Review: Last Days in the Desert (dir. Rodrigo García, 2015)

Review: Last Days in the Desert (dir. Rodrigo García, 2015) May 13, 2016


People go to movies for many reasons, but what I look for most is some sort of experience. I want to feel what it’s like to live in another world, and I want to get a sense of what it’s like to live inside someone else’s head.

This gets tricky when we’re discussing a movie about Jesus. Most films about Jesus have treated him as an icon that we are meant to look at from the outside; it is very rare that a film invites us to experience his thoughts, his dreams, his emotions from the inside. And when films do take a highly subjective approach to Jesus, they tend to lose sight of his divinity. They might acknowledge it verbally, but they don’t necessarily allow us to experience it the way we do his humanity.

So it’s worth noting when a film like Last Days in the Desert comes along and finds a way to explore the humanity of Jesus while acknowledging, respecting and occasionally even hinting at his divinity as well.

The film starts by offering the audience the sort of experience I outlined above. Before we get our first glimpse of Jesus, we see a few shots of the desert, captured in all its stark barren beauty by Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. We hear the faint sound of thunder crashing somewhere in the distance, and we feel ourselves entering a world very different from the air-conditioned theatre in which we are sitting.

And then, the first time we see Jesus (Ewan McGregor), he is sitting alone in that wilderness, praying simple prayers: “Father, where are you?” “Father, speak to me.” He sleeps on the hard ground; he shakes a pebble out of his shoe; he laughs as he plucks dead twigs out of his windblown hair; he sheds quiet tears in the midst of his prayer.

Eventually he encounters the Devil — and, for the most part, the Devil looks just like him, albeit with a bit of jewelry to signify the Devil’s vanity. And then, Jesus encounters a family living in the desert: a father (Ciaran Hinds), his terminally ill wife (Ayelet Zurer), and their son (Tye Sheridan), who longs to live in the city but is held back by his father’s love of isolation.

The dramatic thrust of the movie is that Jesus, who has been fasting in the desert for over a month, isn’t quite ready to go back to civilization yet — he hasn’t quite found himself yet — and he thinks he can find what he’s looking for by helping this family.

You could call Jesus’ actions here a trial run for the ministry that he’s about to launch. But there are clearly meant to be parallels, too, between the strained father-son relationship within this family and Jesus’ own sense of distance from his own heavenly Father. (One of the daring things about this film is that it not only asks us to identify with Jesus, but it imagines Jesus himself identifying with someone else, namely the boy.)

Interestingly, for all the “fathers and sons” talk within and around this film, there is very little mention of Jesus’ earthly parents, each of whom is mentioned precisely once.

The Devil mentions Mary when he first addresses Jesus as “Yeshua” — the Hebrew name for Jesus that is used throughout the film — and says, “That’s what your mother calls you, isn’t it? Any name that’s good enough for Mary is good enough for me.” (Note: Mary, not her Hebrew name Miriam.)

And Joseph is alluded to when the boy asks Jesus what his own father does for a living, and Jesus replies that his father is a carpenter (present tense, apparently; most other films imagine that Joseph had died before Jesus started his ministry).

Interestingly, the boy — who knows that Jesus is a carpenter too — asks if Jesus wanted to be a carpenter like his father, and Jesus shakes his head no. Like many other moments in the film, this one teases you into wondering what’s behind the gesture: Did Jesus not want to be a carpenter because he wanted some other sort of livelihood, like fishing or farming? Or did Jesus not want an earthly job of any sort because he was itching to follow his spiritual destiny? Was this one of the ways he learned patience, while he was living with his earthly parents?

The Devil taunts Jesus in several different ways. He says God is so obsessed with the smallest details of his universe that he has no time to think about people, not even his own Son. He says God has destroyed and re-created the world multiple times. He says God has other children besides Jesus. (Jesus might not know how to answer some of the Devil’s other claims, but he firmly rejects this last one.)

The Devil makes particularly creepy use of the boy’s ailing mother. He wakes her up with a predatory stroke of her leg. And at one point he assumes her form, exposes “her” naked breasts to Jesus, and visually mocks the suffering that Jesus will endure on the cross — and then, when Jesus turns away, he whispers harsh, belittling words into Jesus’ ears.

