Article ID: JAR20160520 | By: John McAteer
The opening title card of Last Days in the Desert says, “To prepare for his mission, the holy man went into the desert to fast and pray, and to seek guidance.” This is a rather coy start to a film that is clearly about Jesus. The events depicted in the film are not based directly on the Bible—the story, minimal as it is, involves a family that the “holy man” meets on his way to Jerusalem after spending forty days fasting in the desert—but the main character (played by Ewan McGregor) is later referred to as Yeshua, the Hebrew name for Jesus. He is said to be the only Son of God, and the film ends with him being crucified. So, yeah, it’s Jesus. But this is far from a typical “life of Jesus” movie.
Though Last Days in the Desert is a beautiful film, for many people it will be challenging to watch. It is an “art film”—the kind of film that plays at film festivals attended by professional film critics—not a Hollywood film aimed at the multiplex movie theater in the mall. Last Days is slow and quiet, with lots of silence and strange, unexplained, ambiguous imagery. For example, in one of the film’s most striking images, a hummingbird hovers near Jesus’ head as he hangs on the cross. These images are poetic but not allegorical—where everything has a single, clear symbolic meaning or interpretation. The filmmakers are working off of intuition and subconscious instinct, leaving any determinate meanings open to multiple interpretations.
This film will strike many evangelical viewers as bizarre. It is not a direct attack on Christianity, but neither is it a typical “faith-based movie.” I could catalogue all the questionable interpretive choices the filmmakers made that seem to deviate from the biblical witness about Jesus, but I think that would miss the point of the film. Writer-director Rodrigo García is not religious, so we shouldn’t be surprised that he simply is not that interested in the same things that might interest Christians.
When Christians read the Bible, they’re usually interested in the literal meaning of the text in its original historical context. Yet García—son of the Nobel Prize–winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez—places the figure of Jesus in the context of his own modern-day family dynamic. In many ways, García is more interested in the universal dynamic of a son’s relationship to his father than he is interested in Jesus. It is as if he selected Jesus as the most archetypal example of a Son trying to please his Father or, more autobiographically, as a way for García to explore his feelings about having to fill the impossibly big shoes of his own world-famous father.
Understanding this background helps make sense of the film’s deviations from Scripture. As in most Jesus movies made by non-Christians, Jesus is portrayed as unsure of his mission. The first words in the film are Jesus saying, “Father, where are you?” Here García imagines Jesus experiencing the silence of God that most religious people feel from time to time but which is hard to reconcile with the divinity of Christ. If Jesus was the incarnation of God in the flesh, then it makes sense to assume that Jesus must have continually felt God’s presence. Sure, Jesus felt spiritual anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt. 26:37–38) and hanging on the cross (Matt. 27:46), but it seems like a stretch to generalize about Jesus’ relationship with the Father based on those two very exceptional, atonement-specific incidents.
Most of the other problematic scenes involve an unnamed tempter (also played by Ewan McGregor) who is clearly supposed to be the Devil. At one point, the Devil claims that God has created other universes before, restarting the whole of history at the end of time. This sounds more like Hinduism or even Nietzscheism than Christianity. The Devil also says God has destroyed and recreated the world many times just to get the “little things” right, like the shape of a single dewdrop or the angle of a leaf. Later the Devil explicitly admits to being a liar, so it is unclear whether we should believe these claims. A more troubling scene is when Jesus asks the Devil what it is like to be in God’s presence. Again, if Jesus were the incarnation of God’s eternal Word, then wouldn’t he know what it is like to see God face-to-face?
These are bizarre scenes, but they make more sense in the context of a movie about someone whose father is a world-famous perfectionistic artist, willing to write draft after draft of a novel to get every word just right. From a child’s point of view, if this sort of perfectionist is willing to go to such great lengths in art, why does he seem to put so little effort into his relationship with his son? Does he care more about his art than his family?
The choice to have both the Devil and Jesus played by the same actor makes sense in this context, too. On the literal level, it makes sense that the Devil would appear in someone’s own guise to facilitate his goal of making human beings believe lies about ourselves and our relationship to God. But taken as a story about fathers and sons, the Devil becomes an “alter ego” of Jesus, someone who expresses true feelings about his father that Jesus has trouble admitting to himself. He is an embodiment of the bitter and resentful person that any son could become if he can’t come to terms with his father.
