Fathers & Sons,
Divine & Human
Writer-director Rodrigo García makes film and television about human connection, or the lack thereof. The movie Mother and Child (2009), episodes of his shows In Treatment (2008–10) and Carnivàle (2003–05), and others reflect on the question of how to find love, give it, and figure out what we’re really here for. The role of family in shaping who we are is always close to the surface. To point out that García is the son of a literary giant—Colombian Nobel-laureate Gabriel García Márquez—may seem like a cliché, but when he decided to make a film speculating about a side trip Jesus made on his way back to Jerusalem after the temptation in the wilderness, García was himself asking questions about parents and children. Last Days in the Desert (2016) is also one of the most thoughtful cinematic inquiries to date about what the icon of Christ can mean. He was interviewed by Gareth Higgins and Scott Teems.
Image: I’d like to begin by asking, what question was Last Days in the Desert responding to?
Rodrigo García: I will say I have a question that the film is a failed response to. There can never be a response. The film is the question, and the question is a question of destiny: whether, once you are born into things, into a set of circumstances, with certain parents, you can actually carve out your own way, be yourself, right your destiny, or whether everything is written, either by God or fate or genes and environment. Can you find your own way? And then all of that takes place under the great relativity that life ends, and so who cares? Those are the two big things.
Image: Why Jesus and not an ordinary bloke in the wilderness?
RG: Because that’s the idea that came to me. I discovered more about it as I made the movie, but the initial idea came wholesale before. Not only did I not understand it, I didn’t even ask myself what it meant. The idea was this: Jesus comes out of the desert, and on his way back to his mission, to his destiny, he spends three days with a father and son who are caught up in their own drama, their own conflict. The father wants the son to have one type of life, and the boy wants a different one, and they have trouble communicating in the simplest way, which is not unusual among men.
It didn’t take long to realize that Jesus is the most fathered fatherless man in the world, and I am putting him in a microcosm of father/son conflict. Though he wants very much to help, he is unable to solve the problem between father and son. He was acting out the problem of when we try to do for others what we cannot do for ourselves. Is the real temptation to solve this boy’s life, to free this boy so he can choose his life by his own free will? What would that mean for Jesus? Jesus has free will, and that means his mission can be abandoned. That was what The Last Temptation of Christ posited—what if I jump off of the cross and live a normal life? But it was impossible, even for that guy. It was all just a temptation. Jesus is a man whose destiny has been chosen for him, so in beginning to think about it, I thought maybe he is trying to do for this boy what he cannot do for himself. These were the first pieces on the board, even before the mother or the demon came into it. There were psychological elements to it: he would be doing things without really knowing why he feels so engaged, why he wants so badly to solve this problem and help this boy.
Image: For you, what is the relationship of this Jesus to the Jesus of history or the Jesus of faith?
RG: I grew up in a Catholic world. My mother is a little more religious, my dad less, but very much of that culture. For my dad the Bible was a book like Don Quixote or Moby-Dick, one of those books that had everything in them. He used to say, “Everything is in the Bible; everything is in Don Quixote”—meaning all aspects of life. I read children’s versions of the Torah and New Testament and I was sufficiently fascinated, even without being particularly religious, with the story of Jesus as a person. When I say person, I always took that at face value, the way you do in literature. I didn’t say, “Oh, he couldn’t be the son of God”—I was reading the book and accepting the tenets of the book, this half-man, half-God. I wasn’t judging it from an atheist or theological point of view.
Of the movie, a lot of people who aren’t religious say, “The demon isn’t really there, right? He is like that other voice that Jesus has?” But I would say no. I wrote it as if he is a real demon, really there, because I am making a movie. I’m telling a tale. I was fascinated by the stories in the Bible, and these are stories that live in the realm of stories, in our heads. I think the world where Hitler lives is the same world where Captain Ahab or Jane Eyre live. We don’t know them. We’ve never seen them. I am not trying to say that Ahab is Hitler or that Jesus is like Madame Bovary, just a fiction; but in our heads, they are all stories. If I say to you, “Bonaparte’s stay on Saint Helena,” you will form a whole movie in your head of that.
When this idea came to me, I felt no conflict about using characters and stories from Christian tradition. Had I known how few people were going to see the movie, I probably would’ve felt some conflict. But we directors fool ourselves. We always think, “Hey, people are going to love this stuff.”
Image: The centerpiece of the movie is a scene between Yeshua and the demon, and it’s a reminder of how art can convey mystery and larger questions of spirituality in a way that no explanation ever could. What is it about art, and motion pictures in particular, that conveys those mysteries so well?
