Last Days in the Desert (2016)

There have been plenty of films and miniseries made about the life of Jesus Christ.  The majority of them tend to focus on the crucifixion and resurrection.  Last Days in the Desert is unique in that it takes a briefly touched upon period of his life mentioned in the Bible and expands on it fictionally.  The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is mentioned directly in three of the four gospels.  Jesus was out there for 40 days, but the Bible only makes mention of three interactions where Satan tempts him during those 40 days.  There is a lot of space there to explore, which means room for good storytelling, but also the potential to fall into some dangerous (blasphemous) traps.  Fortunately, Last Days in the Desert does not fall into any these and present a very human Jesus on the precipice of entering his ministry.

As the title implies, the film centers in on the last days of the experience Jesus (Ewan McGregor) had in the desert, fasting and praying and being tempted by Satan (also portrayed by Ewan McGregor in a dual performance).  Jesus, on his way out of the desert, comes across a family in a bit of crisis.  The father (Ciaran Hinds) is building a home for his son (Tye Sheridan), while the mother (Ayelet Zurer) is ill and in failing health.  The son desires to leave the desert and live in Jerusalem.  The father and mother are torn in their desire for their son, with the father wanting him to stay and carry on the ways of their family, while the mother wants him to live his own life.  Jesus, initially reluctant to impose, ends up staying to help them in their work, having experience in carpentry.  During this time, Satan appears to him questioning his motives, planting seeds of doubt about the fate of the family, and in general playing mind games.  Satan proposes that if Jesus is able to solve the riddle of the family to the satisfaction of all three members then Satan will cease his torments.

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It is easy to be suspicious of a non-Christian film made about Jesus that focuses on a fictional story in his life.  But the director, Rodrigo Garcia, is respectful of the source material that he is extrapolating from.  One of the difficult aspects of Jesus that believers and non-believers struggle with is the humanity of Jesus.  Secular depictions of Jesus are criticized for focusing too much on the humanity of Jesus while those on the devoutly religious end of the spectrum often minimize that and focus almost entirely on his God-nature.  But Christianity believes that Jesus was fully God and fully human, which means that his humanity is something that has to be reckoned with.  Jesus required food like any other human being, he told jokes, he had a fully formed personality, he slept and, so to speak, put his pants on one leg at a time.

This is the Jesus that McGregor portrays on screen, a Jesus who is fully confident in who he is and yet is also still figuring things out.  It’s a fine line to play, and it doesn’t ever come across as a Jesus who is expressing doubt.  One added benefit of setting this story at this particular point in Jesus’  life is that it also puts certain limits on him that serve the story.  In the Bible, Jesus does not perform his first miracle until a wedding feast where he turns water into wine.  Therefore, to stay true to the gospels, Jesus performs no miracles here either and proves to be a wise move.

McGregor is great in the dual role of Satan as well, appearing sporadically throughout the film to have some dialogue with Jesus about the fate of the family, the nature of God, and several instances of trying to mess with him.  One particular conversation that comes about over the observance of a shooting star is particularly well done.

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The family, consists of three quality actors.  Hinds has been a great supporting actor for quite some time.  Zurer is renowned for her acting and her beauty, both on display here, even as her character has a nondescript illness that saps her of her energy.  Sheridan is one of the up and coming young actors in the last few years with some of the most promise (X-Men: Apocalypse notwithstanding).  A distance exists between the father and the son, too, creating a simmering unease in the family dynamic.  The father doesn’t know how to talk to his son, the son is reluctant to reveal his true desires for his life to his father.  Some of this is no doubt meant to reflect back on Jesus and his relationship with his Father, as early in the film Jesus is praying in the desert for God to reveal himself to him.

In addition, the film also features the camera work of back-to-back-to-back Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki.  The location of the film lends itself to some beautiful desert vistas, particularly the ones where they are building the house, which is situated on a cliff overlooking a valley.

Last Days in the Desert is a small but well-crafted film about Jesus about to take his first steps into his ministry.  It wisely frames this fictional account in a period of his life where a fictional account makes sense, and tells that story in a way that is mostly in concert with the Biblical Jesus.  McGregor gives a modulated and tuned in dual performance.  The faith-based film market is growing, and becoming flooded with a lot of films that are treacly or overtly geared toward people of faith with giving little insight into anything.  This film is a welcome change of pace to that trend, and a film worth seeking out.

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Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

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