In April of 2014, my wife and I were invited to join a small press corp on the set of a little film being made in the Anza Borrego desert a couple of hours from our home in San Diego. That film turned out to be Last Days in the Desert. We visited the set, talked with the filmmakers, and had a fun day. The main point of the visit, I learned when we got there, was to answer questions a few of the filmmakers had about whether or not what they were doing was respectful of the faith we, the journalists, claimed as our own.
Seven months later, Kutter Callaway and I were invited to join a larger group of religious journalists for an advance screening of the (almost) finished film in Los Angles. The filmmakers were particularly interested in how we thought the Christian audience would react to the film. Following that screening, I wrote a letter to the film’s producers articulating my thoughts and feelings about the film.
Last Days in the Desert had its premiere at the 2015 Sundance film festival. I was able to see the film for a second time there. Writer/director Rodrigo Garcia also joined us at the Windrider Forum for a generous and candid Q&A about the film. The film was enthusiastically received by both the Windrider community and by the general Sundance audience. I've included the audio of my interview with Garcia below.
In preparation for writing my review at Sundance in 2015, I read back over the letter I wrote to the film’s producers back in November. I decided to publish it as my review of the film, because I feel it captures well the overall emotional affect of the film. I've republished it below.
Last Days in the Desert is finally being released in theaters on May 12 and 13, first as a special, one-night-only event on May 12 featuring the film, Science Mike and Michael Gungor from the Liturgists Podcast, music from Gungor, and an interview with writer/director Rodrigo Garcia and star Ewan McGregor. Check the Last Days in the Desert website to see if the event is happening in a city near you, and by tickets quickly. I know some of the screenings have already sold out. Then the film will be in limited release on May 13 in a handful of cities (albeit without the special content). Don't miss the chance to see this film in a theater. I've never seen another movie like it.
Bonnie and Julie,
I have been thinking about your film since I saw it, trying to figure out how to say what I wanted to say. This has proven difficult, because I felt Last Days in the Desert as much as I saw it. Responding to and describing what I see is easy. That’s a film critic's basic trade. Doing the same for things I feel is much more difficult. I depend on movies, music, visual art, theater, and other art to grant me a way to feel things I need to feel. When a work of art gives me that gift, I am often left speechless, because the art said everything I felt a need to say.
Last Days in the Desert gave that to me. The parallel tensions between the pairs of fathers and sons moved me deeply. As I said as we hastily (and embarrassingly) hurried away, I left thinking about my father, our relationship, how I am constantly, inexpressively grateful for him and yet always feel a little at odds or separate from him, how I long for greater intimacy with him, direction from him, and understanding between us, and more.
I was especially moved by the scene where Jesus blesses the boy. I’ve so longed for that kind of blessing from my own father. I’ll never get it. I know that. Your film encouraged me that perhaps my heavenly Father has blessed me in my father’s stead as well. If waiting for my father’s blessing is a kind of prison, Last Days in the Desert became like a kind of key unlatching the door to my cell. Stepping out into freedom is still up to me, but the door is now open. (Rodrigo's comments at our Windrider Q&A about how a lack of blessing might be a kind of "vote of confidence" is extra helpful.)
I really appreciate the way the film takes seriously Jesus’ humanity, the limitations that puts on his divinity, and the responsibility his divinity puts on his humanity. I’ve never seen a film do that before. Often films err too far one way or the other. Last Days in the Desert walks that line well and simultaneously made Christ both more relatable and more mysterious to me. The thought that maybe he wrestled with his relationship with his father similarly to how I wrestle with my relationship with my father is comforting. It inspires me to greater devotion and worship.
Now, I realize your key question for us is whether or not this film can be successfully marketed to Christian audiences. As I’m sure you know, there are lots of “kinds” of Christians and lots of ways Christians interact with films. I can’t imagine many Christians will be offended by your film’s portrayal of Christ or the allowance your film takes with the gospel narratives by imagining this interaction between Jesus and this family during his time in the desert fasting and praying. There are probably a few who will want to dismiss the film because of those liberties, but I imagine they will be a small group. (They might be loud as well, but they will be laughed at by most everyone.) Most will accept that this is an imagined tale not meant to be taken as historical reenactment. The kind of Christians that frequent our website, including the Fuller Seminary trained pastors and ministry leaders, will have no problem “handling” this film.
Last Days in the Desert is an artful, thoughtful exploration of Christ, his like-us-ness, his relationship with his Father, and his relevance in our lives today. It explores father/son relationships of all kinds. It’s about the stories we tell each other about each other and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. It’s a film for adults who are also interested in those questions. It is beautifully shot, superbly acted, and strangely engrossing considering the simplicity of the story. It deserves, earns, and rewards attention in a way that most films made these days—even films made “for adults”—don’t. I can’t wait to see it again and to tell everyone I know to see it too.
Thank you so much for bringing me and my wife out to the set and for letting me see the finished film ahead of time. I’m honored. I hope this email is helpful to you.