Review of Last Days in the Desert, Directed by Rodrigo García
If there’s one thing writer and director Rodrigo García’s “Last Days in the Desert” is not, it’s preachy. Simple in scope and setting, the film tells an extra-biblical story of Jesus’s encounter with an isolated family during his 40 days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness. Here we find a portrait of Jesus as man qua man – probably too much of a man for most Christians’ tastes. This Jesus (played compellingly by Ewan McGregor) doubts, grappling with who he is and what he came to do. He cries out to the silent heavens. He preaches to himself: “actions before words.” He struggles to offer counsel to mend a fractured father-son relationship, looking on at them almost helplessly. And perhaps most troubling of all (certainly to the character himself), he lets a father fall to his death, unable to save him in mannish strength.
This is not to say that all traces of the divine have been wiped away from the God-man entirely. As the ever-present Lucifer reminds him after the incident, he could have lifted seven men with ease.
No, the film is not concerned with offering a clear portrait of Jesus, another factor that’s bound to rankle evangelicals. To that I say, well, welcome to art house cinema, where the point is to ask questions.
In this case I think it’s a profitable exercise, if for no other reason than that it challenges and enlarges our imaginations surrounding the early person of Jesus. Sure, Jesus healed people, but he left many people all over the world unhealed, left to die in their sickness and sin. This is one of a variety of questions many Christians may never have stopped to ponder while reading the gospel accounts: How many times did Jesus not act to save or to heal? We don’t know. Did Jesus ever feel distant from God? He certainly did on the cross, but what about those long hours and days he spent seeking God in prayer? Did that 40-day fast drive him to the verge of insanity? Probably. Did he hallucinate or have nightmares during those last days in the desert? I don’t see why not. Did he forget the face of God in all of its glory? That one’s pushing it.
The most interesting character by a mile in this ordeal is Lucifer, also played by McGregor (plus some earrings and rings). As we might expect of the devil, this antagonist of antagonists appears just as complex as the Son of God he squares off against. Full of double-talk and contradictions, this Lucifer is swashbuckling one moment, insecure the next. He can be wry and deadpan, then suddenly quite literal. At one moment we find him taunting “Jeshua” (“That’s what your mother calls you, isn’t it?”) the next moment pitying him disdainfully (“You think you’re his only son?”), all the while trying to get in his head (“My, what anger… that’s daddy talk.”). This Lucifer takes plenty of pages from Screwtape’s playbook. “I am not prideful!” He insists adamantly in one of the few moments in which his abject rebellion is clear. “I am not!” For all his cleverness the Father of Lies is still awfully deluded about his own nature. How could he not be?
If it’s an explicit gospel presentation you’re looking for, this is not the film for you, but even so I think it suggests that there’s more to this Jeshua than what meets the eye. First, there is a crucifixion scene – clearly too great a temptation for García to resist including. While Jesus is on the cross a hummingbird appears in front of his face, an ethereal presence in the middle of a truly grisly moment. It didn’t make sense to meet either, but a few minutes of Googling revealed that in indigenous South American cultures the hummingbird is a symbol of resurrection. In the evening they appear dead, as they store up the energy needed for their intense method of flight, only to explode with vitality the next day. Hovering in front of the dying Christ, it’s a nice poetic touch.
Speaking of Jesus’s death, however, there’s one major plot point the film doesn’t show: the resurrection. The last we see of Jesus, he is being carted into the grave. Stones are piled over the entrance. The film then abruptly ends with a shot of two hikers in the present day, suggesting that the story lives on, perhaps even that Jesus himself is still with us to this day.
Remember that the whole world supposedly could not contain enough books to capture all that Jesus said and did. “Last Days in the Desert” thus makes for an interesting hypothetical, at times insightful, but in the end hopelessly speculative.