Last Days in the Desert
I knew early on that the ending of Last Days in the Desert would define what the movie intended, and the first time I watched the movie, the whole of it was haunted by that knowledge. In Last Days in the Desert, writer-director Rodrigo García, son of the late Gabriel García Márquez, examines the human side of Yeshua (the Hebrew pronunciation of Jesus) as He is finishing the forty day fast that began His ministry. “I’m taking the figure of Jesus and exploring the human dimension of his life,” García tells.
“I cannot know what the divine side feels like, so I decided to treat Jesus, his predicaments and his problems the same way I would treat a regular person.”
For all its rich use of what is a spare and minimalist framing, Last Days in the Desert is a complex movie, weaving what seems an endless interplay of several themes in ways that contrast, echo and/or mirror each other, throughout the film.
It is far easier to reduce a review to only the father and son themes, as most reviewers have done, and agree that its creator merely ‘borrowed’ Jesus to tell its tale.
But a careful review suggests the opposite.
The film made its debut at Sundance in 2015 and boasts a stellar cast that includes Ewan McGregor, who plays both Jesus and the Devil, Tye Sheridan, cast as the Boy, Ciarán Hinds, who plays the Father, and Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer who is cast as the Mother.
Its cinematographer is none other than three-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki, who shot the film in natural light in a desert in California. The score is composed by Danny Bensi and Sauner Jurriaans and exquisitely communicates ‘how to’ interpret the scenes presented.
The music that leads into the final scenes has almost the sound and speed and lilt of Winter, from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
More than apt. And then it is not Vivaldi, but is its own, and powerfully compelling the viewer's understanding.
Only six characters (discounting the use of actors as props, in the last scenes) appear in the film, one of whom appears in only one scene.
Garcia ponders two primary themes. “One had to do with how a boy becomes a man, with or without his father’s help or permission,” Garcia explains.
“The second theme had to do with the idea of creation: The world is a story that God tells us and rewrites over and over again.”
Yet while Last Days in the Desert does not proclaim a Christian message, the movie presents a distinctly Christian portrayal. Set within the greater Story, all stories that interact with, or portray the life of Christ, inevitably point back to the greater, a difficulty its writer-director recognizes.
“I had to embrace the fact that any story with Jesus of Nazareth—even when it takes great liberties with plot or with the source material—inevitably becomes an invitation for the audience to consider him and his circumstance, whatever their beliefs may be,” García points out.
Fully human. Fully divine. At what point is a fictional creation revolving around the humanity of Christ an impugning of His divinity? Is there room for that first ‘fully’ in the Christ that our culture knows as iconic image—or His followers as Master and Lord.
The disciples knew Jesus first as human—we know Him first as divine.
How does a movie that attempts to examine Jesus from a purely ‘human’ view fit in? Last Days in the Desert is careful not to join the crowd of modern Christian films, and does not claim to deliver either a historically or theologically accurate portrayal.
“The character I’m playing is Jesus, but we’re not making a movie about the Gospels,” McGregor relates. “We’re making a movie about fathers and sons. We’re using Jesus Christ and his time in the desert as a backdrop for the exploration of that subject.”
Yet the movie is replete with Christian imagery.
An assortment of jugs, carried to the the river to be filled, gains the long shot—almost as if a still life hanging in a museum. Yeshua and the boy have left them to explore the banks, where the boy finds a dead dog’s decaying corpse—a foreshadowing of other deaths.
The jugs remind of baptism. Or perhaps the water jugs that will later be turned into wine.
Or the scene in which Yeshua carries the father on his back, dead now, back from the ridge where he fell, to be laid out on the work bench that reminds of an altar, where his son will wash his body for his burial…
The Good Samaritan portrayed, here.
The birds, two becoming one in the sky, as Yeshua and the boy watch. The coming of the Holy Spirit, long represented by a dove.
Even the choice of Vivaldi’s Winter—for the opening notes are indeed inspired by Winter—and at such a moment in the film, suggests a Biblical allusion. “For if they will do these things in a green wood, what will they do in a dry.”
Yet the frame interrupts, too, with images that do not allude, nor retell: the dream of drowning, then the wolves, loping after Yeshua as he runs. It is, yes, closely kin to the saying of Christ, that, when the Shepherd is struck, the sheep will be scattered, yet no sheep appear in the dream—only Jesus.