RG: Because stories are the most digestible form, whether by instinct or by intellect or through feeling. Curiously enough, the desire for that central scene was a purely formal one. I had just seen Hunger, the Irish movie, and in the middle of it there is a twenty-minute conversation between the prisoner and the priest. That’s a curious thing to have in the middle of a movie, to stop for a conversation. I liked that. I thought it was interesting, so I thought I would try it—without thinking what the conversation would be.
Once they were there, the conversation inevitably had to be about the greater picture: If I am the son of God and you are the fallen golden boy, you can tell me what is out there. It all sparked for me as a central piece of Jesus’s humanity. He must have had curiosity about the afterlife, and his question about whether God has a face was a good way to dramatize it.
I have heard two stories about how the world was created. In one, there was nothing, and in seven days God made all of this, a man in his image and a woman from his rib and on and on. Here’s another one: there’s nothing, and out of nothing there is an explosion that creates time and infinite, unimaginable space, with mass hurtling through it, and on one of these planets microscopic life springs forth, then dinosaurs and huge animals, and then, if that isn’t enough, an asteroid comes from God knows where, kills the dinosaurs and allows little furry mammals.
For me the question is, do you have enough science or enough faith to accept either of those? They can only be assimilated as stories. Is evolution really any more insane than creation in seven days? It’s ridiculous. They are equally insane. One is super quick, and one is super slow. Sometimes through stories we can see these scenes and approach these conversations, whereas if we try to talk about what God looks like and the nature of God, it is not long before we feel self-conscious and embarrassed. In art you can go there, and you can enjoy it in the dark.
Yeshua sits by the fire, lost in thought. He stands up and puts more branches in the fire, reviving it a little.
As Yeshua sits down he realizes the demon is now seated there too. They sit in silence for a while. Then:
That shooting star last night. You enjoyed it.
It was a bore.
I am a liar. That is the truth.
A long beat.
the demon (cont’d)
I have seen every shooting star since the first one. And every flash of lightning. And I’ve heard the last gasp of each thing that has lived. Nothing is interesting anymore.
Nothing surprises you? Not a thing?
The demon looks at Yeshua for a beat. Then:
The repetitiveness. The obstinate, dull repetitiveness of your father’s plan is bewildering to me. The same lives lived over and over and over and over again. Is there a plan? It all has to turn into something—it has to pour out into something—into what? That’s my weakness: curiosity. I will stay as long as I need to—forever—to witness the end. The last sunset. If there is one. Maybe that day—late in the afternoon, seconds away—he’ll want to start it all over again—from the beginning. He’s done it before. Recreated it all, retold it all. On a whim. With little differences that must mean the world to him: a branch that crooks in a different direction; one egg more or less in the nest of a flea. What a self-centered, self-indulgent creature he is. Isn’t he? Deaf-mute. Insatiable.
It seems that these thoughts embitter the demon, though he tries to downplay it.
The things he expects of you. Do you think anyone is going to care? Men of a thousand years from now?
They sit in silence for a long while, both lost in their own thoughts, sometimes their eyes on the fire, other times stealing looks at one another. The demon’s passion has reached Yeshua, though he is circumspect about it.
What is it like to be in his presence?
The demon looks at Yeshua for a long time, intensely, but says nothing. Yeshua withstands it but not without effort.
Is there a face?
No. There is no face.
The answer has come quickly and definitely and it stings Yeshua. Then:
the demon (cont’d)
There is no face. There is a thing that swallows you. It holds you together while it’s tearing you apart and it’s terrifying. It makes you feel worthless and it makes you want to be worthless. All the while it makes you believe that you and he are one and the same—and that is—
He can’t find the word, but clearly it’s a powerful feeling like no other. Yeshua has taken every word in with fascination and seems both thrilled and intimidated.
the demon (cont’d)
It can be quite confusing.
The demon says it with humor and laughs. Yeshua is too taken with the description to join in the fun. A long beat again.
the demon (cont’d)
That’s how I remember it, anyway. It’s been a million years since he so much as looked in my direction.
Your pride made him angry.
I am not proud. I am not.
He says it in a way that can barely disguise his pride.
the demon (cont’d)
He’s the proud one. I never—
He stops himself, unwilling to sound like he cares. The demon and Yeshua look at each other. Yeshua feels like he has scored a point but doesn’t gloat. The demon withdraws into his usual aloof self. Eventually:
the demon (cont’d)
How is our little wager going?
I do not wager.
Oh, dear me, of course not.
A beat. Yeshua just looks at the demon.
the demon (cont’d)
You already know the outcome, don’t you?
No. Not at all.
Yes, you do.
I am able to do that generally, yes. But when it comes to you and your things, not always.
