A much-needed sense of humility permeates Rodrigo Garcia’s Last Days in the Desert, a respite from the disingenuous self-importance found in most bombastic biblical epics and pandering “faith-based” dramas. Garcia has no interest in sermonizing here; his humanized take on Jesus’s sojourn in the Judean wilderness finds its strengths in ambiguity and restraint, never explicitly tipping its hand as to where its theological leanings lie. Yeshua (as he’s called in Hebrew) is shown as a man first and foremost: he hesitates, he struggles to give comfort to others, he refrains from long-winded homilies, he laughs at a fart. Any inklings towards the supernatural or messianic are mostly left to interpretation; he’s a rabbi and assumed prophet, sure, but the Christ? That’s up to you.
Not that Last Days is without its mysticism; Yeshua suffers from nightmares (or visions) that plague his sleep, he’s accompanied by a mysterious doppelganger he thinks to be Satan and only he sees, and he implies a belief in his own miraculous powers (yet never shows them). He also feels he’s been given a divine message in the form of a task: after coming across a small family in the desert—a dying mother, an aging father, and teenage son anxious to shirk his familial responsibilities and see the world—Yeshua wrestles with finding the best way to ease the rising tensions in their home. He views their simmering discord as a spiritual challenge, a puzzle to be solved. His satanic companion, however, mockingly presents the dilemma as a rigged wager, a petty matter whose outcome is based on the whims of an uncaring, unsympathetic God. Yet Garcia refuses to turn the complications into an overt parable; instead, Last Days contemplates the tangled relationships between fathers and sons, between expectations and reality, between duty and free will. While not entirely futile, neither is Yeshua the catalyst of great change and redemption among the family; his inability to find the answers needed to assuage his hosts’ difficulties reflects his own personal turmoil, his own grappling with a distant, unresponsive father. Garcia cannily subverts the Jesus-as-panacea message so dominant in religious films, rather focusing on the spiritual growth (or despair) of Yeshua himself. Last Days shows us a man in transition, not yet a martyr, not necessarily a messiah—a relatable human being, in other words.
Unfortunately, as with most cinematic tales of Jesus, there’s a certain feeling of inevitability that settles into Last Days; once the father introduces his plan for mining a precarious patch of cliff-side stone, you know where the plot’s headed, and no amount of fascinating interplay between Yeshua and the Devil can head off this growing certainty. As the film winds down, Garcia seems unsure as how to conclude his story; he offers closure for the family, and the last conversation between Yeshua and the Devil ends on a chilling final offer from the demon, yet we continue on to an unnecessary crucifixion scene, one that seems based more on assumed necessity than a logical endpoint. (Garcia commits the opposite of the Batman origin problem—we don’t need to be told how this story ends. We got it.) And, while Garcia finishes with some gorgeous Lubezki cinematography, he closes out the film on an enigmatic final shot that’s either a shining example of non-diegetic poeticism or intrusive showiness. (I’m leaning towards the latter.)
Good thing that Ewan McGregor, as both Yeshua and his tagalong demon, captures each side of this personal conflict with striking clarity. Granted, the initial shock of a middle-aged Scottish guy playing a 33-year-old Galilean takes a couple minutes to shake off, but McGregor quickly establishes himself as up to the task. Early on, Yeshua finds respite from a windstorm by cowering in the brush, his hair growing tangled in the thorns of the bushes. Symbolism aside, the way McGregor’s face slowly progresses—from despair to annoyance to exasperated mirth to frustration at his plight—reveals just how uncertain Yeshua’s wanderings through the wilderness have left him, how emotionally spent he’s become. Contrast this with the Devil, malicious in his mockery of Yeshua’s faith, seductive in his cavalier cynicism towards the desert pilgrimage, yet also succeptible to the unexpected beauty of a shooting star. McGregor establishes an impressive balance between man and demon, all while presenting both as fallible and subject to the same impulses and doubts that wrack us all. Which perhaps is the greatest feat of Last Days; by removing the assurances of divinity, Garcia finds an encouraging commonality usually lost among retellings of the New Testament. His Yeshua may not be the Messiah, and his story may not be exactly uplifting, but there is something surprisingly comforting in his fable. Call it a secular inspirational Jesus story for the areligious. Or just call it a good movie.