But the Devil can be rattled too. When Jesus reminds him of the pride that led to his expulsion from heaven, the Devil replies, indignantly, “I am not proud. I am not proud!” in a way that unintentionally confirms that, yeah, he’s a little proud. And the Devil is caught staring at a shooting star, which he promptly — but not entirely convincingly — says he found boring.

Many of the things the Devil says can be dismissed, of course, because he is a liar — by his own ironic admission. (“I am a liar, that’s the truth.”) But Jesus is still eager to hear the Devil describe things that Jesus has not seen: what it’s like to be in God’s presence without the filters of a mortal material life, or what the future holds for certain characters (at one point Satan conveys this information through a bowl full of water, not unlike the prophetic basins one finds in The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Prydain).

There are hints of things to come in Jesus’ own future throughout this film, from foot-washing to walking on the water. But the film’s narrative doesn’t really mesh all that well with the biblical narrative, once you start thinking about it.

In the gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus responds to each of the Devil’s temptations by quoting scripture — and the Devil himself tries to tempt Jesus by quoting scripture, too. But there are no scripture quotations in this film.

Nor is there any reference to the fact that Jesus was baptized by John immediately prior to his 40 days in the desert, and that at that baptism God himself declared that he was pleased with his beloved Son. Does the Jesus of this film have any memory of that event? Is he feeling the absence of God acutely now — the way he will at his crucifixion, perhaps — because he felt the presence of God so vividly just days before? Or has he just never heard God’s voice clearly, the way most of us haven’t?

Curiously, when writer-director Rodrigo Garcia does engage with the more familiar parts of the story — particularly in the epilogue, which jumps ahead to the end of Jesus’ life — he deviates from the traditional iconography. Jesus’ side is pierced with a spear while he is still alive, and not to prove that he is already dead; and Jesus’ tomb is sealed off by a pile of rocks, rather than a single stone that can be rolled away.

The film’s thematic emphases are also notably different than the gospels’ in some ways.

When Jesus bids farewell to the boy, he says, “Love God above all things. Love life.” The first sentence is remarkably close to what Jesus identified as the greatest commandment. But the second sentence is noticeably different from what Jesus identified as the second greatest commandment — to love your neighbour as yourself. There’s nothing wrong with the second sentence, and it’s appropriate to the film, but there’s still a difference of emphasis worth noting there, I think.

The film does acknowledge the divinity of Jesus in interesting ways. Jesus and the Devil both allude to it, of course, and something of the divine lurks behind the dreams that Jesus has. Most interestingly, there is a scene in which a dying person — someone who had rejected the very idea of a life beyond death — seems to glimpse something that the audience cannot see, and the person looks at Jesus as though this person has just seen Jesus in a whole new light.

There is a lot to like here. The desert is a place full of death — birds attacking birds in the air, dead animals rotting out in the open — but the characters who live in it are full of life, whether laughing at a fart (and no, this isn’t the first Jesus movie to have one), caring for each other’s needs or arguing over their plans for the future.

Other bits, I’m not so sure about. There has been a lot of talk about how the movie makes Jesus “relatable”, but I’m not very fond of that word, with its implicit suggestion that what matters in a story is how it reminds us of ourselves, and not how it takes us out of ourselves and exposes us to other ways of thinking and being.

Still, the word does get at one of the critical issues surrounding this film: does it simply show us that Jesus was a lot like us (chastising himself for speaking in spiritual clichés, for example), or — given that it’s a film about the Son of God, after all — does it draw us out of ourselves and towards something better than us?

The final shot of the movie, which was apparently meant to remind us that Jesus lived in a real place that really exists, exacerbates the problem, by suggesting — perhaps inadvertently — just how trivializing “relatability” can be. Yes, in theory, we moderns can say that we’ve been to the same desert that Jesus went to, but what do we gain from learning that a place of pilgrimage and spiritual testing has become just another spot where sightseeing tourists can snap pretty pictures?

Still, whatever quibbles I may have with the film, I do respect it, and I’m glad it exists. St Athanasius famously said that God became man so that men might become God, and if the film is stronger on the first half of that equation than the second, well, at least it teases our minds into active thought about these issues. It’s not easy to strike a balance between human familiarity and divine mystery in the story of Jesus, but this film meets that challenge in some genuinely thought-provoking ways.

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