Sunday, August 21, 2016

"Last Days in the Desert": review


"Last Days in the Desert" is a biblically themed film directed by Rodrigo García and starring Ewan McGregor as both Jesus and Satan. It tells the non-canonical story of one final temptation of Jesus as he's leaving the desert to return to civilization: on his way out after having put himself through a forty-day trial, Jesus encounters a small family: a father (Ciarán Hinds), a mother (Ayelet Zurer), and a son (Tye Sheridan). Persuaded by the father to accept the family's hospitality, Jesus elects to stay with them a while, helping the father with a house-building project (Jesus does have carpentry skills, after all). As time goes on, Jesus learns that the son has ambitions that would lead him into the big city (Jerusalem, in this case) while the father intends for the son to remain in the desert and to carry on his work. The mother, meanwhile, is sick and dying. On top of all this, Satan seems not to be finished with Jesus: he is portrayed here as a constant companion, unseen by others but seen by Jesus, quietly mocking and hectoring the prophet, occasionally lying as is his wont, occasionally providing answers that seem quite honest.

Artistically speaking, the movie sits somewhere on the spectrum between Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" and pretty much anything by Terrence Malick, whose movies are nothing if not meditative. There's conflict, symbolism, and pain in "Last Days." The family that Jesus encounters is obviously a metaphor for Jesus' own internal struggle: the father, while present, is hard and distant toward his son, a sensitive boy who likes making up his own riddles. (The father tells Jesus that he himself dislikes riddles.) Satan reveals much about himself, but we're never quite sure how much of it is a lie. In a vulnerable moment, Jesus asks Satan what it's like to stand face-to-face with the Father, and Satan's reply is chilling: "There is no face. There is no face." Satan also mockingly asks Jesus whether people a thousand years hence will even care about what Jesus has done, and the film's final scene—in which modern-day tourists snap photos of themselves at a cliff's edge that Jesus had visited—seems to reinforce the idea that Jesus' efforts amount to little more than vain striving. The movie is quiet, and quietly bleak.

"Last Days" could be read as a demythologized version of part of the Jesus story: Satan can be chalked up to a hallucination; there are no miracles (Jesus attempts to heal the mother, but she rejects his ministrations); when Jesus' suffering, death, and burial occur near the very end, there is no resurrection. As with Mark Salzman's fantastic novella Lying Awake, the movie's approach to spirituality is fairly Zen: emphasis is placed on ordinariness, not on cosmic drama. The movie is also mostly about the dialogue—Jesus' exchanges with Satan, as well as Jesus' exchanges with each of the three family members.

In all, I found "Last Days in the Desert" to be a thoughtful drama. It's not quite as intense as Scorsese's take on Christ, nor is it quite as dreamy as a Terrence Malick film, but there is a subtle depth to be found here. The story might resonate with non-Christians to the extent that it's been demythologized; as with many such films, God Himself never puts in an appearance, which is consistent with God's increasingly apophatic role as we move from the Hebrew Bible—the Tanakh—to what Christians call the New Testament.

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