In the elegiac drama Last Days in the Desert, Ewan McGregor portrays a holy man headed for Jerusalem: a wandering prophet variously addressed as rabbi or Yeshua who’s seeking spiritual awareness but who sheepishly describes himself as “a bit lost” to those he encounters.
Shown fasting and praying, weeping in solitude and shivering through frigid Judean Desert nights, he’s the embodiment of Jesus Christ in everything but name. “Father, where are you?” he cries out in the film which opened May 13.“Father, speak to me!”
The movie implicitly takes up where the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and Mark leave off. But the film’s writer-director, Rodrigo García (Mother and Child and Albert Nobbs), is quick to point out the existentially fraught father-son relationship depicted onscreen is all poetic license and appears nowhere in the New Testament.
“I liken it to a literary conceit: You take a person from history or mythology — for example, Napoleon while he was a prisoner at Elba or Pocahontas before the Europeans arrived — and invent a few days for yourself,” García explained.
“In the figure of Jesus, everyone knows his origins and his destiny,” he continued. “I’m freed because I’m not talking about episodes that are in the Gospel.”
Garcia is hardly the only moviemaker these days to find a certain freedom by using Scripture as a springboard. In the last few months, a spate of faith-based films including Risen (released in February) and The Young Messiah (from March) has come to present never-told or newly imagined chapters of Jesus’ existence, offering biblical backstories aimed at an audience of roughly 200 million Americans who self-identify as Christians and attend church at least once a month.
Several other such films are in Hollywood’s pipeline. Sony Pictures Animation recently announced it would release an as-yet untitled Nativity movie in December 2017 that presents the story of Christ’s birth from the perspective of animals in the manger. And later this year, Universal Pictures International and Film4 are scheduled to produce a biopic about Mary Magdalene — who is believed to have seen Jesus on the cross and later resurrected — offering what its producers describe in a statement as “an incredibly powerful new perspective on one of the world’s most well-known origin stories.”
“It’s almost a new genre,” said Mickey Liddell, a producer of Risen. “Audiences feel they’ve seen the biblical stories in movies. But what if we showed what else was going on at the time? That makes it more interesting, because you get a fresh perspective on the oldest story in the world.”
Risen stars Joseph Fiennes as a Roman centurion dispatched by Pontius Pilate to investigate rumors that a Nazarene prophet called Yeshua — the Hebrew name corresponding with Jesus — has risen from the tomb. The officer must attempt to quell an uprising as word of the messiah’s resurrection spreads across the realm but finds his own faith awakened in the process.
Equal parts police procedural and biblical epic (with cameo appearances by St. Bartholomew, Joseph of Arimathea and Mary Magdalene), the $20 million film was christened “New Testament noir” and “CSI: Jerusalem” by critics en route to its surprisingly robust box-office returns. Risen was the third-highest-grossing film over its opening weekend in theaters and has taken in $45 million worldwide.
Liddell attributed the film’s success to the faith-based audience’s growing sophistication as moviegoers.
“Twenty years ago, I think they were happy with whatever came out — if someone took the time to talk about their faith,” he said. “But that audience has matured. Our film connected because of the originality of the material.”