“Father, where are you?” – Jesus (Last Days of the Desert, 2016)
Directed by Rodrigo Garcia (Albert Nobbs) and beautifully shot by three time Oscar-winning cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki (The Revenant, Gravity), Last Days in the Desert follows ‘the holy man’ as he ventures into the desert, seeking spiritual enlightenment. More specifically though, the ‘holy man’ is actually referring to Jesus (Ewan McGregor) during his famous spiritual dual with Satan (also McGregor) in the scene commonly referred to as the “temptation in the wilderness” (Matthew 4:1-11). While the film doesn’t focus entirely on the Biblical account of events (i.e. throwing himself off a ledge), it does serve as a sort of set-up for them.
After entering into the desert, Jesus meets a family that is in turmoil. With the mother increasingly ill, a young man desperately wants to leave his father’s way of life in the wilderness to pursue other interests in the city. However, his father’s traditional ways have driven a wedge between them as he insists that his son stay and continue the family tradition. In the midst of this, Satan wagers Jesus that, if he is able to help them, he will leave Jesus alone along the remainder his journey.
However, while the drama offers shape to the narrative, this family encounter also provides context for Garcia to explore some of the deeper questions of Jesus’ spiritual journey. For example, by exploring the tension between the son’s desire to seek another path against the Father’s will, Garcia also explores the tension of Jesus’ spiritual role. Is the father’s will simply over-bearing and old fashioned? Is the son’s desire to pursue his own interests merely self-indulgence? How could a loving father do this to his son? As he listens to the pain of both the father and his son, these moments also is force Jesus to deal with the same questions that he has about his own calling and relationship with his Father.
Centering much of the story around the building of a home for the son, Garcia reveals the incredible difficulty of Jesus’ mission. As he spends much of the film helping the family lay the foundation, Jesus demonstrates his commitment to submit to the will of his Father while, at the same time, inviting him to let go. In fact, the home also becomes a metaphor for Jesus ‘building his church’ amongst a broken people. One example of this comes in one scene where Satan proclaims that Jesus ‘is not ready’ and kicks down part of the wall that they’d worked so hard to build.
Of course, one of the most interesting pieces about the film is the fact that McGregor takes on the role of both Jesus and Satan. As always, McGregor gives a solid performance as Jesus but he clearly relishes the opportunity to play the role of tempter as well. His antagonism is almost playful at times, both recognizing Jesus’ role in the Godhead and questioning it at the same time. Whether it’s holding to the love of his Father or the basic offer of water, Satan does what he can to shake the foundation of Jesus’ belief in the goodness of God. In doing so, he also brings an honesty to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness that we don’t often see onscreen. By portraying both characters, the spiritual battle somehow becomes more personal than most other films by drawing a clearer relationship between the tempter and the tempted. Rather than depicting Satan as ‘the other’, Last Days powerfully shows Jesus wrestling with his own desires as well. Visions of fear, Divine power and even lust cause Jesus to genuinely grapple with his sense of calling. (After all, temptation really has no power unless there is an inner struggle as well.)
In the end, Desert sets itself apart from the standard Biblical film by allowing itself the freedom to ask questions that others are afraid to ask. While other films have depicted this spiritual battle in the wilderness as a success, this film is more concerned with showing the hardships in claiming that victory.