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.)
Then there are the films that do engage explicitly with Christianity, not in the spirit of preaching to the choir, but with the kind of clear-eyed compassion, tough realism and observant humor that all movies, religious or otherwise, can and should aspire to. These are films in which characters pray, go to church and invoke God as an understated matter of course, not in order to flag them as morally superior or naively “quirky.” The 2007 indie comedy “Lars and the Real Girl” did just that, as did “You Can Count On Me,” “The Way” and, more recently, Bob Nelson’s wonderful “The Confirmation.”
The story of a recovering alcoholic reconnecting with his son over the course of an eventful weekend, “The Confirmation” might be my favorite kind of Christian movie — the kind that, in author Barbara Brown Taylor’s words, “prizes holy ignorance more highly than religious certainty.” It’s about flawed protagonists doing the best they can by one another, falling and getting up again, going to church but not always feeling at home there, finding solace and mercy and redemption — not when they’re quoting Scripture or casting their eyes heavenward, but when they’re engaged in the painful, not always pretty, often laughably absurd work of loving one another. Anchored by a wounded, wonderfully hangdog lead performance by Clive Owen, “The Confirmation” — which, after a brief theatrical run, is available on streaming platforms — forms an apt bookend to “Last Days in the Desert” as a depiction of faith and fallibility that rings true for those who consider themselves practicing Christians — with an emphasis on “practicing.”
These may not be “Christian movies” in the post-“Passion” sense of being produced and advertised for a particular market, but Christian movies for the rest of us are becoming a niche in their own right: Like “The Tree of Life” before it, “Last Days in the Desert” is being marketed to Christian filmgoers by a firm called Different Drummer, which, according to its website, specializes in “smart films for soulful people” and also helped the films “Calvary” and “Selma” connect with filmgoers of faith.
The company’s motto could just as easily be “soulful films for smart people.” Because the movies in question exemplify values — humility, transcendence, human connection — that have moved believers and non-believers alike for centuries, whether they’re admiring a fresco by Michelangelo or an oratorio by Handel.
The best religious art has less to do with simplistically depicting God, or Jesus, or the events of the Bible than with inviting viewers into a much bigger picture, to wrestle with their own sense of purpose and spiritual understanding (or lack thereof). Like all great art, religious films that are intellectually complex, carefully crafted and morally engaged have a way of bridging the sacred and the secular. Which brings us full circle yet again: What makes a movie Christian, it turns out, will always go hand in hand with what makes a movie good — in every sense of the word.