And the other telling, that the wolves will come in.
The novelty, however, of Jesus running, in fear, belongs to the writer-director of this film.
I do not know why Yeshua will break his fast, finally, with little fanfare, at a later meal with the family. But I noted that the mother exchanged glances with the son, and something was intended that I will sift through again.
For a Christian audience, however, especially an audience that may still have children in the nest, questions about how a movie (fictional or otherwise) that borrows Christ as a main character hands on that Christ—and how the faith is handled—become paramount. In that frame, Last Days in the Desert is resoundingly a movie that liberal Christians will embrace with delight.
Conservative Christians, however—especially those of the ‘salt of the earth’ type—tend to eye Hollywood (and its stepchild, ‘indie’ films) with much alarm.
Can an idea exist in which Jesus ‘developed’ into an understanding of His divinity—more, can we presume a ‘divinity in progress,’ (which idea surely offends a particular understanding of the devout) that would allow a fictional meander into one of the hidden stories from the life of Christ.
The edict of the Council of Ephesus, 431 A.D., does not allow a Jesus who was half human and half divine (as several reviewers have misspoken). In a linear reality where each cancels out the possibility of the other, however, our limited perception delivers the divine trumping all.
That is always ‘the summing’ of each Bible verse.
We don’t linger in the places where Jesus hungered.
Where Jesus knew thirst.
Where Jesus was tempted. The next portion of the story, verse by verse, cancels out how He experienced this.
The next portion of the verse rewrites all, superimposing Christ’s divinity upon it.
Yet God became man is the original Story. It remains the Story upon which all stories are based. Early stories exist of Jesus’ childhood (although none of them are accepted as canonical, in the faith), and yes, properly wrought (in theological circles), the forty days in the desert are after the baptism. Yet the stories of Jesus' childhood reveal a questioning, even early on, to know more of Jesus.
The baptism, however, delivered Jesus to the beginning of His ministry: it is there, at the river, that He is empowered by the Holy Spirit. And while it could be asked whether we perhaps impose a more limited understanding of that ‘divine’ upon the Son of God, who became flesh, and dwelt among us, a very real change is mandated after the baptism, in terms of the historical story of the Man.
Yet the Story continues of the Man who is fully human and fully the Son of God. And how that plays into what happened at the Cross should concern all of us, conservative or liberal, and was in fact an early heresy, denying that Christ the Man suffered, on the Cross.
Yet Christ was crucified for us fully a man.
But how should the Christian community receive a movie that attempts a fictional story pulled from the life of Jesus in his humanity?
And did the movie stay within the constraints of Jesus’ human nature only.
In spite of what the writer-director and cast hesitate to affirm, one of the transcendent elements of the movie is Jesus’ identity as the Son of God.
A younger Jesus begins the movie, yes, and, by the end of the movie, has become Christ. Yet Scripture itself, while emphasizing the wonder of the Boy, allows that He was once young.
But in the movie, Jesus is revealed as that Son again and again—.
By the Devil. Yes, the Father of lies, and yes, he will repeatedly challenge, and tempt, and try to beguile, throughout the film. Many places there are, however, where it is the Devil who clearly knows who Jesus is.
“You’re not ready and you know it. You’re scared to go on.”
The wise viewer will remember that much of what we are told in the movie is voiced by the Devil, who glibly and with much sass proclaims, “I am a liar. And that is the truth.”
What a subtle telling that the Devil can proclaim what is Truth.
No, the movie is not perfectly wrought—in the face of many indisputable markers that declare the Jesus story, those that have neither basis in nor any possible allusion to the Christian framing become awkward, seem at odds with the movie to one who examines from a Christian perspective.
The ending of the movie, however, reveals that the title is a metaphor for our time, and its loss of faith. It becomes a rebuke against us for that loss of faith.
Where creative license to tell the old tale again becomes hubris is a question that could be asked, when a story told pulls from a Story greater than any of us can tell.
Yes, Garcia wrestled with that. Whether a conservative can work into, and allow, the beauty of this movie may well end up an individual choice. This viewer did, and welcomes Last Days in the Desert into the canon (generic use of the term).
What he brought to the table, however, for those who have eyes to see, is exquisite.