Clearly the demon is not pleased with that situation.
the demon (cont’d)
I can tell you, however, what would have happened if you had walked by this place one moment earlier. Would you like to know?
Yeshua is unsure—but curious. Finally he nods.
the demon (cont’d)
The boy would not have met you. After the mother’s death his relationship with the father deteriorates. The boy puts up with it for several years, expecting that his father will not live long. Eventually he poisons his father and is hanged for it. Along the way the boy has a son who remains here. Like his grandfather, he loves the desert.
Yeshua takes this in.
the demon (cont’d)
That would have happened this time. In each previous version of the world it was all a little different. Sometimes it was nothing but love between father and son. That’s how your father amuses himself.
Image: One of the most touching elements of the film for me, and one of the most radical, is the humanization of the demon. I felt like you got to a core truth about humanity in that character and that exchange. He wants to be loved. When he doesn’t receive that love, he acts out in petulance, as we all do. How did you come upon that idea of the core of his pain?
RG: Well, you can’t have a character represent evil any more than you can have a character represent God. How do you dramatize God? That’s why I worked only on the human side of Jesus, because how do you start dramatizing or talking about the divine? The best we can do is the soothing voice of Morgan Freeman, which is really a patriarchal image: the good dad.
With the demon, I think there are two levels. First of all, I had to humanize him in order to connect with him. Rather than being interested in Hitler’s horrors, I would have liked to know what the human makeup was. That I would be interested in, because as a writer my question is, how is he like me? I don’t know how you write without asking yourself that, either literally or implicitly.
The most beautiful and outstanding angel started getting too big for his britches and was punished by God, sent to his room for eternity. That’ll make you angry, and he became a very angry creature. You can build a character around that. The idea that God hasn’t looked at me in a million years, that when he looks at me it makes me feel like I am part of him and I’m not—all those ideas humanized the demon.
And here’s the final thing: the demon could also be lying throughout that whole conversation. He may not be sensitive. He may not be hurt. He may be just trying to humanize himself because this is the kind of stuff that Jesus the human would respond to. We all respond to that: we want to believe the demon is just the fallen brother. He’s not a bad guy. He’s hurt. He made a mistake. Dad was too tough on him, and now Dad has a new favorite son to boot. You have to feel for him. But it might all be a lie. He says so at the beginning, “You know, I am a liar. That is the truth.” That kind of character gives you such a field to play in.
Image: Do you also see this demon character as a figment of Yeshua’s imagination, as one of the voices in his head, one of the parts of the self?
RG: He is constantly reminding Yeshua of that fear of worthlessness that anyone can have. Whether the worthlessness is something you end up ignoring and overcoming, whether you overcompensate by making even grander gestures, that is the question.
Image: What do you as a filmmaker do with that voice in your own head?
RG: I work despite it. I can’t quiet it. I can’t ignore it, but I do like any other person: I barrel through. People who cannot often become addicts. That voice can cause pain, and how you handle the pain impacts how you fare in life. Unfortunately that doubter is also part of the engine. If I did not have a doubter in me, I would just be growing roses in the garden. Or as Ray Romano said, “If my father had hugged me, I’d be selling insurance.” That is a problem for people who want to achieve as artists: if you grow and get to know yourself and do some therapy and find some luck, you could get over your neuroses, but then you wouldn’t make movies, and then would I be happy being happy? It’s a vicious circle.
Image: What is it about the motion picture form that draws you to it as your primary canvas for telling these stories?
RG: It is just so dreamlike. The sounds, the images. Filmmakers who can do time in particular ways like Terry Malick, that’s amazing: you are floating through time. Because I write scenes with lots of dialogue, I’m often asked whether I would ever write a play. I couldn’t, because a play has one proscenium, so I can’t change angles; I can’t do close-ups. When you think of Bergman movies you always think about someone’s face, or two people in a room, and yet the spaces seem vast.
Image: I’m wondering about the relationship between cinema and dreams. I think the experience of watching a film in a theater, whether it’s projected digitally or on film, is more like dreaming than the experience of any other art form.
RG: Yes. Obviously the size and treatment of the images and sound, it’s so unreal. Even what we call a realistic movie, even the plainest of realistic romantic comedies that you can see on an airplane, can capture you in a theater. It’s a collective experience, and because it’s dark you probably relax a little more. Whereas I find that in live theater there is a tension: these people are performing, and they require quiet attention apart from their own effort. It’s a high-wire act. It is different from the relaxation that happens when the lights go down in a movie theater. A movie can become tense, but that is a very different experience.
