Film Review: Last Days in the Desert

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Photos Courtesy of Broad Green Pictures

It is no secret that in recent years there has been an increase in the number of faith based and Biblically based feature films released. While the popularity and number of these films are historically cyclical, growing and fading in popularity, the most recent offerings are unique as they could be classified as a new subgenre, “Scriptural Fiction.” Similar to historical fiction novels and films where fictional stories are imbedded into historical periods, Scriptural fiction films present fictional details within non-narrated accounts in Scripture. The intent is not to change scripture, as many contend, but to imagine details, developed through and consistent with other parts of Scripture, that allow viewers to think and enhance understanding or relationship to the Scriptural accounts and or persons.  Last Days in the Desert is the third film of 2016 to fill in gaps in the Gospels’ narrative of the life of Christ with a fictional storyline. Films of this type do not contend to re-present stories from the Bible, but using the Bible as a resource, imagine events that are not described in Scripture.

 

The Young Messiah imagined the story of Jesus growing into his divinity during the time when he and his parents lived as refugees in Egypt. RISEN examined the fictional story of a Roman soldier’s journey to faith as he searched for the presumed stolen body of the risen Jesus. Last Days in the Desert presents the final days of Jesus’s post baptismal, 40 day wilderness fast and time of temptation. Starring Ewan McGregor as both Jesus and Satan, Last Days presents a perspective of Jesus developed from screenwriter / director Rodrigo Garcia’s understanding of the teachings and life example of Jesus as presented in the Gospels.

last daysIn contrast to many previous depictions of Jesus on screen, Rodrigo’s conception and McGregor’s depiction of Jesus is earthy, intuitively wise but without full understanding, and kind but not campy. One feels an intimacy with this Jesus that has often been lacking in the grander, larger than life accounts so often depicted in the past. Much of this closeness comes through witnessing Jesus interact with a family he comes across as he is leaving the desert and with whom he spends time with and learns life lessons from. The intimacy is also established as the viewer is privy to Jesus’s encounters with Satan. As with the presentation of Jesus, the film’s depiction of Satan differs from most film accounts. In Last Days, Satan is understated and psychological, more subtlety cunning than demonstratively evil.

last days 7Using McGregor for both parts correctly identifies and presents the truth that Satan’s power, temptation, lies within oneself rather than from outside physical forces. Last Day’s depiction of Satan echoes that in The Rolling Stone’s epic song, “Sympathy for the Devil.” Confusing Jesus is the nature of this tempter’s game. Through confusion and manipulation, McGregor’s Satan casts seeds of doubt into McGregor’s Jesus.

Though he has divine wisdom and intuition, Jesus does not have full understanding at this point in his life as he begins his ministry. It is in this lack of full understanding that Jesus has a commonality with Satan, who, in his criticism of the ways of Jesus’s Father, shows he does not understand such and, unlike Jesus, would not accept that which he didn’t understand. In Contrast, through his faithfulness to His Father’s desire, to offer grace and salvation through the incarnation, and His Father’s plan, the cross, Jesus grows in understanding which allows the human Jesus to grow closer to the father thus replicating their intimacy when Jesus was the Word prior to his incarnation.

Many viewers familiar with the Matthew and Luke accounts of the temptation by Satan will be expecting to see the three famous temptations of food, worldly power, and testing God; these, however, are not included. Rodrigo’s script follows the Markan Gospel that fails to specify the temptations. The decision not to include the three very familiar vignettes, allows, if not forces, the viewer to think more about the encounter and the subtle nature that is most often the genesis of temptation.

last days 4While superficially acknowledging the humanity and divinity of Jesus, the depiction of Jesus in most previous films has often been at an arm’s length, and effectively presented him as more of a superhuman than a fully human being who knows what it is to struggle, wonder, and question. Such a depiction creates distance that makes it harder for some to connect in ways that can be transformative. By presenting Jesus as truly human, someone who has known our vulnerabilities, struggles, and lack of full understanding, Last Days in the Desert can appeal to persons within and outside the faith. This Jesus does not know all the answers, but he has faith in His Father to wait for revelation. Such faith is a challenge even the most faithful often struggle with. Last Days presentation of the fully human Jesus does not deny the divinity of Jesus, they instead provide a model of faith and discipleship that build and sustain hope for all of us who struggle with the challenges of life.

last days 10Set in the desert around Judea and filmed in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, one could describe the film’s look and feel as, in the words of Buzz Aldrin’s description of the moon, “beautiful, magnificent desolation.” Technically the film presents light touch direction from Rodrigo Garcia, top notch cinematography from three time consecutive Oscar winner (Gravity, Birdman, The Revenant) Emmanuel Lubezki, and compelling, understated performances from McGregor, Ciaran Hinds (Father), Tye Sheridan (Son), Ayelet Zurer (Mother). Last Days in the Desert is minimalist in terms of cast, action, and dialogue. It is a film of nuance and subtlety, and as such it might not appeal to all viewers. But, discerning viewers who are patient and follow where the film goes are richly rewarded.

