Last Days in the Desert dares to ask the one question every other film made about Jesus Christ has been too afraid to ask: What would Jesus do if someone farted in His presence?
Played by Ewan McGregor, the Jesus in Last Days in the Desert is not overtly divine in any way. He is referred to as a holy man but aside from the near constant presence of the Devil (also played by McGregor), there is nothing in the film that really speaks to, points to, or confirms Jesus as the savior of humanity. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing from a narrative stand point as Last Days is nearly singular in focus unlike other films about Jesus which try to tell the whole story.
Not based on the Gospels, Last Days is a made up story of what happened to Jesus at the very end of his 40 days and nights fasting and praying in the desert. The film begins with Yeshua (as he is called in the film) on his way out of the desert, alone and seemingly confused by the silence of God. He has spent over a month praying and not receiving any answers from above. Jesus is nearing his time out of the desert on his approach to Jerusalem when he encounters a family living in the middle of the desert. A father dedicated to making and living his life in the desert, a sick wife and mother nearing her death, and a son troubled by the distance of his father and dreams of a bigger life outside of the desert. For reasons left unexplained by Yeshua, he decides to delay his trip to Jerusalem to spend time with this family, helping them build a stone house while they provide him water and shelter. While he stays and helps this family, Yeshua is accompanied by the Devil who taunts him and makes a wager: if Yeshua can help each of these family members in a way that benefits all of them, then the Devil will leave him alone. Yeshua never agrees to the wager but does try to help this family, struggling to say the right words and live up to his destiny.
What is most striking about McGregor’s Jesus is how ordinary he is. Some of the faithful might find that offensive but it is a side of Jesus that is too often ignored in cinema. This Jesus is quiet and reserved. His words do not yet carry the weight you find in later chapters in his life. The two natures of Christ – the human and divine – are rarely emphasized together on screen. One nature usually takes priority over the other. Many films err on the side of the divine. Some, like Last Days, try to show the humanity over the divine and often use fictional ideas to get that across. A film like The Passion of The Christ is able to showcase both by virtue of the specific story it is telling: God’s son suffering and dying. I don’t know what the right approach is but I appreciate the many different ideas and interpretations.
Aside from the big question I opened this with (not a joke by the way), Last Days raises important questions about what Jesus was like. Did he really appear to be ordinary to most people? Would you have known, just by spending time with him, that he was the son of God? In the film, he doesn’t declare himself to be God’s son to these people. He doesn’t perform any miracles. He appears to be just like you and me. And that’s what has stuck with me since I saw this over a month ago. A Jesus that is selfless, but in a way that doesn’t draw attention to itself. A Jesus who genuinely cares about others regardless if they know he is the Christ. A Jesus who is still faithful to God and serving others, even if he experiences the silence of God just like we do.
I’ve become more attracted to these fictional takes on the life of Christ that emphasize his humanity. I don’t think we’ve gotten the definitive take on Christ yet in movies but films like Last Days are essential to further understanding the character of Jesus. The unique take on the Devil is worth the price of admission alone – a Devil who is intrigued by Jesus and the role he is going to play in the story of humanity, a Devil who is curious and fascinated by God’s actions and promises to stick around until the very end to understand it all. Don’t get me wrong, this is a Devil that tempts and tests Jesus but the conversations between Jesus and the Devil are enthralling and distinctive among Jesus movies.
When I left the theater, I wasn’t sure what the whole point of Last Days in the Desert was. It certainly wasn’t the movie I was expecting and I thought it would quickly leave my mind after I saw it. But I’ve been challenged by this film in a great way that has caused me to want to further examine the dual natures of Christ and seek more understanding of his humanity.
I honestly don’t think this film would be received very well by most audiences, Christian and non-Christian alike. Most would probably be bored by it and wonder, like I did initially, what the point of this particular movie about Jesus was. But I appreciated the non-conventional take on Jesus and the Devil and placing Jesus in an invented scenario during one of the most critical periods in his life. The film’s understated nature may be a detriment to it appealing to a wider audience but maybe we need movies like this about Jesus – movies that truly challenge our expectations about who Jesus was and what he was truly like.