12.11.2016

Movie Review: Last Days in the Desert ***

"Where are you Father? ... Speak to me"

Last days in the Desert is less a movie about Jesus' temptation in the wilderness than a movie about Fathers.

The film starts with Jesus (played by the blue eyed Ewan McGregor) wondering the desert: walking, praying, sleeping, and occasionally drinking. When he stumbles upon an old woman it seems the devil has found him. But this isn't a gospel account of Jesus' temptations. The devil (who is played by McGregor as well through most the movie) is more interested in showing God to be a selfish and foolish Father rather than tempt Jesus into some action.

While Jesus makes his slow return to Jerusalem, he comes across a boy and his sick, dying mother. Jesus gets his fill of water only to meet the boys father not far from where he left the boy. The father insists on having the "holy man" stay with them.

And, stay he does. Jesus starts working with the boy and father learning about their relationship, meanwhile, the devil taunts Jesus about his relationship with his Father. And there are noticeable similarities, first and foremost being that both Fathers have problems communicating. God never clearly communicates to Jesus (though Jesus asks) and the father struggles immensely breaking the barrier between him and his son. Another similarity is the feeling of the sons' inadequacy in light of their fathers' expectations. At one point the son runs around yelling "I am a good son", and later the devil will question Jesus' motives for staying with the family as long as he has. Is Jesus up to his Father's task?

Throughout the film Jesus is still uncertain of who he is, he certainly never claims to be anything other than a holy man and the devil holds all the power. Jesus asks him what being in God's presence is like, and about the fate of the father and son (twice). These are things most Christians might have expected Jesus to have known. Jesus is more man than God. He struggles to find meaning, gives bad advice, laughs at farts, and has compassion on a sick and dying woman.

The film is minimalist. There are only about 6 characters in the entire film, the desert setting is sparse (and it's the only setting of the entire movie), and so is the family's tent and partially built home. But this minimalist ascetic is quite beautiful and makes the movie all the more captivating, even if it's flawed.

A few things hold this film back. McGregor particularly shines in his role as the devil but I questioned why the director made the two roles for the same actor. It certainly wasn't required, since he changes his appearance at least twice. At points it seemed like an inner dialogue, at others like he was confiding in a friend, and still others like someone slightly obnoxious had just turned up, I never felt like the devil was actually there.

The other thing holding the film back is a lack of context. We don't know how long Jesus had been in the desert, has he been tempted already? Is this his temptation? How so? (There is only one scene at the end where the devil offers him an out). Wait, he's going to Jerusalem? Why?

So what does one do with a story about Jesus that could have been about anyone? Nothing in the films first hour and 30 minutes demand that Jesus be Jesus of Nazareth! And to add to the issue, the last 10 minutes (that make it clear that this IS Jesus) feel either tacked or give the sense that God is abusing the son and the devil isn't lying about God "true" nature.

3 stars.