Functionally Last Days in the Desert is what faith films, by their very name, should be.  It does not offer all the answers, but provides opportunities for questions and discussions and discernment which helps to establish, re-establish or strengthen one’s faith.

The film is rated PG-13 and is available for theater rental through tugg events.

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Film Review: Tower

One of the joys of attending film festivals is seeing independent films that oftentimes do not get a wide distribution if they are distributed at all. Unfortunately documentaries are among the most overlooked film genres when it comes to theatrical distribution. One of the other joys of film festivals is the access to filmmakers through Q&A’s that often follow the screening. Among the many jewels that were a part of the Dallas International Film Festival, as well as SXSW festival in Austin, was the film Tower, by Keith Maitland. Tower is a documentary about the 1966 mass shooting from the Tower on the University of Texas campus, in which 14 people were killed on the campus and 2 others off campus. This shooting was at the time, and for many years following, the worst mass murder in the history of the United States.

Tower focuses on the stories of people who were involved either as victims, witnesses, police or other civilians who intervened in stopping the shooter, Charles Whitman.tower7  What makes this film stand out from ordinary documentaries is, in addition to actual footage and still photography, the very creative use of rotoscope animation and voiceovers by actors to tell the stories of the individuals involved in the shooting. When asked at the Q&A following the showing at the DIFF, director Keith Maitland said his decision to tell so much through the use of animation was an effort to engage younger audiences who would relate better to the animated images of young people brought against their will into the nightmare that was the shooting spree.  In addition, it allowed him to depict the campus and people as they were back in 1966.  The tower 3animation also enabled him much more creative flexibility in telling the back stories of the individuals, as well as incorporating symbolic images that kept the attention of the viewer throughout the film. Remarkably, the animation allows the film to communicate the drama and magnitude of the killing spree without being graphic. Gradually, in the last third of the film the images and voices of the surviving witnesses concluded the stories.

In addition to the decision on how to present the stories of this tragic event, Maitland made the decision not to speculate on the reasons, motives, or even the story of the shooter Charles Whitman. He wanted to focus on the many untold or long forgotten accounts of the people whose lives were forever changed that day. Through these stories the viewer encounters persons who were victimized through the action of one person, those who decided to act heroically, and others who chose not to. With so many stories of the horrific event, the most harrowing perhaps was the story of the first victim, Claire Wilson, a UT student who was in the lasttower5 trimester of her pregnancy. After she and her boyfriend were shot, Claire laid on the hot concrete for over 90 minutes, fairly certain her boyfriend, who was shot after her, was dead. Her memory of what she thought during the eternity of that time is riveting.

What was as equally compelling was the story of Rita Starpattern, a student known for her striking,fire red hair who, when all others stayed safely out of the line of fire, ran into the open to help Claire. Rather than leaving Claire when Claire pleaded with her to go away, in an effort to avoid being shot again, Rita laid on the hot concrete and, posing as a another victim, talked with Claire until at last bystanders raced out and retrieved Claire and carried her to safety. The accounts of Austin Police officers Houston McCoy, Ramiro Martinez, and civilian Allen Crum who made their way to the tower, went up, forced their way onto the observation deck, and confronted the shooter, were powerfully presented through the animation.

In addition to the dramatic visual elements of the climactic scene on the top of the tower was the accompanying music. While the music throughout the film wonderfully blended music of the time with the themes of the individual stories,  the music that accompanied the confrontation with the Whitman, Debussy’s Clair de lune seemed oddly out of place. When asked about it, Keith Maitland shared that its use was the one acknowledgment of Charles Whitman. In researching the film Maitland had visited with one of Whitman’s professors who told the story of an aggregated Whitman coming to his house late one evening about a month before the shooting. After a brief discussion in the home of the professor in which Whitman’s anger continued to escalate, he saw a piano and asked if he could play it.  Whitman then played Claire de Lune, and his anger dissipated and he excused himself from the professor’s home.

One aspect of the aftermath of the shooting that stands out in today’s social networking world is the lack of contact between many of the participants. Claire never saw the person who carried her to safety until they met in the midst of shooting the film, and she saw Rita only once, several weeks following the shooting. While there was little to no contact between persons thrown together in the midst of the tragedy, there was and remains a connection between the victims and heroes.

One last take away from Tower is the power of choice. As indicated earlier, the film shows how different people made different choices regarding whether and how to act in the midst of the crisis and danger. Another choice that the film touches on is how to live life going forward. How does one regain control one’s life after a traumatic event and tremendous loss? Where and how does forgiveness come into the intervening years? While the lives of the victims, and everyone on the campus, were changed forever, what place does this event, the loss of lives, innocence, and for some the guilt of their actions occupy in living after? How does one survive the survival of such a trauma? As is seen in the film, one way is those involved coming together, recognizing the event, the loss, and the pain. Sharing the stories, even as reliving brings back pain, allows victims to gain power over the memories, fear, and for some, guilt. Repressing such and keeping quiet only surrenders power back to the source of the trauma, in this case Charles Whitman. Now,  at long last, the final victim is realizing the need to break a long silence.

