Contest: Last Days in the Desert

Posted on December 10, 2016 at 8:00 am

Copyright Broad Green 2016

“Last Days in the Desert” stars Ewan McGregor as Jesus (and the devil) in this thoughtful and moving story. I have a copy to give away!

Send me an email at moviemom@moviemom.com with Desert in the subject line and tell me your favorite movie about faith. Don’t forget your address! (U.S. addresses only). I’ll pick a winner at random on December 19, 2016. Good luck!

Reminder: My policy on conflicts

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Contests and Giveaways Spiritual films

Last Days in the Desert

Posted on May 12, 2016 at 5:45 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some disturbing images and brief partial nudity
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Disturbing images, sad death of a parent
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 13, 2016

Copyright 2-16 Different Drummer
Copyright 2016 Different Drummer
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us that after he was baptized, Jesus entered the desert and spent 40 days fasting and praying. It was only when he left the desert that he was ready to take up his ministry. We do not know much of what went on, but two of the gospels say that during that time he was tempted by the devil.

Writer/director Rodrigo Garcia (“Nine Lives,” “Mother and Child”) wanted to explore that moment when the divine and the human sides of Jesus were both tested. With three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (“Gravity,” “The Revenant”) giving a burnished glow to the bleak and beautiful California desert, he tells the story of the last few days in the desert, as Jesus struggles with his destiny and spends time with a family with its own problems.

Ewan McGregor plays both Jesus (called Jeshua) and the devil. If God has made us in his image, then why wouldn’t the devil try to tempt us by having us see ourselves in him? But the real interaction here is with a family, a father (Irish actor Ciarán Hinds), a mother who is dying (Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer), and a son (Tye Sheridan) who live in an isolated hut. Like fathers throughout the millennia, this one thinks he knows what is best for his son, and it is doing what he has done. He is losing his wife and cannot bear to think of his son moving away. But like sons throughout the millennia, this one disagrees with his father. He wants to try life in the city. They cannot even talk to each other about it.

Don’t worry that this is going to be Jesus arriving like Dr. Phil or even Oprah to straighten everyone out. One of the wisest choices of the film is that Jesus, who will soon be performing miracles and instructing his followers is here in this place to listen and try to understand. There is no question of curing the mother or sitting the father and son down to try to negotiate or even get them to acknowledge the legitimacy and good intentions of each other’s positions. Jesus seems to understand that this is as close as he will ever get to what it is like to be in a family and he is there to listen, to observe, and to learn.

The quiet beauty of the film adds a meditative power, and McGregor’s performance reminds us how essential the human qualities of Jesus’ experience were in making possible the miracles that followed his time in the desert.

Parents should know that this film includes brief nudity and a sexual situation, sad death of a parent, some disturbing images, and spiritual struggles.

Family discussion: What did Jesus learn from the disagreement between the father and son? Why were Jesus and the devil played by the same actor?

If you like this, try: “The Gospel of John” and “Risen”

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Interview: Director Rodrigo Garcia on “Last Days in the Desert”

Posted on May 11, 2016 at 3:14 pm

Copyright Broad Green 2016
Copyright Broad Green 2016

“Last Days in the Desert” is the story of Jesus in the final moment of his time of reflection before accepting his destiny as the Messiah. I spoke to director Rodrigo Garcia about creating the story of a critical moment that is not described in the New Testament and working with his international cast, the storyline about Jesus’ interactions with a family, and with three-time Oscar winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (“Gravity,” “The Revenant”).

How do you cast the role of Jesus, especially when you are going to have the same actor play the devil who tempts Him? In my opinion, the first requirement is kind eyes.

Well I think you know what I’m looking for because you’ve already said it. Ewan McGregor is a very good actor. I already knew that about him. I didn’t initially think of him because Ewan is in his early 40s and I was looking at men who are around 30, 31, 32. So I didn’t initially think of him but then I meet him socially and spent time with him and the kind eyes are there. Literally what Ewan has is a great human thing about him. He’s very likeable and he is very empathetic. You know he’s interested in other people. Her feels for other people. He is interested in human things. He doesn’t have a prejudiced bone in his body. He is just that person. That was very important to me. What I wanted was someone who has the kind eyes but also projected a real humanity, not a starry-eyed Jesus that seems of another world. Jesus is at least half human so I wanted him to feel like a person. I wasn’t going to deal with the divine side because how do you deal with that? How do you cast that? How do you play that? So we concentrated on the human side and his empathy and his kindness. It’s not without complication. Sometimes he says the wrong thing or might not make a good choice to intervene in the problems of the family. You could even argue that he helped but in helping he also hurt. He makes mistakes like humans make mistakes but he does have kind eyes and not just literally but as a metaphor. He sees the world and other with kindness.

