Film Review: Last Days In The Desert

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[Editor’s note: If you’ve been around the Rabbit Room long, the name John Barber will be a familiar one. If you’re new, or just haven’t yet had the pleasure of knowing him, let me introduce you to today’s guest poster. John’s a movie, music, and book nerd—and I meanthat as a high and worthy compliment. He’s been our loyal “Lord of the Merch Table” at every Hutchmoot, and more importantly he’s a good friend. I’m convinced that one of these days he and his family are going to move to Nashville and that’ll be one small step toward all things being made right.]

Last Days in the Desert is a curious thing. This isn’t a movie about the movement of Christianity, or about the apostles, or about miracles. There are no cheering crowds with palm branches. There’s only the desert. Last Days tells the story of Jesus’ temptation for 40 days by Satan in the desert (Matt. 4, Luke 4). Written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia (Blue), Last Days stars Ewan McGregor as Jesus, or Yeshua, as he’s called in the movie.

The film opens with Yeshua calling out, “Father, where are you?” and we’re introduced to a man who is far from the superhero Jesus of modern media. He’s dirty and battered by the elements. He’s lost. Yeshua begins the film lonely and unsure of his purpose. He’s been left alone by God the Father to figure out who he is, in much the same way that we sometimes push our kids out of the nest. The Father isn’t speaking, no matter how hard Yeshua listens.

It turns out Yeshua isn’t alone in the desert. He finds and befriends a small family—a man, his ill wife, and their teenage son. Identifying himself only as a “Holy Man,” Yeshua stays with them, engaging in their lives and learning to love people. He becomes entrenched in the things that are important to them. He learns their troubled spots and flounders a bit in his attempts to help them. This is Jesus fresh from his baptism and before his ministry begins. This ordained “Son of God” thing is new to him, and he struggles with it.

The other character in the film is the only other character in the biblical story. Although Satan’s temptations look different in this movie than they do in the gospels, Satan has a big part to play. McGregor acts both parts, Yeshua and the Devil. The two converse and debate the nature of God and people. Their interactions are the core of the film, and it’s McGregor’s performance that sells what could come off as trite in a lesser film.

The two stars of the movie are McGregor (of course) and Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer. Lubezki is Terrence Malick’s go-to cinematographer (as well as having worked on some other little films you may have heard of: Gravity, Birdman, Children of Men, etc.) and the landscapes are stark and gorgeous. The sheer loneliness brought on by the desert feels, at once, stifling and transcendent. Lubezki’s final shot of the film is breathtaking.

As a movie about Jesus, Last Days treads new ground. Without giving too much away, Yeshua isn’t a miracle-maker. He’s a man struggling with his identity. While so many films about Christ are concerned with his divinity, Last Days wants to mine the depths of his humanity. This is a man being tempted by moral decisions, by his own insecurity, and by delusions of grandeur. He’s lost in his own skin, and he’s got no guidance from above. This is not the Jesus we’re accustomed to seeing on the big screen.

When I walked out of Last Days in the Desert, the first thing I did was sit down and talk about it over mediocre Chinese food with eight other people. All of us were affected differently by the film, and all of us loved it in unique ways. I struggled with it. I fought with it. I wanted to analyze the theological problems with it. I wanted to talk about the destructive duality of the Jesus/Satan dynamic. I wanted to criticize it for its lack of balance to the hypostatic union. But over that lackluster Mongolian Beef, I realized that none of that was the point.

Last Days in the Desert is a movie about how the presence of Jesus transforms things. Yeshua has no eureka moment in the movie. He has no incredible successes. But he impacts everyone he comes near, and he impacted me while I was sitting in that theater. This film will trouble some. It’s not a Sunday School kind of movie. The Jesus in this film doesn’t act like Mark Burnett’s Jesus. But if you take the time to engage with Last Days, to let it challenge you, to let it sink into your bones, it’s an incredibly rewarding film. Don’t miss it.

John Barber is a music lover, film nut, husband, and father. Last year he set out to watch 365 films in one year, and he lived to tell about it. That means he's seen more bad movies than we even want to think about.


11 Comments

  1. Evan Weppler

    Wow, thanks John! I had not heard about this movie– it sounds like it would be a great film to watch with friends and discuss. Great balance to the new trend of “Jesus” movies.

  2. Jennifer Hildebrand

    Thanks for this review. I’ve been wondering how this one would play out. First of all, I love Ewen McGregor. LOVE him! So I am definitely curious. But I always struggle with how and where we are to draw the line between artistic expression/thoughtful exploration of a character and just outright sacrilege when it comes to “Jesus movies”. In this case, we’re not just talking about any ole character exploration. We’re not just delving the deeper psychological flaws and misinterpreted traits of, say, a Jean Valjean. The subject is the Son of the Almighty God. And as one who regards Him as such, what I’ve seen of this film makes me a little nervous — about how He may be misrepresented to those on the outskirts of and even outside the faith. Of course, I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m hoping the film will serve as a good conversation starter toward, rather than an affront to, biblical truth. Again, it’s Ewen McGregor, so I’m intrigued.

  3. Phil Breedlove

    At least the actor has a semblance of “Jewish”-ness about him, and that starts it out ahead of most films about Jesus. However, the Gospel accounts of this story says that Jesus was “led by the Spirit” into the wilderness, and for some reason I want to imagine that the third co-equal member of the Trinity stayed nearby during this trial.

    My problem with movies like this always falls on the same topic, namely that our interpretation of scripture is heavily influenced when we attach pictures to stories that are only intended for our minds. Who does Moses look like? Charlton Heston of course. Mary Magdalene? A very dirty-faced Monica Belluci. Rufus, the 13th disciple? Chris Rock.

    For me, I think I need to leave movies like this alone, and instead get my theology from more solid sources, like “Bruce Almighty” and “Evan Almighty” and “Joan of Arcadia.” Those are sources you can trust!

  4. Tony Heringer

    Interesting. I really thought this was a photo shop joke when I saw the picture on Facebook. This is a real movie. I’m intrigued. Thanks bud.

    P.S. I think you are a junkie not a nerd. 🙂

  5. Mike

    Did you discuss the fact that my struggles with Satan more often than not seem like internal struggles as well. Am I the only one? Thanks for the review. I heard about this a month or so back but had forgotten about it.

  6. John Barber

    Mike, the thing about a movie like this is that I could have easily written a couple of thousand words on it. There’s so much to discuss. More than anything, I want people to see it. I don’t think it’s perfect. It wasn’t my favorite at Sundance. But I can’t think of another movie (ever) that sparked such great conversation.

  7. Esther O'Reilly

    I haven’t seen the film, but the “good son/bad son” dynamic with Satan seems more influenced by Thor and Loki than by anything approaching a biblical understanding of who Jesus and Satan actually are. As I believe Lewis noted, Satan’s true counterpart is Michael the Archangel, not Jesus. This seems like straightforward gnosticism.

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