In the Bible, the story of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness appears in the Gospels, but Rodrigo García’s Last Days in the Desert may strike audiences as something far more akin to Ecclesiastes. Anchored by a fine performance from Ewan McGregor as Yeshua (Jesus is identified by his Hebrew name in this most recent film to tackle the Christ) and moving at a subdued pace through Emmanuel Lubezki’s stark desert cinematography, García provides a story that prompts reflection on the meaning, frailty, and purpose of human relationships.
García’s film is strikingly minimalist right from the opening passage of Jesus wandering alone through the wilderness, during which only two lines of dialogue are spoken, and makes no pretensions as to faithfulness to any specific Christian or Jewish understanding of Jesus beyond that of Jesus having been a holy man in real time and space who claimed to be the son of God and was crucified. If Jesus is God become man, then García’s Yeshua is man first and foremost: an ascetic wandering through the desert, searching for an intangible something from his Heavenly Father as he struggles against the elements. This is a shivering, dirty, tired Yeshua, one who laughs at his own predicaments, like his long hair tangling in the bushes he cowers in for shelter, before peaking off into a frustrated, agonized scream.
Yeshua is played by McGregor as a quiet, but earnest man who believes firmly in both his mission and the love of his Father for him, and those around him, who is struggling to fulfill and understand that divine purpose. (I’d be remiss not to mention that it is a bit frustrating for yet another film about Jesus to be so obviously ethnically inaccurate. However, García’s avoidance of the Jewish context for the story in favor of a more universal parable might shed some light on the casting decision.) He is taunted and harassed by the Devil, who most often appears in the form of Yeshua himself (played again by McGregor, fittingly outfitted with a few extra trinkets of jewelry). The conversations between the resolute, pure-hearted Yeshua and the devious, often petulant Lucifer are the highlight of the film. García allows Yeshua to actually be tempted (this isn’t a sympathetic Satan who wants to enlighten Yeshua), and while Satan asks vexing questions to a man who claims to be the son of God, he is frequently spiteful and cruel.
The film is at its most effective when it capitalizes on the Ecclesiastical tone, wondering at what (if any) meaning is to be found in the bitter wastes of the desert. For example, Yeshua catches Lucifer wondering at the beauty of a shooting star, to which Lucifer hotly denies admiring God’s creation before launching into a tirade on the boring repetitiveness of the earth, with its unceasing cycle of animal and human life. It is ultimate death, an ultimate end, that Lucifer longs to see. A motif of the cyclical pattern of life is echoed in the tension-fraught conflict in the family that Yeshua stays with for the bulk of the film’s middle act, where a dreaming son, a frustrated father, and an ill wife talk past each other and cling to alternating love and hatred just as their ancestors have and descendants will. Satan challenges Yeshua to solve the family’s struggles to the satisfaction of all, and Yeshua (who does not use his divine powers in this pre-ministry context) struggles to heal three frail human beings through both word and deed.
It’s a moving struggle, but it is here that the minimalistic nature of the film occasionally works against it. Somber in its tone, though undeniably beautiful, the film lacks a certain something in its resolution of the family plot (though the Crucifixion finale and epilogue are made all the more potent because of their artistic restraint). My instinct is that an element of joy, of the life that Yeshua celebrates in his parting blessing to the young son, is lacking. This is not to say that Last Days in the Desert is one-dimensional: there is occasional welcome and refreshing humor. But it is difficult for sparse humor alone to resonate on a spiritual level, and giving but a glimpse or two more of true human gladness might have made a delicate but significant difference.
Lubezki’s cinematography deserves greater mention here, as he captures the essence of García’s vision, placing characters within curiously subtle vistas. There’s a mystifying unobtrusiveness to Lubezki’s composition: at one point Yeshua and the father walk and talk, and it is only about halfway through the scene that one notices they stand on the edge of a cliff overlooking a beautiful, rugged, valley. An elusive but sublime truth lies hidden here in the desert, the shot suggests, if one would only take the time to notice it. It is an indictment of our modern quickness, our rushing over of things that do not strike us as important or interesting. Last Days in the Desert isn’t perfect by any means, but it prompts us to slow down, to pause, and to reflect, and in this case that’s more than enough to make it well-worth seeing.