DISCLAIMER: Although this is not a paid review or promotion, for the sake of transparency, I want it known from the outset that I have worked on several movies for CDI (The Production Company behind this Trilogy) and would count many of the actors, crew, and creators of these films as my personal friends. I do endeavour to free myself from personal bias but we all know how hard that is. Hopefully , having a full knowledge of where I am coming from will better inform the reader as to how to weigh my words.
The Quest Trilogy
The Quest Trilogy is a series of films from Production Company CDI and spearheaded by DJ Perry, the writer, most prominent creative voice, and the actor who plays Jesus in the films. All three films are available on Amazon Streaming.
The films in the trilogy are “Forty Nights,” a small cast super low budget drama about Christ’s time of temptation in the desert before the beginning of his public ministry, “Chasing the Star,” A slightly higher budget, larger cast imagining of the quest of the three Magi who gave gifts and worshiped Jesus at his birth, and “The Christ Slayer,” in my opinion the best of the three, with a better budget and overall production, acting, and story which tells of Longinus, the centurion who pierced Christ’s side at the cross.
First off, I want people to recognize that, while the films certainly have their failings at points, it is a remarkable feat to actually get three thematically linked movies (which are not horror based) with small budgets made. These are not films funded by a megachurch. They are not funded by Pureflix. They aren’t made by a rich actor who made it their pet project (a’ la Mel Gibson and “The Passion.”) These are passion projects where everyone working does it, often, for a quarter of what their pay rate should be because they are friends and those above the line believe in the films they are making.
That makes this art, not just entertainment.
We may debate the arts merit from this point forward but I hope that people can see the world of difference between this and a film like “Left Behind” or “Miracles from Heaven.”
Overall, I like “The Quest Trilogy.” Of course like in any trilogy they are of varying degrees of quality and definitely have different feels among the three, but I want to highlight the things they have in common before I get into their differences.
One of the things that I appreciate about these films is the very supernatural forward approach. Many times Christian films will try and sort of slide the supernatural in sideways in an attempt to reach out to a more scientifically minded community. Demons won’t be shown but, characterized as mental illnesses. Miracles will happen where only one or two of the disciples can see. Certainly the Devil is not a main character as he is in these films.
The struggle between Christ, the champion of light who must win by losing and dying, and Satan, the champion of darkness who will dog his steps until that moment, not attempting to kill him, but attempting to convince him to live, is front and center through out. Even though Jesus is merely the goal for our protagonists in “Chasing the Star,” Satan literally roams around the earth seeking whom he may devour, whether that man is an unscrupulous tradesman or just a naive child that Satan can strike with horror in order to destroy his faith.
Another thing which I liked about these films was the drawing out of periods of Christ’s life, or the events surrounding it, from the stories of the Bible. Rather than retelling the stories we all know as a part of our Sunday School past, “The Quest Trilogy,” focuses mostly on the silent periods of Christ’s story. Certainly that means Perry is forced to take artistic license with things in order to make them feel like full stories (beginning, middle, and end) but I for one would rather see an artist interpret and communicate how he feels and believes rather than simply regurgitate the same stories over and over. That would be like watching Peter Parker get bit by a spider at the start of every single Spiderman movie.
A good example of this is in the first movie of the trilogy, “Forty Nights,” so why don’t I start talking about each film a little more.
I would say this is my second favorite movie in the trilogy, although it’s a tight race between this one and “The Christ Slayer.” Now, I’ve seen more movie depictions of the gospels than you can shake a stick which turns into a snake at. Almost always, the desert temptation is depicted in one of only a couple ways. Jesus walks into the desert, then time jump forward, and he walks back out all disheveled and thin, or he goes into the desert and we flash forward to his last day there and the devil shows up to tempt him with the questions three and Christ answers them, bing bang boom.
In “The Christ Slayer,” however, Jesus is tempted every step of the way through his 40 day fast. Satan doesn’t just tempt him to turn stones into bread. Satan eats fried and roasted fish right in front of Jesus as he tries to sleep. He harasses him the whole way, talking about how unworthy humanity is to be saved. He tempts him the way we are tempted. Constantly.