On August 1, 2016 the University of Texas will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the shooting by dedicating a memorial to the victims. This will replace a small memorial and plaque dedicated in 1999 which is the only recognition of the event by the University. Most connected with the shooting have thought the current memorial as inadequate and look forward to the University honoring better those whose lives were lost or changed that day. The day will also mark the first day that the new state law allowing persons with concealed gun permits to carry guns on Texas Public Universities.

Tower won the Jury grand prize for best Texas feature documentary at the DIFF and will continue to play at film festivals and is scheduled for theatrical release as well as broadcast on PBS in the fall of 2016. Keith Maitland had a second film in the DIFF, A Song For You: The Austin City Limits Story which was made concurrently with Tower.

 

 

 

 

 

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Film Review: Louder Than Bombs

Louder Than Bombs (directed by Joachim Trier) is an American-Norwegian film about a family still coming to grips with the untimely loss of the wife and mother. It stars Gabriel ByrneJesse EisenbergIsabelle HuppertDavid Strathairn, and Devin Druid. Byrne stars as Gene, a failed actor turned teacher and widowed husband to Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), and the father of Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) a young college professor and Conrad (David Druid) a fifteen year old high school student. Set three years after Isabelle, a war photojournalist, is killed in a traffic accident near her home, and just before a Gallery opening of her work, the film moves seamlessly back and forth through time and between the three surviving characters as they continue to process Isabella’s death. In his first English language film, Trier explores the always intricate issue of family dynamics made more complicated by the early, unexpected death of one of its members. After the shock of such a loss has worn off, and a new sense of normality (or complexity) has been established, the family members soldier on.

louder than bombs 2Even though Trier moves backwards and forwards in time and between characters, he does so without a moment of confusion. We are always clear about when and where we are in the timeline of the narrative. Several scenes are presented from the perspective of two characters, which offers the viewers a clearer glimpse of what is actually going on with and between them, knowledge that the characters do not fully share. Through flashbacks and news accounts of Isabelle’s injuries sustained covering conflicts in the Middle East, and the concerns Gene has for her each time she departs, her death so close to her home seems cruelly ironic, until a hidden fact is revealed. As is often the case in families, the secret further threatens already fragile relationships and becomes an immediate issue as Richard, Isabelle’s colleague and close friend, is about to disclose it in a New York Times article in advance of the Gallery opening.

louder than bombs 4Though ultimately more hopeful, Louder Than Bombs echoes American Beauty. Rather than examining the characters as the story leads up to the death of a member of a dysfunctional family, Louder than Bombs does so following the death. In addition to American Beauty, Louder also echoes the documentary film War Photographer, the story of leading war photojournalist James Nachtwey, by exploring the risks to those sharing the individual stories of unimaginable suffering to otherwise autonomous victims of distant “conflicts.” Where Isabella had spent her career chronicling the tragedies of others, now her life and death is being depicted to the public through both the exhibition and accompanying article. Unlike the subjects of her photos, the effects of her life choices and death, are not nearly as evident.

louder than bombs 6Louder Than Bombs reminds us that secrecy is almost always a disease that erodes the health and strength of a family. It’s an option that’s easy to fall back on in the trauma of loss, yet it rarely lies dormant. Secrecy within families, and the fear that is its genesis, continues to grow through time and usually prevents the movement through, or resolution of, the grief process. Such decay in relationships–especially among family members–is often not evident until dysfunction louder than bombs 3grows greater than the individual’s, or the family’s, ability to control it. It then becomes evident to everyone in ways that are often more explosive than the original trauma that bred such secrecy. Thankfully, Louder Than Bombs also shows the possibility of healing that comes through embracing the truth and confronting challenges within relationships before and after the bombs of life fall.

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The Young Messiah: Interview with Director Cyrus Nowrasteh

Interview with Cyus Nowrasteh director of The Young Messiah, a film, based on the Anne Rice novel, Christ The Lord: Out of Egypt. The Young Messiah Opens March 11 and stars Adam Greaves-Neal as Jesus, Vincent Walsh as Joseph, and Sara Lazzaro as Mary.

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All Photos Courtesy of Focus Features

The Young Messiah imagines a year in the life Jesus during the missing years of his life where there is no Biblical narrative, the time between his birth and Luke’s Gospel account of him as a 12 year old child teaching in the Jerusalem Temple. During this period the Holy Family had been forced into exile in Egypt in order to protect Jesus from Herod the Great who sought his life to the extent that he had murdered innocent children in the hopes of killing this new King. After Joseph was told of Herod’s death in a dream, the family returned to their homeland. The Young Messiah is the account of that journey home.

 

cyrusI visited with Cyrus Nowrasteh at a hotel near the Dallas / Ft. Worth International Airport. Although it was just two days from the film’s premier, and the culmination of a five year effort, Mr. Nowrasteh was remarkably relaxed and generous with his time and attention. I have been aware of the project since 2014 when I was a part of a group of faith leaders and bloggers Focus Features, the film’s studio, sent to visit the film’s set during the fall 2014 production in Rome Italy.

