It's clear right from the start of 40 Nights (2016) that the filmmakers were not afraid to make interesting choices. The opening shot is from a low angle and nicely filtered. And it's in proper widescreen rather than the made for DVD 16:9 that is typical of so many Christian-sponsored Bible movies. Then there's the nature of the project. Rather than adding another sprawling, objective-feeling epic, this one is more personal and psychological. It's restricted to Jesus' 40 days fasting in the desert and it's never quite clear how much of what we see is real and how much is just in Jesus' head. There are flashbacks, of course, to some of Jesus' earlier experiences, but even these are subject to the human weaknesses of his memory and in several cases to his memories of his parents' memories as well.
Indeed perhaps the only scene to be presented subjectively is its opening one - a prologue of sorts with John baptising Yeshua (as he's called at least once) in the River Jordan - but the Holy Spirit descends as a dove only figuratively, not literally and whilst Jesus is affirmed in his sonship, we don't hear the words that he does. The kind of interesting choice that some people will take umbrage with, but is utterly in keeping with Mark's gospel.
The script also inserts a couple of nice scenes in here before Jesus heads into the desert. There are some initial interactions with James and John a night-time vision of the devil and talk about practicalities such as provisions, all of which establish Jesus as a human person. These opening scenes are vital as they ground the character in reality and make him someone the audience can relate to and identify with. From here on his experience is outside of our normal experiences and determined largely by what is going on inside his head. The prologue is slight, but it's a significant bridge into all that is to come.
No less significant are the flashbacks that repeatedly break-up the desert time. We see the Jesus' birth, experiences as a boy Jesus, leaving his parents (who he calls "Abba and Eema" - a nice touch) and the death of his father. These are jumbled up, rather as our own memories come out in no particular order and fleeting, more driven by what Jesus is experiencing in the desert than shipped in as an orderly presentation of his early life.
There are other deft links to the other parts of the gospels as well. Early on Jesus recites the Lord's Prayer and elsewhere he mutters lines from the Psalms, or from his future teaching "The Father desires mercy not sacrifice". There's quite a strong nod towards John's Gospel here, particularly the passages that talk of food and water (John 6 & John 4). It's as if Jesus is practising what he will say, still working it out. As if the message he has is growing inside him yet but it's not fully formed. Twice we hear "I am the way to truth" which sounds like John 14:6, but isn't quite. Perhaps this is just a translation I'm not familiar with, or a paraphrase to keep the audience thinking, but it feels like Jesus hasn't quite fully pinned it down yet. His later work is still being formed and we're privileged to see part of the process. As the film draws to a close he stops to talk to a shepherd boy, who happens to be descended from one of the shepherds that visited Jesus as a baby, and it's him that uses the phrase "the Good Shepherd" first.
This isn't to say that the film is wordy and weighed down in dialogue, in fact it's surprisingly visual and tactile. Jesse Low's camera repeatedly lingers on the physical/earthy aspects of the world to which Jesus is confined, drawing our attention to the water, light, wind and animals which inhabit this rocky world. The choice of locations is really inspired, it's not just a sand-pit on the back of a studio lot, it's a fascinating place of contradictions - a world that's barren yet beautiful; a place where one person might feel close to God whilst another felt deserted by him; where on one level the locations all feel the same and yet on another they're very much the same. It's notable that in this film Jesus isn't just fasting from food, he's fasting water and there are various little touches which quickly make what Jesus is experiencing far more real than any other Jesus film I can think of.
Credit for a lot of this must go to Low and his director of photography Jesse Aragon who find the beauty in the landscape to for Perry as producer who seems to make what I imagine was a fairly low budget stretch a long way. By avoiding a sprawling running time, star names and expensive crowds of extras and investing instead in getting the right locations and a decent technical team, the filmmakers enable 40 Nights to move a notch or two above the level that many more expensive films achieve.
Of course any film of this nature depends to a degree on the portrayals of Jesus and Satan. Jesus is played by the film's write-producer DJ Perry who has a couple of other Bible films under his belt (The Book of Ruth (2009) and Judges (2006) a loose modernisation). Perry is closer to St. John's "not yet fifty" than Luke's "about thirty", but gives a fairly solid performance in the lead role and gives Jesus the right mix of strength, vulnerability and humanity that this particular version of the story requires.
But what's more interesting is the decision to cast Satan not as one actor but as several. This isn't apparent at first. When we first encounter Satan he's a teenager, little more than a boy. This is perhaps one of the most interesting choices in the whole film. Whilst Last Temptation of Christ portrayed the devil as a young girl, this was a deliberate act to confuse and disorientate. Jesus is meant to be confused and perhaps mistake her for an angel rather than a devil.
Here though it's clear who this young man is, it's just a bit of a shock. We're used to Satan being a middle aged man, a disembodied voice in Jesus' head or a seductive young woman; but a teenager? With those more familiar appearances we're used to the accompanying means of temptation, the seductive urge to impress someone beautiful (even if she is a devil) or the mix of rationality, cynicism, power, menace and experience of the older characters. The genius of this choice, and of actor Drew Wise's performance, is it never occurred to me before to think of Satan as being annoying. Now that I've seen it, of course, it's obvious. People so often give way and do the wrong thing just because they get nagged into something, or they have just had enough of the voice telling them to do something and just want it to go away. And not only do Wise and Low conceive of the idea, they also execute it with efficiency. Never mind forty days, I only lasted about ten minutes before I realised I would have been ready to eat the bread, jump off the temple and declare myself king just to get the thing over with.
The other incarnations of the devil are less noteworthy. Satan number two is more middle aged, and probably the worst decision the team made in the film was to occasionally use some kind of effect on his voice, and briefly we get the devil presented as a younger woman too, but the final incarnation presents the devil as an old man giving the encounter a sense of progression and of a journey which is drawing to its conclusion.
The importance of what's at stake becomes more apparent here as well. Whilst Jesus' initial encounters focussed on where he had come from, his need to satiate his stomach, his moving away from his parents, in this final stage the flash backs go back further and start to mix with flash forwards. There are brief shots of Moses striking the rock and of Adam and Eve, for example, indicating that what's at stake isn't just to do with Jesus' own personal sense of godliness, but that of both his people and of all of humanity. In an extra-biblical scene we witness his mother saying to him "Your smiles have become rare, your laughter less", indeed even she appears to have "tempted" him to stick to the safe path. Unsurprisingly we see Jesus making a go of picking up Joseph's carpentry business, but wrestling with the sense that it's not his ultimate purpose. Not dissimilarly there's the occasional flash forward hinting at the crucifixion and his destiny. Jesus seems to grasp much of what his role is about, yet you get the impression he's still trying to make sense of things. Sometimes he persists because of his understanding, but at other times it's just because of his experience. "God's love is like a warm dwelling on a cold night".
It's tempting (if you'll pardon the pun) to systematically work through all the other interesting choices the film makes, like ending the film with Jesus "breaking the fourth wall", or including all the minor embellishments the film makes that really add a sense of needle into Jesus and Satan's encounter, or but to do so would be to rob the film of what makes it such rewarding viewing, the little twists and turns that make a few lines of ancient text an interesting and engaging hour and a half's viewing. I must admit that I wasn't really expecting to like this one: but now I'm not only looking forward to watching it again, but I also have high hopes for the next two entries in Perry's Quest Trilogy as well.