This take was my favorite part of the film. It showed a lot about how Perry sees Christ and his work on earth. He talks about loving people through actions and not just words and defeats Satan by ‘Living’ by every word that proceeds from his Father. Not just repeating every word of his Father. This idea of living the gospel for others can be seen in one of the later films which is why I draw it out here, but more on that later.
Chasing the Star
“Chasing the Star” is in my opinion, the weakest of the three films. I think this is for a couple of reasons and I think the team that made the film knows this because they corrected some of these mistakes in “The Christ Slayer.”
The first weakness of the film is that it is about a more fleshed out period during the biblical narrative. There is no shortage of nativity stories so it is hard not to compare them and as one of the best known Biblical stories, even among non-christians, even slight deviations are way more noticeable and the expectation of the average person that they are about to watch a Christmas movie is and expectation that is going to be crushed.
This is a film about the wise men and I think in some ways the Church. The stand in for the church is the order of the Magi which they have all seen fail to live up to the high ideals they have. The Magi each struggle with their personal callings to the order and that just isn’t what you expect going in. The three stories of the magi are just a little too muddled for me. They each work well as a b-plot but none of them are strong enough to carry the A-Plot.
The last thing I’ll say here is that the film does do a great job of showing the darkness of a world where Christ has not yet broken through. The devil is a real threat and blight upon humanities existence. He is unchecked, knows it, and revels in it. It really draws out stakes which are almost never focused on in Gospel stories, the reign of Satan on earth and the binding of him as vital for humanity. It’s definitely a subject I don’t see much in Christian film.
The Christ Slayer
My favorite of the three films is “The Christ Slayer.” It is not based on a biblical account so the writing is free to play and do what it wants to communicate its message and that message comes through the best.
The film follows a blind centurion in the Roman army (whose position is thanks to an influential father) who is mockingly forced by his comrades to thrust a spear into the side of Jesus on the cross. When the blood and water spray from the wound some of it splashes in his eyes and periodically throughout the film grants him glimpses of vision which terrify him and convince him that he really has killed someone special. The rest of the film is a journey for him to find a place of belonging. He is befriended by the risen Christ, though our blind man cannot see and recognize him, and the centurion’s servant, a young man named Albus who has down syndrome.
The things that make this film stand out are several. First, the production budget was clearly higher and so the sets, costuming, and everything are just way better quality. The next is that Jesus is in this film. DJ Perry may be a little old to play Jesus and may not look skinny enough at the end of a Forty day fast for me but it is undeniable that one of the things that hurt “Chasing the Star” was it’s lack of that performance.
Ultimately, one of the things I loved most about these films was seeing a person’s view of Christ presented. Doing this enters into a discussion about Jesus which every film that has ever depicted him has entered into and contributed a word or two. It’s not a performance in a vacuum to be taken as Gospel Truth. It’s a performance that gives one man’s opinion about what he feels and believes about Jesus and what he has seen as lacking in other film depictions of him.
The last thing I will say about the film is also the thing that sends it up over the top for me. The performance and treatment of the character Albus. It was incredibly refreshing to see an actor with down syndrome given serious treatment and not as a prop for empathy or emotion. The fact that he has downs is never mentioned, never discussed, and never held against him. I would venture a guess that the role was written for a person without downs because there is nothing in the film that necessitates it.
So why include him? Because he can play the part. That’s it. Going out of your way to include someone who would normally be excluded is not only a beautiful thing to do, it also reinforces the statements of Christ about the gospel being about actions not words. It isn’t enough to say you love people, you have to show it, and by including Josh Perry in this film DJ demonstrates his love and his true conviction that the gospel is for everyone and not just to the extent that they fit easily into his plans, even his plans for something like a film.
The performance by Josh is simply wonderful. His obvious love for his master, his sadness at the prospect of losing him, his little interjections of humor and hugs are things that I can not believe would have come from another actor, who would have played it wholly different. He really is in many ways a show stealer.
There are a lot of people who judge Christian Film from the outside and without a wider knowledge of film as an art form. I am not one of them. I see these films for what they are, low budget flawed personal passion projects. They have moments of true beauty, insight, and heart which I admire and would recommend to any Christian who grew up like I did, hoping for better Christian films than the one I saw last year and these are a large strided step in the right direction.