Last Days in the Desert
Ewan McGregor as Jesus and the Devil
I recently had the privilege of attending the first Movies and Meaning Film Festival in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The festival was led by Gareth Higgins and Richard Rohr and featured a variety of profound films and inspiring talks. One of those profound films was a new Jesus film that is scheduled for a limited release in October (it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January). The film’s writer/director, Rodrigo Garcia, joined us for a long Q&A after the screening.
Those who know the story of Jesus and are interested in exploring his wilderness encounter with the devil in a fresh way . . . will find watching Last Days in the Desert an endlessly engaging, fascinating, and profound experience.
In my opinion, Last Days in the Desert is the first original and well-made film about the life of Jesus since Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988. Last Days in the Desert is unique in that it takes place entirely during the last few days of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness preceding his three years of ministry.
After fasting alone for many days, the Jesus we meet at the beginning of the film is exhausted, famished, and lonely. He wants God to talk to him, to answer his questions, but all the talk seems to be one-way and, until his last days in the desert, his only companion is the devil, whose words can hardly be trusted. But just before returning to civilization, Jesus encounters a family of three living in a tent: a teenage son who wants to go to Jerusalem and make his own life; a stern father who wants his son to stay in the desert and cut stones like his father; and a dying mother who wants father and son to get along (though she is siding with the son on his future plans).
Jesus decides to stay with the family and help build a small house for the boy. He provides a sympathetic ear for all members of the family and is caught in the middle as the boy and his father struggle to speak to each other. The devil watches from the side and offers comments that are usually anything but helpful. When the father sees an opportunity for sudden wealth, the drama intensifies.
Last Days in the Desert tells a very simple (if layered) story in a slow-moving way that will not appeal to a wide audience. Nevertheless, those who know the story of Jesus and are interested in exploring his wilderness encounter with the devil in a fresh way and/or are willing to look more deeply into the parallels between the father and son in the film and Jesus’ relationship with God will find watching Last Days in the Desert an endlessly engaging, fascinating, and profound experience, with an additional bonus in the surprising and provocative final scene.
From a technical point of view, the highlights of the film are the acting and the cinematography. Jesus is played by Ewan McGregor. When I heard this, I was skeptical. Do we need another blue-eyed Jesus? McGregor’s sympathetic understated performance won me over, but I was still eager to hear Garcia explain his casting choice. Garcia said he knows Ewan as someone who is kind, gentle, and empathetic and knew that Ewan would be able to play Jesus in such a way that the audience would immediately be drawn to him, which was important to Garcia. I can’t argue with Garcia’s rationale, because it worked for me.
But the primary reason McGregor was so effective was, for me, because he also played the devil. The interaction between Jesus and the devil was my favorite part of Last Days in the Desert precisely because Jesus and the devil looked and sounded identical. Some people will view this as an attempt to show that Jesus was arguing with his shadow side as he fasted and prayed in the wilderness. If so, that adds another layer to the story and provides much food for thought. But whether one sees the devil as something within Jesus or without, I found the devil to be far more interesting here than in any previous filming of Jesus’ temptation. The fact that the devil had the same empathetic eyes and voice were part of that, for it made the devil more vulnerable and frail even as he was trying to poison Jesus’ mind and experiences, especially as they relate to God.
Another excellent and effective performance in Last Days in the Desert came from Ciarán Hinds as the father who is trying desperately to connect with his son. The young Tye Sheridan, with his wonderfully expressive face, was more than adequate as the son.
Filmed in Southern California’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the extraordinary cinematography creates the perfect atmosphere for this story, highlighted by the shots of the sun, which are suggestive of God’s presence.
As I watched Last Days in the Desert, it never occurred to me that it might be viewed as anything but a spiritual film. After all, at one level it was all about Jesus trying to get a handle on what God wanted from him, knowing that it would inevitably lead to his suffering and death. Is that really the only way, Jesus wonders? Is there no possibility of a different life that could be similarly meaningful? Does God need or desire people to suffer? How Jesus responds to the family’s trials is, for me, an attempt to work at those questions and is profound in its implications.
But Rohr and some other festival viewers felt the distinct lack of a spiritual/mystical element in this tale about Jesus, so they were disappointed with the film. I was not. Indeed, I can’t wait to see it again. Watch for Last Days in the Desert this fall and encourage your friends to view and discuss a film about Jesus that feels substantial.
Last Days in the Desert is not yet rated but will likely be rated PG-13 for thematic elements and nudity.