‘Last Days in the Desert’ is Artfully Composed and Thematically Redundant

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As much as there is talk of superhero fatigue taking place at the cinemas, it could just as easily be said that we’re suffering from Jesus fatigue at the cinema. Ever since Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ made a fortune in 2004, the biblical film has become a resurgent genre. Some of these films are more exploitative, some are epics meant to impress in scale and inspire in message, and some are quiet reflections on faith. Last Days in the Desert, the new film from writer-director Rodrigo Garcia, falls into the latter category. This is a modest film about Jesus (though he’s only referred to as Yahshua) facing temptation and battling his moments of doubt while trying to help a family residing in the desert. Last Days in the Desert may not be one of the great cinematic explorations as to life and teachings of Christ, but it still makes for an engaging film that is ultimately about the choices we make and the linger effects they can have on the lives of others.

In the film, Jesus (Ewan McGregor) has travelled to the desert to fast and pray. He wonders and speaks to heavens, hoping for a sign from his benevolent father. There’s also a darkness that is following Jesus through the desert, as he’s frequently confronted by the Devil. Appearing as a mirror image of himself, the Devil taunts Jesus with pessimistic doubts and wagers meant to undermine the righteousness of the travelling savior. In the desert, Jesus encounters a young man (Tye Sheridan), who offers the stranger some water. This family that dwells in the desert has a hard life, the father (Ciarán Hinds) spends his days working as a stone mason and caring for his dying wife (Ayelet Zurer). The son wants to travel to Jerusalem and see the world beyond the desert, but the father wants his son to say with his family. As Jesus stays with them and helps, their lives are about to be transformed in ways they cannot imagine.

Thematically, Last Days in the Desert covers much of the same ground as Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Time and time again, Jesus must face a series of decisions that will directly affect those immediately surrounding him. He’s constantly approached by his devilish doppelganger with various temptations, though this portrayal of Jesus doesn’t really face much of a dilemma with these forms of temptation. But as a fateful event that occurs towards the end of the film proves, it’s not the life and soul of Jesus that was hanging in the balance, but the life and soul of the young man whom Jesus encounters in the desert. Without agonizing proselytizing, Last Days in the Desert is able to make its case that even in passing an encounter with Jesus can have a transformative effect on the lives of many – whether that’s good or bad depends on who you are.

Featuring the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, Last Days in the Desert contains numerous shots of majestic vistas. The natural landscapes are captured with Lubezki’s affection for lens flares, lending a bit of heavenly light to stunning scenery. All of the visuals employed here aren’t anywhere as near as challenging to the viewer as Lubezki’s work with Terrance Malick and Alejandro González Iñárritu, which through its understated presentation makes it all the more a visual marvel.

Always a charming actor, Ewan McGregor carries plenty of his natural charm into the role of Jesus. This is a version of Christ that is very quiet and inquisitive, willing to listen more than he is to lecture. The scenes between Jesus and the father played by Ciarán Hinds are moments of two men trying to reach an understanding through a dialogue. These a strong moments between two skilled actors. Sadly, Ayelet Zurer isn’t able to give much of a performance, as her character’s illness relegate her to resting on the floor for much of the film.

Last Days in the Desert is probably too arty for the truly religious crowd and too religious for the arthouse crowd, and that kind of sums up the movie perfectly. It’s a film that’s not oppressively overt in its religiosity, but it also doesn’t take its questions about Christ to anywhere we haven’t been before. With a limited cast and stunning scenery, Rodrigo Garcia has crafted a tale about Christ that is beautifully composed visually but missing that key element to push the film towards greatness.

Editor’s Note: For a theological exegete on this film click: Although Theologically and Culturally Inaccurate ‘Last Days in the Desert’ is Well Made Christian Fiction

  • Last Days in the Desert
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Summary

A modest exploration of Jesus’ time in the desert, Last Days in the Desert features stunning natural photography and a rather rote moral tale.

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