From other interviews, including one shot on the film’s set, I knew Cyrus’s journey with this story began when Anne Rice sent him a copy of her novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt following her viewing and writing a positive review of his 2009 film The Stoning of Soraya M. I was also aware that he had consulted with theologians and pastors as part of his pre-production research. I was interested however if he had studied other Jesus films. In the discussion that followed it was evident that his interest in Jesus and Biblical films had long predated his involvement in The Young Messiah.

KD As part of your preparation process did you look at how other Jesus films were presented?

CR I looked at other Jesus movies and Biblical movies certainly. You can come to my house and I will show you DVD’s that will fill up a shelf. I didn’t have a specific reason for watching them. I was waiting for something to jump out at me. A lot of them were movies I saw as a kid in the theater, The Greatest Story Ever told, The Bible and Ben Hur.  Of course I saw The Passion many times so I know it, and I love it, and Mel Gibson is a brilliant filmmaker. I studied The Passion for Soraya. One film that jumped out at me was Barabbas, the one with Anthony Quinn, which was better than I thought it would be. There were moments there that were very powerful. I also thought the whole eclipse scene, I don’t know if you remember it, there was a real eclipse, and apparently that they knew was going to happen and they shot it. It is stunning and I would have loved to see it on the big screen.  So there are some good ones out there, no doubt.

KD Are you happy with the way The Young Messiah is rolling out and the reception you are getting?

CR I am very happy with the reception we have gotten because we have gotten a lot of cross-denominational support which is very gratifying, considering we were expecting perhaps some resistance and push back. So that’s always nice.

KD In an earlier interview you described Jesus arriving at his understanding of himself as his “veiled divinity.”

CR That was from the conversations we had with theologians. I didn’t make that up, this is what they told me, that he veiled his divinity basically to walk amongst us, to experience life and the world as we do.  That, to me, justifies the foundation of the whole, fictional exercise, if you want to call it that… In order to do that, it’s all how you do it. Yes we were careful knowing there are some people you weren’t going to please. We haven’t run into those sort of naysayers as I thought we would honestly,… People were not put off as we ventured into this fictional territory.

KD I liked the way the story was described in the press information, that it was based on the person of Christ as presented through scripture.

CR Oh yes we did not want him doing anything that was contradicting his (Jesus) behavior in the Bible, or anything in the Bible, for that matter.  There is no way that, frankly,I can get up to speed, (scripturally and theologically) do the research myself and make the determinations myself. I really did need help. I do a lot of research on all my projects, and I don’t normally trust other people’s research because I never know when I am going through stuff when something is going to jump out at me as a scene or a character, or a visual. I kind of have eagle eyes for that. When I go through material and stuff pops out, it will only pop out to me. It won’t necessarily pop out to someone else because everything is interpreted. In this movie, I needed help (with the scriptural and theological components.)  What I tried to do with my research is research the time period, the history, the look, the feel, the textures, the colors, all that stuff.

KD Our set visit was my first time on a film, set so you wonder how things will fit together and what things will look like afterwards on the screen.  After viewing the film, I think it is just gorgeous.  Another thing I really liked was it built momentum, of energy and story development, throughout the film until the last scenes when Mary explains to Jesus in voice over and tells him that “your whole reason for coming was just to be.” It was a wonderful presentation of the incarnation.cyrus 9 - Copy

CR The film now ends with the boy giving a narration in his voice.  It’s the boy who says that. Now there is also a scene when Mary is telling him about the Angel, (who foretold his birth nature, and mission) and all about who he is, which I think is a terrific scene, and I am very proud of that one.

KD A lot of films, especially faith films, start out strong,  and even considering narrative arc,  they peter out, but this film built throughout to the very strong and poignant ending.

CR That’s a common thing in a lot of movies.  This one, actually builds to a good third act.  I think second act is the toughest. Not only in other films, in my films, it’s the second act that’s the key. Billy Wilder used to always say the third act can’t work if it isn’t set up. I do think our final act is clicking.

KD Oh it’s great, again, theologically, that it really drives home the point of the incarnation, the point of Jesus just coming, something that is easily and often overlooked. Just the fact he came is a miracle in itself and is the event that that changed all history. In those last few scenes you really put a strong bow, theologically as well as narratively, on the film.

CR Thank you.

cyrus 11KD I want to talk about the depiction and  idea of Mary and Joseph, and the burden it was for them. I have a special needs daughter, and it dawned on me, while we were watching the filming, and it came out in the film, that they were raising a special needs child, or a gifted and talented child, who, until they grow into their gifts and talents, have special needs. For parents of special needs children there is no rule book, the normalcies that govern other parents don’t apply to you. You wake up each day wondering what will happen today, and what will we do. That really comes through in the film.

CR The wondering about when this (Jesus’s full nature) is going to start to reveal itself, which it does in our movie, at seven years old, is seen and shown in the way Mary reacts, she says “I just didn’t expect it so soon.” She says that early in the film to Joseph, I thought that was interesting because we say that all the time, when they (our children) graduate from high school, go off to college, all that stuff.

KD I was really hoping that sense would come through when we saw the filming at Cinecitta Studios, and it did.

CR Well I am glad.  Casting is everything. Cast is your story, and I think we got very lucky. We were blessed with this cast…. cyrus 7I am so proud of our Joseph, because he is unlike any Joseph you have ever seen. I really think he is terrific.

