Finding Jesus in ‘Last Days in the Desert’

The first words we hear out of Jesus’s mouth in Last Days in the Desert are those you might expect from a man who’s spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness, alone, shivering and dusty and afraid: “Father, where are you?” The words set the tone for a film that examines the humanity of Christ by pondering what his temptations and encounters in the desert may have been like.

Loosely inspired by the Gospel accounts (Matt. 4:1–11; Mark 1:12–13; Luke 4:1–13), Last Days puts its own spin on the biblical episode, just as the Noah or Exodus films did with their respective inspiration texts. I’ve written before that Christians shouldn’t approach these films with a flag to throw each time the filmmakers get the story wrong; instead, we should consider whether the films communicate something insightful or good, true or beautiful. We can praise what is praiseworthy even as we evaluate the film’s flaws in form and style, as well as content.

Much to Praise

There is much to praise about Last Days. Director Rodrigo Garcia is an insightful cinematic explorer of families (Nine Lives, Mother and Child), and his take on Jesus (Ewan McGregor) focuses on this relational dynamic. Garcia’s 98-minute film follows Jesus in his final days in the wilderness as he encounters a family—father, mother, and son—living in the desolate desert. As Jesus (called “Yeshua” in the film) bonds with the son (Tye Sheridan) and observes his strained relationship with his father (Ciarán Hinds), his own understanding of sonship is clarified. Ultimately, the Jesus-helping-a-son-and-father-understand-each-other plot ends up being a creative and less on-the-nose means by which we contemplate the psychology of God’s Son.

Caucasian Scottishness aside—when will someone ethnically appropriate be cast as Jesus?—McGregor’s acting is a strength of the film. He plays both Jesus and Satan, a conceit that makes for some interesting McGregor-to-McGregor dialogue scenes. The Devil is here portrayed as more than a “horns and pitchfork” caricature; instead, he’s Lucifer, an ancient God-created being who’s endured the maddening repetitiveness of world history from a resentful perch of pride. As insightful as the film is in probing the human psychology of Jesus, at times I was more intrigued by its portrayal of Satan.

The choice to depict Satan as a mirror image of Jesus is interesting. On one hand, it gives the materialist viewer an interpretive out. Perhaps this devilish tempter is just a schizophrenic voice inside Jesus’s head? Perhaps the dialogues between Jesus and Lucifer are simply symbolic of the internal war we all wage between our best and worst selves? Regrettably, one could glean from this film a doctrine of sin that writes it off as the collateral damage of a Freudian father complex.

On the other hand, Jesus seeing himself in his enemy captures the truth that sin is not just something out there. It’s what happens when we succumb to temptations to assume an autonomous identity. That’s the sort of being Lucifer is, and he presents his unconstrained will to Jesus as the ultimate forbidden fruit. Quit bothering with your Father’s bidding. Do what you want to do, just like me! 

Refreshing . . .

One of the refreshing but occasionally maddening things about Last Days is how open-ended and indeterminate it is. Its cinematography (by the incomparable Emmanuel Lubezki) is heavy on long takes, wide shots, and ambiguous stillness. The music is beautiful but minimalist. There is much silence, which contributes to the film’s Lenten, contemplative tone.

One St. Francis-inspired line from Jesus—“Action over words always”—seems to inform Garcia’s low-on-dialogue approach to the story. Refreshingly, viewers are left to interpret these multiple images and ponder gaps in the story on their own (if only evangelical filmmakers had that sort of respect for their audiences).

. . . Yet Problematic

Yet the film’s open-endedness is also problematic. The Jesus of Last Days is an “all things to all people” sort of Jesus, which makes him far less interesting. Is he really divine? Is he sinless? Was his death on the cross (depicted at the end) of cosmic significance, or simply a sad end for a well-intentioned but ultimately delusional “holy man”? Is there anything particularly Jewish/Messianic about how he understands himself and his mission?

Viewers will come to different conclusions. Garcia goes out of his way to avoid alienating Christians who may be wary of a too-controversial Jesus. But he also avoids putting off unbelievers who might be offended by doctrinal specificity or blatant manifestations of the supernatural. Anything magical in the film (an image of Jesus levitating or a beggar woman with a demonic tail) can easily be explained away as dreams or hallucinations.

The film’s avoidance of the supernatural, and the great pains it takes to situate Jesus in the dusty banality of everyday life, is striking. Don’t get me wrong. I love how earthy and relatable and human Jesus is in this film. I left the theater contemplating the incarnation in new ways. This Jesus gets rocks in his sandals, laughs at farts (really), and relishes a good campfire. He gets sunburned and shivers. He laments the death of a friend. The world he lives in is full of entropy and decay and disease and ash. You can feel his hunger and thirst and pain. Indeed, this composite of Christ is biblical; the “temptation in the wilderness” period prior to Jesus’s public ministry is meant in Scripture to underscore all of these aspects of his self-limiting humanity.

But Jesus is also divine. He’s the Son of God. Even in the desert he is filled with and led by the Holy Spirit. The evasion of this part of his identity in Last Days comes across as intellectually dishonest. This story would be of no significance if Jesus were merely a human prophet. The story matters because he is also God. We wouldn’t all still be talking about and going to movies about him had he just been a wise-but-naïve carpenter.

Of course this sort of intellectual dishonesty has for some time been common. From Thomas Jefferson (who literally cut out all the supernatural bits from his Bible) to the Jesus Seminar to the mainline churches that uphold (their favorite) moral teachings of Jesus but are embarrassed by the resurrection, many have tried to uphold a significant Jesus . . . who was just a man. But it doesn’t work. He was either a crazy, needlessly fasting person in the desert talking to himself (an interesting enough film), or he was God-in-flesh.

Gospel Prologue

When I interviewed Ewan McGregor about the film, he repeatedly referred to the character of Yeshua as being the “Son of God.” Clearly, this was his approach to the role, but the film itself never asserts it. Instead, it leaves open the possibility that this man’s last days in the desert were simply about a compassionate wilderness wanderer whose encounter with strangers teaches him lessons about family.

Ultimately this non-committal ambiguity, while at times intriguing and beautifully rendered, tempers the film’s potency. Because the story of Yeshua is not just the story of a nice, contemplative guy who doesn’t let the voices in his head get the better of him. It’s a gospel prologue in which the sinless second Adam succeeds where the first Adam failed, a theologically crucial chapter in the greatest story ever told.

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