Ewan McGregor is Jesus — and the Devil — in an imagined chapter from his 40 days of fasting and praying in the desert. On his way out of the wilderness, Jesus struggles with the Devil over the fate of a family in crisis, setting himself up for a dramatic test.
First of all, if you haven’t yet, read this excellent pre-review of the film Last Days in the Desert and interview of its director and lead actor by Christianity Today‘s Alissa Wilkerson. She mentions a few likely objections from Christian viewers that director Rodrigo Garcia isn’t terribly worried about, but as word of this project gets around, and after it premieres on January 25th at the Sundance Film Festival, I expect a fair number of keystrokes will fly across the aether as Christians who do worry about this sort of thing debate its merits and demerits. I’ll get to that in a moment.
It sounds like a wonderful, thoughtful motion picture and I admit I’m risking some of what little credibility I might possess by expressing enthusiasm for it sight-unseen, but I think it would be a mistake to overlook it. Even worse would be to dismiss it out of hand because it’s not coming from the parochial Christian film culture we’ve come to rely on for faith-friendly fare.
Can any good thing come out of Southern California? I think Last Days in the Desert might surprise us. Come and see. If you don’t have a local theater that deals in independent or art-house movies, it might not show in your town. It could turn up in a corner of your favorite multiplex if it reviews well at the Sundance Festival, but I don’t expect a wide release or a long stay anywhere. We’ll have to keep our eyes open and hunt for it, but I think it’ll be worth the extra effort.
On to the objections. I’ll be very surprised if I don’t see each of these at some point:
1. The director, lead, cast, and crew aren’t Christians!
As is the case for most films about Jesus. A Christian production company could have made this movie any time (and it’s a little embarassing we tend to overlook simple ideas like this in favor of more flashy evangelistic projects), but for some reason known only to God, the inspiration went to Rodrigo Garcia and company. Perhaps it was in part to help Mr. Garcia find some answers to the deep spiritual questions he’s been mulling for some time.
The fear, of course, is that only Christians could possibly present the true image of Jesus, and anyone else would simply make a mess of it. That perspective neglects to consider the very real mess we Christians routinely make of our role as the living image of Jesus to our world. Last Days in the Desert is an independent film, and those tend to be focused on craftsmanship, not money. This is an extremely talented and accomplished group of people who could have made a movie about anything, but they wanted to make one about Jesus, and they wanted to do it properly—with quality, beauty, and respect. I have great difficulty believing that God would not honor that intent and their effort, even if they don’t know him perfectly. I think Christians should consider granting them respect in like fashion.
2. This is a contrived story only tangentially related to Scripture!
Oh, please. Here’s a burn barrel. Now, deposit every work of speculative Christian fiction involving the Nephilim or elements drawn from the Book of Revelation. Also all historical fiction based on people and events from the Bible. Also every sermon illustration that involves the pastor paraphrasing, impersonating, or otherwise “getting into the head” of any Biblical character. We fill in elements of Bible stories with our reason and imagination all the time, when details aren’t provided. It’s like taking our crayons to a coloring book, and we stay within the lines as best we can. The director and actors seem to be determined to work within the intent and spirit of the Biblical account, even as they add conjectural color and detail in support of their storytelling. Afterward, we can talk about how well they succeeded, but turning away because the script isn’t a direct pull from Scripture is both shortsighted and inconsistent.
3. Jesus and the Devil are portrayed by the same actor!
I seem to recall something about Satan declaring his intent to be like the Most High God. This seems to be perfectly in character, right down to him jazzing up his copy of Jesus’ wardrobe a bit in this movie. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suppose that if the Devil wanted to throw me off my game, he might show up wearing my face as he spouted his lies. It’s also important to note that this film portrays a real Jesus, simultaneously divine and human, and a real Satan. There’s no quibbling or dissembling about whether they are who the Bible claims them to be, and no confusion about which one’s which. It will be interesting to see how the balance between Jesus’ divine and human natures is portrayed. That’s the greatest challenge, and as Ms. Wilkerson notes in her article, most other attempts have struggled.
4. It’s a trap!
Thank you, Admiral Ackbar. Moving right along…
5. Here we go again—white European actors in Middle-Eastern roles!
Sigh. Skin tones and eye color in that region vary considerably, and a even a pale Englishman who’s spent some time in the desert can pass for a local. Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer also fills a key role. Besides, obsessing over the casting choices pretty much misses the point of the film. I suppose we could also beat them up for shooting in the Anza-Borrego Desert southeast of Los Angeles rather than the Negev. Let them tell their story. There will be plenty of time later to de-colonize the world of independent cinema.
6. Ewan McGregor and Rodrigo Garcia got saved!
It isn’t an objection, per se, but I expect we’ll see some of this sort of squee-ing if the Christian audience embraces this film. Hold your horses, Sparky, and read that interview again. While respectful of Christianity, admiring Jesus, and valuing what he teaches, these folks don’t characterize themselves as Christians or particularly religious, though they both had some exposure to the faith as children. They seem to have spent a lot of time pondering who Jesus is and what belief in Jesus implies, and I can’t help but think participating in a project like this has to have had a profound impact on them. Converts? Not likely, or, at least, not yet. On the opposite side of this issue, we might see them take some heat for cozying up to the Christian community or not being critical/skeptical enough with regard to the spiritual element of this story.
There’s more information plus still photos from Last Days in the Desert at its website, http://www.lastdaysinthedesert.com/ , and its Facebook page. I’ll post an update here if any clips or other opportunities for viewing become available. If you happen to live in or near Park City, Utah, the premiere showing is on January 25th at the Eccles Theater, as part of the annual Sundance Film Festival.
UPDATE (27 Jan 2015): Another review, this one from England, also positive: Guardian. Meanwhile, CT’s Ms. Wilkinson watched it again, mostly for the chance to see it on the big screen, and she’s glad she did. She’s hearing favorable comments from other Sundance viewers and noted the film is still waiting for a distributor.
For anybody keeping count on the objection front, there’s also a brief posting today at Focus on the Family, relying on advance rumors without an eyes-on review, and expressing concern that Jesus will be portrayed as a “tortured schizophrenic,” a fear that seems unsupported by the reviews so far. (#1)
And I saw one snarky tweet about white guys playing Jesus. (#5)
UPDATE (28 Jan 2015): This was actually posted on 20 January, but I hadn’t seen it. Last Days in the Desert won the Dolby Family Fellowship for innovative use of sound in storytelling, so I expect the film sounds as good as the stills look.