Hollywood sure seems to have a thing for interpretive biblical fiction these days. Unlike artistic adaptations of known Bible stories like Noah or inspirational Christian dramas like Miracles from Heaven, this third biblical sub-genre is intent on filling in biblical gaps or providing additional speculative context to known biblical events. This year has already seen the likes of Risen, which told the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ from an alternative viewpoint, and The Young Messiah, which took a look at Jesus’ lost childhood years. Now comes Last Days in the Desert, an artistic powerhouse that dives into Jesus’ 40 days of wandering through the desert as he prepares for his ministry and eventual crucifixion. It’s easily the best of the bunch.
Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia was keenly interested in the relationship between fathers and sons as he wrote the script, and that topic permeates the film. The principal relationship, obviously, is between Jesus Christ and God the Father. This version of Christ (played with haunting clarity by Ewan McGregor), is plagued with intense doubt and confusion about his mission. It doesn’t help that the devil (also played by McGregor) continues to taunt him, attempting to draw Yeshua, as he’s called here, away from his ultimate purpose. Compared to Yeshua’s stoic silence, this demon is playful and full of emotion. He tells Yeshua that God doesn’t love him, that he’s abandoned him, that his mission is fruitless. But there’s a pang there, too, a longing in the devil to feel God’s touch the way he once did, when he was the Father’s right hand angel.
This scenes between the two forces are the film’s most riveting. These conversations ask profound questions that most films (and certainly most Christian films) don’t dare to touch upon. The nature of reality, of free will, of God’s love in a cruel universe, these are the topics that envelop the devil’s mind and, by extension, Yeshua’s. What makes these scenes so compelling is not only Garcia’s sharp and intelligent dialogue but McGregor’s top-notch performance. His devil is a hoot, but his portrayal of Christ is equally riveting. If most Jesus movies seem more concerned with Christ’s deity than his humanity, the opposite runs true here. This is the most human portrayal of Christ I’ve seen. He thirsts, he gets blisters on his feet, he yells in frustration, he laughs at jokes and, in one odd scene, a fart. Sometimes, he says the wrong thing, or says the right thing in the wrong way. Because we don’t see Jesus perform any miracles or preach any messages, we see him as much more human that we’re used to. The effect is somewhat disconcerting but also effective.
Thankfully, the entire film doesn’t consist of Christ wandering around the desert. He runs across a father (Ciaran Hines) and son (Tye Sheridan) caring for the father’s ailing wife (Ayelet Zurer). Yeshua agrees to rest for a few days as he helps the family build a house. The relationship between this earthly father and son is strained. The boy wants to go to Jerusalem and follow his dreams, but the father wants him to stay and build upon the land. As Yeshua befriends the boy, he begins to ponder his relationship with his heavenly father in light of the fraying father-son relationship he has found himself in the middle of. Meanwhile, the devil believes he has found new ways to tempt and torture Yeshua through the family he is so keen on helping.
Last Days is undoubtedly an odd film, one that is very loosely structured and almost deliberately plotless. It’s also gorgeous, thanks to the work of legendary cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who makes the harsh desert landscape pop. His lens is so full of light and color, there are scenes where you would swear you were looking at God himself, especially during some of the sky shots (he achieved similar effect in The Tree of Life and The Revenant). I was thrilled to see Lubezki’s interpretation of the crucifixion; the scene’s stark, almost cold beauty and creative angles put it among my all-time favorite interpretations of that iconic moment.
Last Days in the Desert is an extraordinary artistic achievement, but on an emotional level it isn’t entirely successful. Some awkward attempts at humor fall flat, some relationships feel underdeveloped and the pacing will likely be too slow for some. It also isn’t a “redemptive” Christian tale in the traditional sense. In fact, its commercial credentials are almost non-existent. Garcia is much closer to Pier Paolo Pasolini in style and tone than Mel Gibson (we get even less reference to the resurrection here than Gibson’s brief nod in The Passion of the Christ).
But most of the things that would turn people away are what make the film so unique. I’ve never seen a Jesus film like Last Days, and given how much material there is to copy out there, that’s a statement I never thought I’d make. It’s a provocative, soul stirring and yes, uncomfortable film, but that’s exactly why I can’t wait to see it again.