KD I remember many of us were on the set visit were struck with him (Joseph) in particular. Cause you rarely hear about Joseph. He just sort of disappeared from the Biblical narrative. In this film you really have a sense of his burden as the step-father of a child whose father was the ultimate birth father.

CR I think that dynamic, between the them, that family unit is our movie.  When I was going through the audition process I would try to put people together to try and figure out if this is going to work?  I actually never got a chance to put my choice for Mary and my choice for Joseph in a room together until I cast them.  So, I was just winging it. This movie lives there, that’s it. If that doesn’t work, we’re nowhere. And I think that part of the reason for that is because we are, without patting myself on the back too much, daring to go inside that family, because I haven’t seen it.  I told you I saw all those Bible movies and I haven’t seen it (such a focus on Jesus’s family.)

KD That to me is really the hook that I hope will grab people and bring them in.

KD The other thing that struck me in the film was the shared sense of discipleship we as followers today have with Mary and Joseph. We are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Their discipleship, based on a story told to them by an angel, and in a dream, was on the front end, prior to the birth of Jesus. Our discipleship, based on that story as well as the crucifixion and resurrection is based on the back end. We as disciples are charged with carrying, nurturing, maybe protecting, this story / truth in a world that is in opposition to it, as they were charged with carrying, nurturing, and protecting Jesus in a time and world that was against him. I am really excited about that and look forward to sharing that about this film.

CR It’s so important that people share their impressions of the movie that they talk about it with one another. I find there is always a level of skepticism and resistance, even in the people who have endorsed the movie the most enthusiastically. I can see there is always this, “aw wait a second” kind of thing.  I am worried that this is our audience, and that our audience is doing that and will stay away from the movie.

KD Are you worried at all that it is following close after RISEN?

CR That doesn’t worry that much. Because we were originally supposed to follow Ben Hur, which I think worried me more…. I saw RISEN… I met Kevin Reynolds (Director of RISEN) years ago. We were at USC Film school at the same time, and I think he is a real talent. I thought it was a little rough getting out of the blocks, but when it got where it needed to get it was effective…I did feel like we needed more in terms of the ending with Joseph Fiennes….I thought we needed another piece with him (the Tribune) at the very end….I thought it was interesting that Pilate had decided to send  these guys out to get him. I almost thought to myself that’s where it’s going, they’re going to end up getting him, he’s going to die willingly because he knows where he’s going… or maybe a variation of that. I was surprised we didn’t get that extra piece… but I thought it was a good, solid movie. I liked RISEN.

KD I haven’t seen much comment on the character Severus (the Roman soldier who is tracking Jesus down to capture and kill him on Herod’s orders.) Obviously there is Jesus and the Holy Family, but to me, that is just as powerful a character.

CN You’re right. He’s kind of the rock cyrus 6underneath it all, but he gets forgotten because we are all so enamored with the family because that’s who are sympathies are with. But, Sean Bean (Severus) playing a tortured soul, he does it beautifully. I love working with Sean.

KD Again, I really liked his character. That’s the character that speaks to all the rest of us because that is the character that is faced with a decision to render to Caesar, literally, or to God. He really shows the call to, and struggle to accept, redemption and transformation.

CR Jesus isn’t here just for the needy or the sick.  He is also here for the sinners, especially the sinners. We have to show that. This is a guy who has committed about as bad as sin as you can. So I think Severus is in many ways the backbone.

KD Absolutely, there isn’t any doubt. We are all in some ways Severus, in ways that differ than the way we are like Mary and Joseph in our discipleship. I think that will be the character that speaks to persons who are marginally faithful or outside of the faith.

CR I hope so.

KD Did you have a favorite character as you wrote or directed the film?

CR Not really.  I was excited by the prospect of the Severus character and how he would serve the drama of the piece overall because that character is not in the book. In the book, through the first person voice of Jesus, which was I thought a daring literary device Anne used, he (Jesus) talks in his voice about the threats, the dangers, and the chaos for him and his parents…. But we needed to focus those feelings and observations which we were able to do through Severus.

The interview ended when we discussed what hopes Cyrus had for the audience in viewing the film. He said he had been asked about this a lot and he really didn’t have specific themes and ideas. Where filmmakers often stumble is when they try to “pound themes and ideas” through the story rather than allowing them to grow organically, for each viewer, from the story. We discussed how this is the model of Scripture itself, that even the most complicated teaching in Scripture, the essence of God, humanity, and the relationship between the two are communicated through story. Two prominent examples being when, at God’s direction, Nathan judged David for his crimes against Bathsheba and Uriah through the use of the story of the rich man who stole the poor man’s only lamb, and when Jesus was teaching about the nature of the Kingdom or the nature of God he used stories, the most famous being the parable of the prodigal son and forgiving father. Cyrus indicated his belief that when left to grow through the narrative, intended themes and ideas will emerge, and, perhaps more importantly, other ideas and themes that the filmmaker had not thought of will emerge as well.

