Mark Reviews Movies

Last Days in the Desert


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Rodrigo García

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Ciarán Hinds, Tye Sheridan, Ayelet Zurer

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some disturbing images and brief partial nudity)

Running Time: 1:38

Release Date: 5/13/16 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 12, 2016

God remains silent throughout Last Days in the Desert. No matter how many times the only begotten son of the supreme divine being cries out to the heavens, no answer comes from above. On the mortal coil, though, there is a voice that comes to the son. The face and voice are familiar, too, and what this figure has to say makes some sense, especially when it comes to the reason behind the silence from the realm beyond the earth.

The man at the center of this spiritual conflict, of course, is Jesus—or Yeshua, as he is called in the film. The story is of his 40-day-and-night pilgrimage in the Judean Desert and the temptations that were placed before him by the Devil. Each of those temptations was, to a degree, about embracing power at the sacrifice of Jesus' faith and humanity. The Devil tempted Jesus with the idea of creating bread out of rocks to sate his hunger and, of course, betray his religious fast. The Devil implored Jesus to prove his divinity by casting himself from a peak, so that the angels would rescue him. Finally, if Jesus turned himself over to the Devil, the Devil would give him power over the land and the people within it.

The Devil remains in this version of the narrative, although the traditional temptations are absent. Even so, the core of the story is still intact. It's still a parable about faith, and it's still a story in which Jesus embraces his humanity over the possibly limitless potential of being the son of the divine.

The difference is that, in the apparent absence of that divine presence, the film fully acknowledges and embraces the humanity of Jesus, who is played here by Ewan McGregor as a conflicted and introspective man. This Jesus physically aches. He experiences doubt. He has free will. He is developing his philosophy and figuring out how to put it into the right words. At one point, he laughs when another character lets loose a rather noisy emission of flatulence.

The "temptations" in this variation don't necessarily come from the Devil (also played by McGregor), unless one takes his ability to see every possible outcome of every universe that has ever existed as a way of guiding Jesus to the situation at the heart of the story. That scenario juxtaposes two sons and their relationships with their respective fathers. Neither son can understand his father, and both fathers are distant and quiet. Jesus sees a lot of himself in the other son (played by Tye Sheridan)—the pressure to fulfill his father's plans for him, the desire to forge his own life outside of what his father wants, the difficulty of actually communicating any of these matters with a man who seems to have little interest in communication.

If the two sons—Jesus and the teenager whom he encounters in the wilderness—are alike, it would follow that the two fathers also must possess commonalities. The earthly father (played by Ciarán Hinds) has a plan for his own son that follows his family's traditions and legacy. He believes it is what his son wants, although he has never asked the boy. He is with his son and ailing wife (played by Ayelet Zurer) in the desert to build a home for the boy, and the son only sees it as the place where he will eventually die—never having being able to live the life he wanted. The father knows something is amiss with his son, but he does not see a reason to make an effort to talk with the boy about it. Traditions must be followed. It is the way it should be.

If this is the story of two estranged families, where does the Devil fit into the scheme? He's like a cousin who thinks he knows more than he actually does and hides his discontent with an air of cynicism. Unlike Jesus, the Devil has known "the old man"—seen him, been in his presence. He was among the first children of God at one point but decided to set out on his own path.

His example is the ultimate temptation here. The test he puts forth to Jesus is to resolve the familial conflict in the desert in such a way that all parties are satisfied with the outcome. The two debate matters of theology and philosophy in the process. Surely, the Devil contends, that an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-seeing deity would have more important concerns than listening to and answering Jesus' cries for guidance.

God is silent, but the Devil has words of encouragement, insults that cut to the heart of Jesus' doubts, and verbal and supernatural trickery that make Jesus wonder if anything he might do would influence the world in any meaningful way. What do his actions matter when the Devil says that everything is predetermined? Why does he need to change anything when the Devil says that God can change—and has changed—the course of the entire universe on a whim?

Writer/director Rodrigo García is not interested in providing answers to these queries or the multitude of others that the film presents (The final scenes, which flash ahead to the end of Jesus' story before bringing history into the present day, are especially enigmatic). He doesn't preach a certain belief system. Instead, he takes apart a piece of scripture and reassembles it—reconfigures it—in order to probe questions that go beyond one religion. Last Days in the Desert is a work of reflection on the burden of the unanswerable.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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