You had a small cast, and each was from a different country, none of them from your home country. What does that international range bring to the production?

I think whether you’re working with actors from the same country or from different countries no two brains are the same. That’s the beauty about movies. When you work with other artists and things come together in a movie then they come together beautifully because it’s not just personality but also psyche comes together. Things people don’t know about themselves come out in the movie. Some people were religious and some people were less religious. A couple of people were Jews. It doesn’t matter. Everyone understood the theme of the movie. Everyone understood the movie was about fathers and sons and about the mysteries and about the incredible journey of Jesus. So when movie works it makes this infallible chemistry between those people of different origins come together, everyone’s conscious and unconscious is coming together around one idea.

What draws us to the desert, or the woods, or our own places of refuge and contemplation?

I think people of all faith and all religion and all spiritual philosophy go to the desert. You go to the desert, you go to the ocean. You go to where the noise stops and you can spend time with yourself and with the Universe, with the oneness. That’s what the desert is like. It’s both dangerous and ruthless but it’s also beautiful and you really get a sense of time. There are landscapes that probably haven’t changed that much in hundreds of years maybe thousands. So much of the movie was about men living in time. How we live and we move on. So, this movie was set at the end of something and at the beginning of something, it’s the last days in the desert for the mother and the father who stay and it’s the last days in the desert for the boy and for Jesus who go on to two very different destinies. The movie happens sort of at the first page of a book and at the last page of a book.

One of the things that I really like about your films is that you focus on those in-between moments not on the big climax or revelation but on the moments we may not understand until later.

A part of me is a minimalist. A lot of directors as they get more success they want to make that bigger movie on a bigger canvas with a bigger budget. I’m very Japanese that way. I’m always trying to see how can I do it simpler. I’m always fascinated by these Japanese artists that do calligraphy. They’ll work on a character forever, sometimes for life looking for that perfect stroke. I do like that. I like that minimalist thing and sometimes I have a lot of dialogue in films and I get a lot of praise for my dialogue but in the end all the important scenes in the movie have to be non-dialogue scenes. They have to be moments when people have to say good bye. Moments when people fall from cliffs or on crosses or just the silence, you know. I think sometimes in the movie the crucial moments cannot be dialogue moments. They have to be visual and silent moments.

In this film the characters talk about the most ordinary things in a very relatable way.

I wanted the conflicts to be simple but potent and they couldn’t be anything simpler than “I want my son to stay but my son wants to leave.” That’s a big conflict between a father and son wanting different things in life. That’s a conflict that is so relatable to any culture and any time and this looks small from the outside but for the people living in it, it’s brutal. It’s a really collision course and the mother is trying to intervene while facing death. Everything was as simple as could be. No matter when in human history, there will always be the issue: My father wants me to do this but I want to do something else. It’s certainly loaded because we know who Jesus is and what his destiny is. So anything that character does or says or doesn’t do or doesn’t say, we give it meaning because we know what awaits him.

Jesus and the boy are both struggling in that way.

My point of departure was Jesus was half human but that half is human. When you’re writing about a character you must think how is he like me, how am I like him. So the human half of Jesus must have confidence and insecurity, boldness and fear, fear of the unknown, a love for his father and of course some mystery about his father since his father was not someone you can just sit around with and talk things over. He probably had a sense of whatever the destiny was. He was probably going to make a grand gesture and maybe a big sacrifice. So the human man must have been, however committed he was, he just have been scared of what was ahead because who faces torture and death and crucifixion without fear. In fact if he had no fear the sacrifice would not have been the sacrifice that it was. I just dealt with the human side and the human side. I must assume is like me. Flaubert famously said, “Madam Bovary is me.” Well, that’s true of any character and I can only approach it if I am like him and he is like me and I think that’s what this one did.

What’s the best advice you ever got about being a director?

I was one doing a very emotionally loaded scene with Calista Flockhart. She walks into a room and find that her lover is dead. And right from the beginning she said we were going to do one take and I was already saying something to her and she said to me, “No, no I don’t want you in my head yet.” The lesson was don’t direct too soon. Let the actors, let your creative people, let the people you are working with come to the piece, bring themselves to the piece and along the way you are directing subtly but also hearing them out. You invite people and their subconscious to the piece. So I would say don’t direct too much too soon.

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