The 2016 film, Forty Nights, opens with John the Baptist (Terry Jernigan) baptizing a surprisingly mellow Jesus (DJ Perry) while John’s followers watch. After Jesus is baptized, the voice of God echoes through the land and, once again, the thing that struck me was just how laid back God sounded. It’s rare that we ever see either Jesus or his Father portrayed as being so calm and easy-going and I have to say that I found it to be a somewhat nice change of pace from the more intense approach the most actors tend to take. Of course, I don’t know if that was intentional or just a happy accident. It was probably the latter.
After getting baptized, Jesus spent 40 days and 40 nights, fasting in the Judaen desert and proving his own faith. During that time, Jesus was tempted three times by the Devil, who appeared in various guises and tried to convince Jesus to not only break his fast but to also wantonly display his power. The Devil tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread. He tempted Jesus to jump from the pinnacle of a temple so that the angels might break his fall. Finally, he offered to give Jesus all of the kingdoms of the world in return for Jesus worshiping him. Not surprisingly, this confrontation between Satan and Jesus has proven popular with both writers and filmmakers. For instance, The Greatest Story Ever Told featured Donald Pleasence as a smug Satan. The more recent Last Days In The Desert featured Ewan McGregor playing both Jesus and Satan.
Forty Nights takes a no-frills approach to the 40 days and nights that Jesus spent in the wilderness, alternating between scenes of Jesus being tempted and flashbacks to Jesus’s youth. Sometimes, the low-key approach is effective and sometimes, you find yourself longing for the more over-the-top approach that other films brought to the same material. For a battle between good-and-evil, there’s not really much of a battle to be found in this film. Over and over again, Satan appears, taunts Jesus, and then Jesus tells him to go away. While that may be faithful to the narrative, it doesn’t quite work in the film because, at no point, does there seem to be any risk of Jesus giving into Satan’s temptations. Because Jesus, in this film, never seems to be truly tempted, there’s less triumph to him refusing to give in. Instead of being about Jesus showing strength and faith, Forty Nights often seems like it’s more about Satan’s inability to take the hint and go away. The film is at its best when Satan and Jesus are debating each other atop of the temple and oddly enough, the effectiveness of that scene is largely due to how badly the film’s green screen effects are integrated into the film. It gives the entire scene an otherworldly, almost dream-like feel.
Anyway, Forty Nights is a film that will probably be best appreciated by those who already agree with the film’s viewpoint. This is not the faith-based film that’s going to convert unbelievers and ultimately, it fails to maintain any sort of real narrative momentum. Still, the temptation in the wilderness is still an effective and intriguing narrative and one to which filmmakers will probably continue to return.