Unlike other recent films about Jesus (yes, I’ve seen The Young Messiah and God’s Not Dead 2), Last Days in the Desert is hardly aimed at the evangelical community. There’s partial nudity, and a Jesus (Ewan McGregor) who frequently kisses people on the mouth and seems confused as to what his powers are and when he should use them. And if that makes things sound more exciting than the average sermon, please hold your enthusiasm. A middling compromise between Terrence Malick-style meditation and Last Temptation of Christ-like spiritual probing, this tale of the Christ from director Rodrigo García (Six Feet Under, Carnivale) coasts by on atmosphere while offering little in the way of enlightenment.
Initially identified only as “the holy man,” McGregor’s Jesus is the lone figure in a vast, open desert, isolated from all worldly temptations. He walks. He drinks water. He sits next to a thorn bush and laughs ironically as he finds thorns in his hair, presumably understanding the foreshadowing. He comes across an old woman and shares his water. Then he comes across himself. And while it’s natural to talk to yourself after a long period in isolation, it’s not often that the self you’re talking to has a whole other body. That’s right: Ewan McGregor is both Jesus and Satan in this story, or as the film insists on calling them, “Yeshua” and “the demon.” He’s fine in both roles, as you get a sense he has a much better idea of what the story is about than you do.
Restaging the familiar temptations from the Gospels—you know, turning stones to bread, ruling a kingdom, jumping off a cliff to be caught by angels—would be too pedestrian for a director aspiring to capital-A art like García, so instead we have Yeshua come upon a family of three, none of whom have names, because Allegory! The father (Ciaran Hinds) likes the desert, and wants to keep farming here and building a house from stone. The son (Tye Sheridan) wants to go to the big city and see the world. The mother (Ayelet Zurer) is dying, and once she is dead and buried the father will insist that the son can now really, really never leave because it would be disrespectful to leave her grave behind.
The demon makes Yeshua a deal: he will leave him alone if the savior can figure out a way to resolve the family’s differences without using force. And if you’re thinking he could just go up to them and say, “I’m Jesus Christ, son of God, and I can heal your sick wife”…well, no. At first, a spiritualist might be inclined to think that this is the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel, who was only clear on his divinity following the baptism by John. But no…a shot of him levitating, and numerous knowing references made by the demon about his father make it clear that this Messiah does indeed know who he is. The only reason not to heal the mother, as far as we can tell, is that Satan thinks he should, because that would be a temptation to use his power. But if that is, then wouldn’t every instance of healing be a similar temptation? Is it that he has to learn he can’t heal everybody with miracles, but soothe them with words? Because he doesn’t do a whole lot of talking either, and his attempt to get father and son to bond over shared interests falls literally flat.
I’d hate to spoil an ending that actually contains plot points, so I’ll say only that the resolution to the family’s problems feels neither particularly Christian nor much of a solution. And the final scenes, featuring flash-forwards, serve only to obscure the story’s point further rather than enhancing it. Is García’s point that there will always be suffering? That endings parallel each other? That Jesus is coming back? I’d love to think he means to provoke these kinds of questions, but it honestly feels like he just couldn’t commit to a satisfying resolution. And if the story of a man who gives his life for his beliefs so that you’ll take him and them seriously isn’t about satisfying resolutions, that’s probably news to most people.
Two and a half burritos for Last Days in the Desert, which gives good ambiance but comes up short on spirituality.
[UPDATE: The original version of this review mentioned full-frontal nudity. Subsequent to publication, we were informed by Broadgreen Pictures that those scenes have been removed and do not reflect the current theatrical version of the film.]
Images: Broadgreen Pictures