 

Concluding thoughts from the film and interview:

Perhaps the most powerful and important aspect of The Young Messiah is that as story it resonates on a variety of levels, regardless of where the viewer is on the spectrum of faith. Even though the story itself is fictional, it is as Cyrus described it, “informed conjecture” into the time in Jesus’s life where there is no Gospel record, it is based on the historical times and the Scriptural presentation of the historical individuals. Whether one has little to no faith or is a person of strong faith living a discipled life, there are themes and messages that emerge in the film. This commonality, where persons familiar with, and those new to the faith and story of Jesus can see it on equal footing is rare in Biblically based films.

Although Cyrus had not encountered as much resistance to the conjectured aspect of the story, I have seen such questioning in the comments section of articles relating to the film. In those comments people have labeled the film as non-scriptural. In reality it is scriptural. The exile into Egypt is in Scripture.  Additionally the elements of that film that are in Scripture, the Annunciation, birth, and Epiphany arrival of the Magi follow the narrative rather closely. As far as the conjecturing of the events in Egypt, there is nothing, as Cyrus stated, that would go against the spirit of the Biblical persons and events. As stated elsewhere in this interview and thoughts, there is benefit to such imagining the life that the Holy Family and others lived.  When we can see similarities, that they faced struggles, perhaps similar in nature, it can offer hope and be a source of comfort and strength.

Whether a new or seasoned disciple, one lives out one’s faith, calling, and experience of God on a variety of levels and in a variety of ways. There is God’s love for us and grace given to us, ultimately expressed in Jesus. This is the heart and soul of our faith and life. There is also the calling to discipleship; following and proclaiming the truth of Christ through words and, especially, deeds to a broken and often hostile world. This is the backbone of service.

In The Young Messiah, one experiences this heart and soul primarily through Jesus, Mary and Joseph. One also experiences the call to be a backbone of service through the character of Mary, and Joseph and their acceptance of God’s call, and the transformational call of Severus, a tortured instrument who hears the call to change his loyalty from the preeminent earthly power, Rome, to the ultimate power and King of all Kings. For most of us for whom God’s is not an easy call to accept nor transformation to make, it is helpful to see characters share our struggles and, through God’s grace and power, accept redemption and transformation.

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Film Review: RISEN

 

Photos courtesy of Affirm Films and LD Entertainment

Over the last two years there have been several releases of Biblically based films. While these films are often overly produced and lacking in cinematic elements such as compelling acting, direction, and writing, and while also presenting the stories with needless dramatic license to the Biblical text, I was hopeful when I saw the preview for RISEN.  Upon viewing RISEN my hope that this would be a high quality, engaging film was confirmed.  This newest Biblically based offering is a compelling, fictional account of Clavius, a Roman officer who pursues war, doing what he must and going where needed, as he works his way up the Roman army ranks in pursuit of, ironically, a peaceful life.

In the film Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) finds himself as a Tribune in the far flung  Roman outpost of Jerusalem, serving at the beck and call of the Roman Prefect, Pontias Pilate (Peter Firth).

The film begins on Good Friday when, returning to the city after putting down an insurrection, Clavius is ordered by Pilate to see to it that the crucifixion of three men earlier in the day is concluded quickly and quietly. One of the three is a Jewish Messiah who has angered the Jewish Pharasees to the point that they engineered protests and demanded his crucifixion. Pilate relunctently conceded to their demands as he is trying to maintain peace and control prior to a visit by Tiberius Caesar.

After attending to the deaths and burial of the three men, Clavius is ordered to ensure the body of the Messiah is not stolen by his followers in an attempt to claim he had been raised from the dead as the Messiah had predicted. After the resurrection, and disappearance of the the body, Clavius is ordered to find the stolen body.  The majority of the film follows the contemplative Tribune’s hunting down the Messiah’s followers in order to find a body that can prove the Messiah’s claims were false. During this portion, the film interestingly resembles a first century presentation of the film The Fugitive as witnesses are tracked down, detained and interviewed. As in the modern crime drama the investigator cares not about guilt or innocence, but only that the remains of the suspect, or even a suspect, are found.

The closer Clavius gets to the Messiah, through interviews with followers including a disciple and Mary of  Magdala, the more unsettled he becomes. These followers have a peace about them that he, as a brutal tool of the oppressive power that is Rome, has never experienced.   Usually, suspects and subjects of Rome wilt or melt in his presence, or at least attempt to fight back. These suspects however are ready to receive whatever may come. They IMG_0537have embraced, or been embraced by a power that is even greater than that of the greatest earthly power in the history of the World. These lowly, irrelevant, desposable subjects have received freely what Clavius is seeking and sacrificing himself for, contentment that comes from true peace. In his pursuit of the remains of the Messiah, Clavius remains determined, but his purpose changes as he gets closer to that which he pursues.

As the film depicts someone pursuing faith from a place of disbelief RISEN is the rare faith based film that can appeal to persons of faith as well as those who may have interest, questions, or doubts about faith and Christ. RISEN is true to the presentation of finding or embracing faith and discipleship in Christ that is often overlooked in faith based films, as well as teaching within churches. To truly embrace faith in Christ, one must let go of those things one has placed their faith in. For Clavius this was his entire life, his pagan spiritual beliefs, his life goals, as well as the power, protection and purpose of Rome.