I find—to my surprise, because initially I thought the idea was abhorrent—that I enjoy watching a movie on an iPad in bed with headphones. I have talked to other filmmakers about it. I think it creates an intimacy with the movie that is not the same as what happens in a theater, but that is very personal, like listening to your own music. I would rather watch a movie on an iPad in bed, or on a computer with headphones alone, than on TV. It’s horrible because obviously the small screen doesn’t do justice to the photography, the design, and the depth that those elements give to the music and vice versa, but I do like the very immediate millennial experience of seeing a movie on a small screen only sixteen inches from me. I prefer that or the theater to a TV screen.
Image: I wonder if you have considered any resonances between the demon in Last Days in the Desert and the spiritual journeys of the characters in In Treatment, a show about people undergoing psychotherapy?
RG: I think of therapy as being less about moral questions or good and evil. I think of In Treatment as a thriller, meaning with each episode there is a central secret, and it varies. Sometime the therapist doesn’t know what it is. Sometimes he has discovered it but won’t talk about it until the patient brings it up. The patient often doesn’t know what it is, or knows and avoids it for a long time. In therapy, really getting to the heart of a matter can take years. I always assumed that Jesus must have had a knack for reading body language, facial expressions, for reading people’s preoccupations. Without knowing what the subconscious was, as people wouldn’t for centuries, Jesus must have been a real reader of people, like a lot of great leaders.
Image: The movie includes the line “action over words always, otherwise silence.” I wonder if that is an operating philosophy in your life.
RG: It’s an operating contradiction, because actions of course are super meaningful, but saying or hearing the right or wrong words at the right time can change a person’s life. Of course, actions are great, and for example there are couples where one person, often the man, is not very expressive but in everything he does, from taking out the garbage to helping her fix her car, he is making gestures that constantly tell her he loves her. But words are amazing and obviously the very words “actions over words always,” those are great words. They are not my words. They are stolen. Everyone says that. And also, words are an action, so there is that contradiction.
Even in the talkiest movies I have written, the crucial scenes have to be silent. They cannot be about words. I always feel they are better as visuals. The truth is, Jesus was one of the greatest speakers of the world, and arguably the most quoted. When he is asked which of God’s commandments is greatest, he says, “Love your neighbor as yourself. Love God above all things.” That is a great capacity to reduce ideas to their essence. We’re done. You don’t need another five hundred pages. I was conscious of that contradiction, and at the same time a major action was needed, the action of allowing yourself to be crucified. I think that is probably what he is intimating: a huge gesture is going to be necessary here, not just words.
Image: What do you feel about other movie representations of Jesus?
RG: I love the ones that are more complicated, with more of the human side. I am a big fan of The Last Temptation of Christ. I can understand why it pisses conservatives off, because of the images of Jesus standing in line to see a prostitute, Jesus getting married, Jesus having children, and the subversive image of Jesus abandoning the cross. Those are huge ideas, but what appeals to me is that he is completely in agony over the clash between his humanity and his mission. As expected, characters are like their creators, and I don’t know Martin Scorsese, but to judge him from the characters he has created, he has always been interested in very masculine, isolated, tortured, angry characters, and so his Jesus has some of that in him. He isn’t as angry as the Judas portrayed by Harvey Keitel, who is practically the leader of an uprising, but he is all tied up in knots. When I saw that in my twenties, which is definitely the decade of being tied up in knots, I thought it was great. I remember perfectly well for example the moment when Jesus approaches the cave to attempt to raise Lazarus. There is trepidation, and then he seems to summon this strength, and then his face of terror when it works. “Holy shit. If I do this, then I am who I think I am, and there is going to be a big reckoning.” I thought that was great.
I like the Jesus in Jesus of Montreal, also very human, very masculine, complicated. But these are Jesuses who went the whole way. You can argue in The Last Temptation that there was a segue in his head, but he came back to the cross. I like Pasolini’s Jesus in The Gospel according to Saint Matthew. There is something very naïve about the movie. I don’t mean naïve as in not intelligent, but in the way of children’s toys. There is something childlike in taking the Passion and playing it out in a world of Italian peasants. It is very loving. It is certainly one of the movies that encouraged me, because Pasolini was a communist and gay, and if he could tell the story of Jesus, why not me?
Image: What about Jesuses you don’t like?
RG: All the starry-eyed ones, the ones that already look like angels, already hovering over the earth. Their feet are not on the ground. They are more on the other side than on this side. The ones that are sixty percent God. I like the ones that are fifty percent human. Fifty percent human is enough to ruin your day, believe me.
Image: Last Days in the Desert ends with a sudden leap forward to the crucifixion. It’s a provocatively ambiguous ending that destabilizes the audience. What have been the responses to that?
