Desert Days

The person of Jesus of Nazareth remains a compelling figure even for those who do not believe He was divine. For Christians, a merely human Jesus remains a denial of the truth, a denial of much of the material of the Gospels, and a denial of the central truth of our religion. But that doesn’t stop people, even those without faith in Him, from exploring in art what, exactly, compels people to do anything other than ignore Him.

In Last Days in the Desert (2015; streaming for free on Freevee and Tubi [with commercials]), Rodrigo García considers a Jesus who is not in doubt about who He is, but who may be in some doubt about what His Father is requiring of Him. For example, when Yeshua (Ewan McGregor) is confronted by the devil (also Ewan McGregor) with the assertion that His Father has many other children, He says, “No. There is only me.” Yet, He travels through the wilderness and prays, “Where are you, Father?” and He does not seem to know what awaits Him, until the devil shows Him (presumably) the crucifixion in the reflection of some water. I appreciated how McGregor played Satan, with a mirthless humor, and always raising questions and seeding doubts. When Yeshua says that he is a liar, he responds with maybe the best line in the film: “Yes, I am a liar; that is the truth.”

García seems to lean into the character of Jesus as the best of what humanity can be, which obviously is not enough in terms of Christian faith. The words on the screen at the beginning say that the “holy man” went out in the desert to fast, pray, and prepare for his mission, which is perhaps the part of the film that is furthest from how Jesus’ temptation is described in the Gospels. This leads to peculiarly modern silliness such as Yeshua “turning inward” to “find himself.”

Even so, the exploration of Jesus’ humanity leads to some interesting considerations of the relationship between theology and film. García explicitly decided not to include any miracles (although he comes close in one of the final scenes with the dying mother [Ayelet Zurer]). But this isn’t because of the nature of Jesus, but because of the nature of film. The humanity of Jesus, he said in an interview, “is the only side I can talk about.” “He insists that God cannot truly be comprehended or portrayed on screen. We have no conception of that oversized reality. ‘That is why I do not have miracles [in Last Days],’ he says.” I think that is right. If miracles are depicted, we know that they are tricks of film. Then whatever miracles are depicted are inherently minimized, because they are unreal.

Last Days is an invented story toward the end of the 40 days in the wilderness, and the main interaction is with a family living in the desert, a father (Ciarán Hinds), mother (Zurer), and son (Tye Sheridan). The cast is small, but impressive. The cinematography is imposing and vast. The film draws parallels between the relationship of the father and son and the relationship of the Son to the Father. That is indeed at the heart of the biblical temptations of Jesus. Here, García also seems to be working out his relationship with his own father, the famous novelist Gabriel García Marquez. What does it mean to be a “good son”? That is perhaps the most fruitful consideration in terms of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, which come immediately after the baptism of Jesus, where the Father says “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.”

The two comparisons (or contrasts) made most often in reviews of Last Days are (understandably) with Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004). Here, Yeshua is indeed given one last temptation on the cross, as the devil seems to appear before Him in the form of a hummingbird. As in The Passion, there is traditional iconography employed in the crucifixion. But I agree with Josh Larsen here that the crucifixion scene is unnecessary to the movie. It is not necessary to actually show the final temptation of “help” down from the cross, which the devil promises to give Yeshua. And is the shot of the grave, filled up with rocks, meant to suggest a purely human Jesus, without a resurrection? Or is it simply García’s continued refusal to depict the miraculous?

The final shot also is left to the viewer’s interpretation. Are we to see the modern tourists taking photographs in the same cinematic place (the movie was filmed in California) where Jesus walked as signifying contemporary ignorance of the importance of the events that happened there? When we visit the locations of Jesus’ life as tourists, are we fundamentally diminishing the events themselves? Even as interpretation after interpretation has been piled on top of Jesus, whether in terms of Christian theology or in terms of the search for some historical Jesus (who is often “historical” only in the sense that he reflects the concerns of the person searching) behind the words of the Gospels, it is difficult to even consider actual events. Our inability to escape a theological interpretation of Jesus is not, as some think, a negative thing. The Gospels are not mere biographies, but theological interpretations (divinely inspired, Christians believe) of Jesus in the light of His resurrection. The question is not whether a given discussion of Jesus is a theological interpretation, but what kind of theological interpretation is it? Christians believe the Gospels’ polyphonic interpretation is true, but every interpretation is informed by some kind of theology.

Personally, while I am interested to see how filmmakers deal with Jesus, I am not all that interested in watching Jesus depicted on the screen. There is always a diminishment of Jesus in one direction or another. If, as Christians believe, He is fully divine and fully human, how can that be comprehended, let alone pictured in a film? I would much rather watch the human grappling with faith and doubt, in the midst of the age and world in which we live, whether or not that is an explicitly Christian or religious depiction. Even so, the challenge of various interpretations of Jesus should not be immediately dismissed by orthodox Christians. We should not be too eager to oppose a certain interpretation, lest we be guilty of imposing our own unbiblical understandings on Jesus. It is always good to be forced to return to the Scriptures and evaluate whether we have heard well or correctly. There is nothing to fear here; even if an interpretation is wrong, it would be wrong whether it was ever put down on paper or photographed on film. This is no different than when Jesus was actually walking around on the earth. People disagreed about who He was, about the importance of His actions, and about whether He should be listened to, ignored, or killed. So it goes, even today.