last days in the desert

Last Days in the Desert

MPAA Rating: PG-13 | Rating: ★★★★½
Release year: 2016
Genre: Adventure, Drama, Spiritual Director: Garcia

Last Days in the Desert confounds expectations. Which is perfect, because it’s a film about the person of Jesus Christ, a God-man who also embraced paradox, mystery, and frustrating the expectations of his followers. The Christian evangelical subculture will likely find the film too esoteric, too extra-biblical, and too challenging to their preconceived notions of Christ. The indie art-house audience will likely find the film too spiritual, too biblical, too Christian. As such, I loved it. Rodrigo Garcia’s filmic exploration of the wilderness account and the temptations of Christ is perfectly bewildering. Last Days in the Desert is an evocative exploration not only of the humanity of Jesus, but what it means for each of us to be humans wrestling with our identity and relationship with the divine.

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, The Tree of Life, The Revenant) captures the vast beauty of the stark wilderness with amazing clarity. The craggy rocks and enormous horizon give an external landscape to the internal spiritual pilgrimage of Christ as he wanders and wonders in the desert. The presence of Lubezki, the wide shots of nature, and the use of voiceover narration all elicit strong parallels to a Terrence Malick film. Yet Garcia is not mimicking Malick here, and the differences are particularly clear in the characterization and story arc. Whereas Malick’s characters are often enigmatic or ciphers, his ideas grand and majestic, Garcia is focused on a character study of a holy man in the grip of vocational questioning. As such, the narrative is highly character-driven and personable, an exploration of who these few characters are and what makes them tick.

The film moves at its own pace and rhythm, very slowly moving into its sparse story. Yeshua (Ewan McGregor) has been fasting in the desert when he comes across a family–a boy, a father, and a mother. They offer him company, and he accepts their hospitality, helping them build a stone dwelling on the edge of a cliff. As Yeshua enters their world, he learns of their familial struggles and woes–the mother is dying of an unknown illness, the father and son’s relationship is strained, and all three appear hungry for an outsider’s presence and listening ear. (If one were to take the Gospel accounts as chronological, this extra-biblical story would be Jesus’s earliest ministry encounter, his first attempt at being the spiritual shepherd of others.) The slow pacing and ambling rhythm feel appropriate to a film about wandering–it’s very difficult to perceive where the film is headed or how it will end, and the scenes in the final act are both cathartic and emotionally frustrating due to their enigmatic tone. The final shot is particularly interesting, and while I won’t spoil it here, it does feel like a subtle invitation for the audience to respond to what they’ve just seen.

This temptation of Christ in the wilderness doesn’t follow the strict narrative of Scripture, though the character of Lucifer is present. The accuser and father of lies takes his role seriously, trying to plant seeds of doubt and despair in the mind of Jesus through any means necessary. As McGregor portrays both characters, it’s fascinating to see their interactions, as the demon operates like a curved funhouse mirror, twisting and distorting the image in order to confuse and confound. Yet Yeshua remains steadfast in his faith. While he does appear worried that his Father is presently silent, he also doesn’t appear to doubt his own identity as the Son. This is a key understanding of the role of Satan here–he’s not serving as Yeshua’s subconscious or internal dialogue. He’s a fully-realized character with his own arc and agency. One particular extended conversation between the two reveals that Lucifer almost feels like a jilted stepson in the Father’s eyes–there is clearly a subtle envy for Jesus’s relationship with God. In many ways, McGregor’s depiction of Satan is one of the more affecting and empathetic; he’s despicable and Machiavellian, but he also evokes our pity. The interactions between Lucifer and Yeshua feel akin to a Greek tragedy or a Shakespeare drama, and McGregor makes us feel sympathetic for both of them.

McGregor’s portrayal of Christ might be my new favorite on-screen Jesus. He’s approachable, caring, contemplative, authentic. He feels wholly human, yet with a hint of the mysterious and divine about him. The characteristic I noticed most about this portrayal of Christ: this is a Jesus who listens. In most Jesus films, Christ is pontificating and teaching people the ways of the kingdom of God–he always has something to say, and usually says it with an enigmatic dow-eyed stare, or with impassioned spiritual fervor. McGregor’s Jesus is a listener. He’s quiet, allowing others to share their stories and feelings, sometimes not even responding in words, only with an understanding nod and a brief smile. At one point, in a self-motivating conversation, Yeshua mutters, “Actions over words, always. Otherwise, silence.”

This Jesus also doubts and questions; he gets angry and frustrated; he feels limited and…well…human. This is a kenotic portrayal of Christ. Kenosis stems from the phrase in Philippians 2:7 where Christ “emptied himself” or “made himself nothing” in the incarnation. The Western church and most of the Jesus films portray Christ with an emphasis on the divine, making him wholly Other and saintly. Last Days in the Desert gives us a human Jesus and an earthy spirituality. This is a Jesus film featuring a fart joke. It doesn’t get much more human or earthy than that.

The biggest reveal of his human limitations comes when Yeshua asks Satan about the future trajectory for the family he’s encountered. What’s going to happen to them? Apparently, Satan can foresee future potential events, while Yeshua’s omniscience is limited or untapped. Jesus asking Satan about the future? This ought to make us uncomfortable, but it doesn’t mean we need play the heresy or blasphemy card. In Western evangelical circles, the divine nature of Jesus ends up emphasized in artistic depictions–we are hesitant to admit that he’s truly human, that he may have truly set aside some of the divine attributes in order to fully experience human reality. But if we hold to the truths of Scripture and tradition–if we can say with the Nicene Creed that Jesus is “very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father” *and* “was incarnate and was made man”–then we have to confess Jesus as incarnate, the Word become flesh. Last Days in the Desert takes the humanity of Jesus seriously, and allows the audience to wrestle with their own beliefs about his nature. This is also ultimately a film about fathers and sons, a film which explores how our familial origins shape our present identities, and why our spiritual wanderings and vocation may only find peace when we are willing to face our demons.

I walked out of Last Days of the Desert and wandered into the night, grabbing a post-screening beer with a friend to discuss the film. This is a movie that demands to be contemplated and discussed. It’s a film ripe for conversation, both for those who find it a beautiful meditation on the person of Christ (like myself) and for those who are frustrated or even offended by its wandering approach. Last Days in the Desert is at-once inviting, beautiful, frustrating, amusing, affecting, and challenging. Which is sorta just like Jesus.

Last Days in the Desert is in limited release this Friday, May 13. Check out to find a screening near you.

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