Joseph Fiennes offers a remarkably subtle performance as the powerfully brutal, yet uniquely reflective instrument of earthly power. While there are some overly dramatic moments and a non-canonical presentation of Mary Magdalene, overall the script, Kevin Reynolds’s direction, and other cinematic elements are refreshingly understated for a faith based film. The presentation of Yeshua (Cliff Curtis) is effectively intimate and reflective of his humanity, as opposed to the frequent, more distant, divine dominant presentations. As with almost every presentation of Jesus there is a conflation of the gospel accounts of his life and teaching. While this tact usually detracts from the teaching and purpose of the Gospels, such is not as noticeable in RISEN as the focus of the film is on the life journey of Clavius, his questioning and experiencing Christ, and just as importantly, his accepting redemption and transformation through Christ. Risen is a film that speaks to the contrast of powers between humanity and God, the need and source of true peace, and the change one must be willing to accept in order to be a disciple and receive God’s redemptive grace.

RISEN is one of the most financially successful faith based films grossing over $17 million in North America it’s first week.

 

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Film Review: The Revenant

J.Ryan Parker, a friend and fellow theology minded film blogger, (Pop Theology on Patheos.com) asked me if I saw The Revenant. My response was an immediate “no.” The new film epic starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass is not merely viewed; it is one of the rare films that is experienced. Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s epic is based loosely on the legendary story of Hugh Glass, a frontiersman working along the Upper Missouri River in present day South Dakota.

While serving on a large expedition to trap beavers, Glass was injured when the party was attacked by a group of Airikaras. Later he was viciously mauled by a bear defending her cubs. Fearing further attacks, and believing Glass’s wounds were mortal, the surviving expedition members left two men behind to bury Glass after he died, which would be within a day or less. The two men abandoned Glass when, after a week, he was still clinging to life. Miraculously Glass regained consciousness and, surviving on berries, roots, and rancid meat left from wolf kills, crawled and walked the 200 miles to the nearest outpost.

(20th Century Fox)

The story has grown into legend and The Revenant (one who has returned, particularly one who was or was believed dead) is the second film to tell the story. Included in Iñárritu’s screenplay are contested elements of the Glass legend, that he had spent time living with Pawnees where he had a wife and child. Unlike the historical account of Glass’s legend, The Revenant takes place in the winter which adds even more obstacles to Glass’s surviving the unimaginable trek. Even though there are narrative elements added to the story, The Revenant depicts the harsh conditions of early nineteenth century frontier life and the thread thin difference between life and death.

(20th Century Fox)

The Revenant is the rarest of films. It is a very action oriented epic, yet it has scenic beauty and acting that rivals any small, independent, art house film. Iñárritu’s ability to put the viewer in the middle of the action rivals, and at times surpasses that achieved by Steven Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan.  The mauling scene is among the most compelling action sequences ever filmed. While this scene is the pinnacle, there are several other unbelievably filmed action sequences and situations throughout the 156 minutes. In addition to these unimaginable action sequences there are scenes between Glass and his son Hawk, and visions Glass has with his murdered wife that are intimate and emotional and add unexpected depth to the character of Glass.

(20th Century Fox)

(20th Century Fox)

The cast offers many enthralling performances. Tom Hardy‘s performance as the grizzled and savage antagonist John Fitzgerald, whose self-centered nature in a land that mandates sacrificial support of others, is superb. Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance however is among the most compelling in decades and will go down as a seminal acting achievement. Due to his injuries Glass is unable to speak, requiring DiCaprio to communicate solely through grunting, breathing, and contorted body motions and facial features for much of his time on screen.  DiCaprio uses each of these tools to convey not only the physical pain associated with his injuries, but also the emotional and spiritual pain and loss his character experiences as he literally claws his way out of the grave. In an interview with Charlie Rose, DiCaprio described The Revenant as not just a film project, but a chapter in his, and the entire cast and crew’s lives. The production of the film itself modeled the epic nature of Glass’s legend. Using only natural lighting in some of the most rugged terrain, the film shoot spanned 9 bitterly cold months in mountainous locations in Canada, Montana, and Argentina. After seeing the film, one can hardly disagree that the film was a chapter in the life of the cast and crew.

Ryuichi Sakamoto‘s haunting score is felt as much as heard and exquisitely enhances the cinematography, narrative, and overall feel of the film. Emmanuel Lubezki‘s cinematography captures the grand beauty of the South Dakota Rockies, and the power of the Upper Missouri River, but he also communicates the intimate, and snowflake delicate nature of the pristine mountain forests.

In addition to presenting the triumph of determination, the parallel theme is revenge, and the power revenge can have to fuel determination. Glass is believed to be a revenant because of his surviving against all odds. However, it is questionable whether to what extent has he survived. While his body is alive, it is unclear the state of his spirit. Did the determined desire to exact revenge which fed and strengthened his body, diminish and slay his soul?

