the Christian movie world is the sense of quiet created by the cinematography. Director Rodrigo García and Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki focus on the desert, making it a character in its own right. They listen to the wind, follow the streams, inject the cold of the thin evenings, the heat of the burning sun. This quiet has made it a perfect match for film festivals like Sundance and the AFI Fest, where it has earned the respect of secular film lovers.
But there’s more to the desert than artsiness. The focus echoes the Desert Fathers and Mothers, early adherents to Christianity who let the grit of the sand and the fire of isolation burn away the extraneous parts of themselves and left to Christianity much of its aesthetic beauty. Already you know you’re not in a “Transformer”-type religious movie when you’re inspired to think of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.
Beauty Despite Weakness
The Jesus the film paints is wholly human, almost uncomfortably so. He suffers doubt. He suffers the pain of ignorance. He wonders if he is doing right, or even if there is a right to do. Sometimes the portrayal becomes too much, as when it shows Jesus joining a boy in laughing at a fart.
It’s not that Jesus wouldn’t laugh, mind you, it’s that “Would Jesus laugh at farts?” is the new “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” of the modern dialogue between old-school Christians and more progressive Christians. It’s the late night discussion at the M.Div. school, the heated debate on faith blogger posts, perhaps a little too inside-baseball to resonate with the masses. There are other weaknesses as well: the plot can be confusing, and aspects of the ending are forgivable but do not ring true.
The weaknesses are not fatal. What will resonate profoundly with those who see the film is the theological appreciation of beauty, of joy. Those who have read much theology or the Catholic catechism will recognize the concept that human beings are made for joy and that joy is, as C.S. Lewis puts it, the business of heaven. To see beauty, to experience joy, to love another person, are all facets of the same goodness, are all part of seeing the face of God.
A wonderful moment happens in the film. As Jesus and Satan engage each other over a campfire, a shooting star lights up the night sky. Both Jesus and Satan look up to enjoy the moment of beauty, the fleeting moment of transcendence. But Satan must reject it, minimize it, deny his enjoyment of it. That one star is all he has lost, the glory of heaven, the joy of relationship with God, beauty itself.
This point is the core of the gospel, and it touches the soul in a way that more pedantic movies cannot. It reaches hearts not by pointing a finger but by lifting the gaze up.
While “Last Days in the Desert” has its imperfections, the core of it, the beauty of it, and the spirit of it are what I wish religious movies would be about. Scratch that. It’s what I wish all movies would be about.
Last Days in The Desert is rated PG-13 for disturbing images (a demonic woman, brief portrayal of crucifixion) and brief sexual images (as part of Satan’s tempting and mocking of Jesus). Would be fine for teens if they will sit still for it. It opens in select theaters May 12 and 13. Full disclosure: A friend of mine executive produces this film.