The Rise of Christian Movies: What Makes a Movie Christian Is What Makes a Movie Good

Ewan McGregor in a scene from "Last Days in the Desert." (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)
Ewan McGregor in a scene from “Last Days in the Desert.” (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

What makes a movie Christian?

The answer to that question has taken myriad forms in 2016, a year that has encompassed the Coen brothers’ extravagant parody of 1950s Hollywood Bible kitsch (and sincere portrayal of discernment) in “Hail, Caesar!,” the modern-day dramas “God’s Not Dead 2” and “Miracles From Heaven,” and the period pieces “Risen” and the “Young Messiah.” When a lavish, state-of-the-art remake of “Ben-Hur” opens this summer, we will have come full circle to precisely the brand of lurid swords-and-sandals epic the Coens skewered so affectionately just six months earlier.

All of these films vary widely in artistic quality, mind-set and theological point of view, from the fiercely anti-secular defensive crouch of “God’s Not Dead” to the less strident sincerity of “Miracles From Heaven.” But for all of their perceived differences, each of them hewed to common modes of the contemporary Christian filmmaking that, in the wake of “The Passion of the Christ,” has sought to exploit the market Mel Gibson so shrewdly identified by alternately patronizing, proselytizing or pandering to it.

Happily, though, a different brand of spiritually minded movie has begun to grace the big screen, films that in their quietly pitched, open-ended and resolutely unsentimental depiction of faith might be described as Christian movies for the rest of us — including but not limited to churchgoers who welcome the separation of church and state; believers who consider the Bible a divinely inspired text, but not a literal one; and filmgoers who are as alienated by facile pietism as they are by facile nihilism.

A particularly fine example of the new genre (“God’s Not Dumb?”) opens this week: In “Last Days in the Desert,” the writer-director Rodrigo García depicts Jesus — called Yeshua in the film — during the period immediately after his baptism, when he retreats to the Judean desert for 40 days and is tempted by Satan with unlimited earthly powers if he turns against God. Played in a crafty dual performance by Ewan McGregor, who portrays both Jesus and the Devil, the fasting, praying holy man of “Last Days in the Desert” is not the blissed-out, beatific creature viewers have come to expect from the likes of “Risen,” 2014’s “Son of God” or similarly ­one-dimensional portraits.

As García explained during a recent phone conversation, he wanted to portray Jesus as a human, specifically as a son grappling with universal issues of loyalty, separation and surpassing, even supernatural, love. He approached Jesus’ story “more as a literary conceit,” he said, “taking the figure of Jesus as it exists in my head, simultaneously in the world of myth, history, religion and of course literature. Because he’s been a character in everything from Kazantzakis to ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ ”

Although García — who grew up in Mexico City, the son of novelist Gabriel García Márquez — isn’t devout, he quickly realized that “if Jesus is in your movie, your movie’s about Jesus.” Accordingly, “Last Days in the Desert” works both as a timeless narrative about fathers and sons and as a deeply felt interpretation of obedience, self-sacrifice and longing for God’s voice. “I’m not a religious person,” García said, “but I’m not free from being awed by the mystery. . . . The mystery is still the mystery, and I’m very happy I could explore it in this movie. I think Jesus faced something that every person faces, which is mortality, and the fact that we live in time and that life ends — it ended for Jesus, for his human side, at least — which is a stunning fact.”

With such a personal, deeply psychological portrayal of Jesus’ life, García joins Pier Paolo Pasolini and Martin Scorsese in departing from a cinematic language that too often has resembled a pop-up version of a children’s storybook rather than a challenging, maybe even confrontational reimagining of a cozily familiar narrative. In a fascinating coincidence, “Last Days in the Desert” was photographed by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who frequently collaborates with Terrence Malick and whose past three films with the director have been similarly consumed with the search for meaning in a broken world.

In Malick’s case, his interest in portraying the numinous — the otherworldly “thin places” where we feel God’s presence — has met with diminishing returns since his 2011 film “The Tree of Life,” with spiritual thirst and the beauty of creation too often succumbing to airy visual cliches. Still, he’s among a handful of filmmakers willing to integrate imaginative and spiritual practice in ways that are risky, aesthetically sophisticated and not nominally Christian. (Godfrey Reggio — who trained to be a monk with the Christian Brothers before making “Koyaanisqatsi” and its successors, as well as 2013’s “Visitors” — works in a similarly rareified, contemplative tradition.)

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SOURCE: The Washington Post
Ann Hornaday

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