In his Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, and his Sermon on the Plain in the sixth chapter of The Gospel of Luke, Jesus teaches disciples the ways of life in God’s Kingdom. Disciples are to live Kingdom lives on earth and as such resist the temptation to exact revenge including seeking the worldly legal remedy of an eye for an eye. Instead, disciples are to turn the other cheek, forgive and even love enemies.

In the twelfth chapter of Romans The apostle Paul teaches followers of Christ to live new lives found only in Christ and not be conformed by the ways of this world and life. Seeking revenge is one such worldly way of living. In contrast, followers of Jesus are to transform themselves, others, and be a part of God’s transforming the world by living lives that reflect the life and way of Christ and God’s Kingdom. Later in the same chapter Paul teaches that followers are not to repay evil for evil, nor take revenge against others. Judgement, including revenge, or grace, is strictly the domain of God.

While the film’s ending may be ambiguous for many, what is clear is the toll revenge takes on the soul if not the body. While seeking revenge might have pushed DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass to survive against all odds, it was not enough to bring relief or ultimately restore the life lost to him. Thankfully, few in our place and time have to endure such suffering. Unfortunately, lives built around revenge, anger or bitterness toward enemies or even loved ones are common and result in emptiness if not death of spirit.

The Revenant is rated R for graphic violence and language. While the violence is extreme and not for everyone, it is not gratuitous in that it serves the narrative and the eventual teaching element of the story.

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Film Review: ROOM

ROOM is one of the most impressively directed and acted films of the year. Even though it has no graphic images, it has some of the most intense moments put on film in years. Based on the novel and screenplay by Emma Donoghue and predating two life imitating art events, ROOM is the story of a 24 year old woman, Ma/Joy (Brie Larson) who was kidnapped at the age of 17 and has been held captive in a shed for 7 years. Living with her is her 5 year old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay) who was fathered by “Old Nic,” (Sean Bridgers) Joy’s kidnapper. While Joan Allen, William H Macy co-star as Joy’s parents, the third leading character is room itself. Through Lenny Abrahamson’s skillful direction, the audience views Room as a character. For Jack, Room is a friend or family member where each part and piece is named, from the cupboard where he often sleeps, to the the bed, tub, table, chairs, stove and plants, Room is living friend. For Ma, Room is alive as well, however it is a co-conspirator with her captor Nic.

In an effort to shield her son from the trauma of their situation, Ma allows Jack to live with the understanding that the shed is the world, and the outside is the unreachable universe. Jack’s only conception of existence beyond the world that is Room is the view out of the skylight in Room’s ceiling. The only interludes from what is outside Room are the occasional nighttime visits from Old Nic who brings weekly food supplies and other necessities. The only contact Jack has with Old Nic are parts of conversations and mysterious noises he overhears and glimpses of the man he is able to steal between the wooden louvers that make up the door to a cupboard where he sleeps on nights Old Nic calls on Ma.

During most of the captivity scenes within Room, the audience experiences a mother who is doing the best she can to shield her son from the captive hell that is their existence. It is a more realistic vision of the power of love and the extremes a parent would go to make what is intolerable livable that is presented in Life Is Beautiful, an Academy Award winning film in which a father shields his son from the reality of life in a World War II concentration camp.

The last third of the film shows the challenge of life after Ma and Jack escape from Room. Even though they break free from their isolation, in many ways they still feel the presence and power of Old Nic and Room. It is in this part of the film where the acting, story and character nuances truly shine. While Room had been a place of captivity and challenges beyond imagination for Ma, it also served to shelter Jack and Ma from many of the complexities of life in the world beyond Room. Immediately upon rejoining the world, society, and family, Jack and especially Joy encounters the challenges of life made more difficult by now being celebrities.

As Israel experienced challenges after their dream of escaping from their slavery in Egypt and later Judah’s homecoming after the Babylonian exile, the exodus of Joy from her imprisonment and her return home from the exile that was her time in Room brought challenges as she was reintroduced to her life at home. As Judah discovered, the home she returned to was not the same home she was taken from. While the circumstances of her home had changed, as is usual in family systems, the way of being, homeostasis, of the system that was Joy’s family reasserted itself upon her return. Many have experienced this reality in lesser forms when an adult child returns home after moving away. Though an independent adult away from home there is a tendency to revert to child roles when back at home. For Joy, there would not be true escape until she broke free from this second family systems captor.

A second scriptural connection is presented in Jack’s introduction to the world outside Room. Paul teaches in I Corinthians 13 that though we have a glimpse of God and the Kingdom of God now, it is obscured, as through a darkened window. Whereas now we see and experience God and the Kingdom only in part, through resurrection we shall know fully and see God face to face. Our comprehension of God and the Kingdom is just a small taste of the ultimate experience. So the world is for Jack. The full exposure to the world after his escape is beyond anything he could imagine looking up into the world through Room’s skylight.

Both Brie Larson’s and Jacob Tremblay’s performances are extraordinary. Larson is being discussed as potential Oscar nominee, and Tremblay offers as powerful and realistic performance from a child since Anna Paquin’s Academy Award winning performance in The Piano.

ROOM is rated R for language, intense scenes and scenes of child endangerment.

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