RG: I get asked a lot whether the crucifixion was necessary or whether the movie could have ended when Jesus sees Jerusalem. I did want the two stories, the story in the Gospels and my story, to meet. At one point I had very quick cuts to the Stations of the Cross. I remember Alfonso Cuarón very ruthlessly said to me when he read the script, “Get rid of the Christmas pageant.” I thought that was very funny, but I did not want to get rid of it altogether, so I left the moment on the cross. I wanted to go as far as him being buried, but I stopped just one day short of the resurrection so that I could stay on the human side of things.
I wouldn’t know how to portray the resurrected Jesus who is now one hundred percent divine. I always had this instinct that I wanted to put the story in the perspective of time. We cut to the desert, which looks the same over millennia, and it’s not until we see the two tourists that we understand that time has both gone by and not gone by at all. In our culture, two thousand years have passed. In planetary time, that’s no time at all. The planet is still there. The cliff where these people lived is still there. We may know Jesus, but we don’t know who lived in that hill or what their passions or destinies were, and their passions are like our passions.
The ending pretty much divided the audience in half, which was enough for me. We had other things in the movie that people hated, and in the end if everyone tells you something doesn’t work, it’s got to go, but fifty-fifty was enough for me to want to keep the ending. In fact, I had another shot in mind which I didn’t do, where we see the planet in space. I regret that, because I think it would have given this life of Jesus a curiously scientific setting. All this happened on this planet. I always liked the idea of giving it a little perspective and, as it were, holding a mirror up to the audience so that you cannot separate yourself from the movie, so you cannot say, “The movie is there and I’m here.”
Image: I have never asked you about your father before, because I assumed you didn’t want to talk about him.
RG: I always hear that. I don’t know why. I think I must project that because everyone assumes it.
Image: What do you want to say about him?
RG: The movie is about fathers and sons. I am very much fascinated by the impact that parents have on their children—and they don’t have to be famous parents. Sometimes I laugh in interviews when people say to me, “Has your father influenced you very much?” And it’s like, “Well, has yours? Has the taxi driver’s father influenced him very much? Of course!” Of course, anecdotally, it is always more interesting if the father is famous.
The impact of Jesus’s father on him is enormous, and yet the father is in human terms silent. Spiritually, I suppose, Jesus connects with him in some way, but in human terms he’s a silent father. That is also one of the reasons I introduced the boy’s mother. I really wanted to see how children impact their parents and parents impact their children. I think whether your parents are famous or not, those relationships create a huge amount of baggage. You do so many things for your parents and against them in your life, whether you know it or not. That is one of the themes of the movie: can you choose your own destiny?
Just imagine that boy. He left. The mother was going to die anyway. He must carry with him the guilt over the fact that his father died trying to retrieve a stone to pay for the boy’s way, but also because he knows the father didn’t want him to leave at all. That boy will take his guilt with him, and as often happens, in twenty or thirty years he will come to understand his father, and by then he will have his own children and understand why his father didn’t want him to leave. That is what is in the movie that is personal, which is the weight of the parents on the children.
Image: For me the most touching part of the film was that moment when the father is talking with Yeshua about how to connect with the son, and Yeshua says, “Well, he likes riddles.” And the father just says, “I don’t like riddles.”
RG: You have to find what that one thing is that they could share. I remember reading an article years ago by some journalist who said, “As I got older and my dad got older, conversation was always more difficult. We only talked about baseball.” But then he realized, “Well, we had baseball.” When my younger daughter was young, I probably drove her too vigorously to read this book or look at this movie, and she refused to do any of that. Finally in her early teens we both became addicted to cooking shows, and that was a door to a whole bunch of stuff. Then she grew out of them, which made me sad. I think the father in the movie is a conservative man of another period. The fact that he even tried to tell that riddle speaks bundles about how much he loves the boy.
Image: I think he is confusing being a parent with being a mentor.
RG: But he does say a father speaks through example. I think he is aware enough that even if he is just a parent, they need some area of connection. In the end with my daughters, food and restaurants have become a huge common area. There is a period that is tough on the parents, a period of accepting that your kids will turn out to be who they are and not who you wanted them to be. That does not mean they are worse or better. You wanted a Labrador, and they are golden retrievers. There is a great deal of acceptance. If it’s not Legos, there will be something. Who knows what it will be? But I think what the father understands in the movie is that as the father, he has to do a lot of the legwork. He has to at least say, “Let’s meet here.” Adolescents are very selfish. The boy is incredibly selfish, but not so much so that you hate him. He is age-appropriately selfish. He wants what he wants. He wants to leave his footprint on the world, God bless him.