The Devil says God’s presence produces a “confusing” and overwhelming feeling of “worthlessness” while at the same time a sense of unity in which “you and He are one and the same.” This idea of being one with God is partly an appeal to the tradition of Christian mysticism. But being “one and the same” with God is also a reference to the idea that sons are just like their fathers. Here the Devil is saying he feels like one of God’s sons, a feeling that also produces a sense of shame at failing to live up to a standard set by a father. The discussion about God’s presence, then, is not about how Jesus doesn’t know what it is like to be in the presence of the father; it is a chance to explore the Devil’s description of being with his father and the sense of inadequacy that a young artist like García would feel in the presence of his Nobel Prize–winning father.
What are Christians to make of this story? It is not really a movie for us. Garcia has taken the biblical tradition and read it in a different context for his own purposes. Writer-director Rodrigo García is using the film to explore his own insecurities as an artist about not living up to his legendary father’s artistic standards. García is not primarily making a move about Jesus, then. He’s making a movie about fathers and sons, using the relationship between Jesus and the Father as an archetype. But it is good enough art to work on multiple levels, as a film about relating to fathers or a film about finding your vocation in life or even a film about Jesus.
For García, the story of Jesus is something that happened long ago, but it is a kind of universal story that echoes through time. But perhaps we can do the same thing with his film that he did with the Bible. The power of archetypes is their ability to survive recontextualization. Read in the context of our own Christian tradition, the film does raise interesting questions that could initiate fruitful discussion. The film ends with modern-day tourists showing up in the same desert landscape where the Jesus story had taken place. They are not aware of the full significance of the place, but the weight of the past shapes their context in deep ways. It is as if the Spirit of Jesus haunts the world, even for those who no longer believe in Him.
For apologetics purposes, Last Days in the Desert is a good film to watch with non-Christians. Its open-endedness means they won’t see it as preachy, but the same open-endedness is what makes it an effective prompt for discussion. For me, the most interesting question raised by the film is whether Jesus won the bet the Devil tried to make with him.
The family Jesus meets in the desert is entangled in a deep conflict about their son’s future. The Devil challenges Jesus to untangle the knot of the family conflict. Jesus, of course, is not interested in betting, but the question remains whether Jesus did in fact make any positive difference in the lives of the family he met. And if so, how did he make a difference? What did he actually do? He mostly remains silent, and yet his presence does seem to make all the difference to the family. What, then, does this tell us about the character of Jesus and His ability to make a difference in our lives today?
In the film, the Devil says he can’t understand God’s plan for the world because it is so repetitive. God keeps doing the same thing over and over, day after day, century after century—the sun comes up, the sun goes down, winter turns into spring, spring into summer and fall and then back into winter again. Jesus asks whether anything ever surprises him, and he says no. People always live the same lives and make the same mistakes; sons always repeat the sins of their fathers in a never-ending cycle. But, interestingly, the Devil admits that while he usually can foresee what will happen, he can’t when Jesus is involved. Apparently the film is imagining that Jesus has the power to change things in a way that the rest of us do not.
Jesus is thus one of those “surprises” that the Devil says do not exist. Jesus is able to break the cycle of human sin. The Devil says that, though God has created the world again and again, the “previous tellings” of the world’s story were a “little bit different” than they are now, since Jesus has been involved. Jesus is a new idea the Author of history has inserted into this draft of the world. “Now it is your turn” to tell the story, the Devil tells Jesus. “Can you do any better?” And, indeed, Jesus does do better. He is able to make a difference in the lives of the family members he meets in the desert, though he does so without miraculous intervention. Instead of healing the mother’s terminal illness or using superhuman strength to prevent a tragic event with another character (both of which the film suggests that Jesus could have done if he had wanted to), Jesus works in the hearts of the family by quietly listening to them and calling them to love one another with acts of self-sacrifice.
When all is said and done, Jesus has made a difference, though one that does not avoid suffering and death. When the Devil first challenges him to try to change things, the Devil tells Jesus he foresaw that a certain member of the family would die if Jesus had not stopped to stay with the family. After Jesus’ intervention, that person still dies but in a way that the family members—in particular, the father and son—are reconciled to one another. Jesus has broken the cycle of sin and resentment between father and son.
This seems to me a beautiful parable of the power of Christ to change lives by inspiring self-giving love in those who know Him. The makers of Last Days in the Desert may not have intended to make any such theological statement, but if they can use the New Testament to explore their own concerns, then why can’t we use their art film to preach the gospel?
John McAteer is associate professor at Ashford University where he serves as the chair of the liberal arts program. Before receiving his PhD in philosophy from the University of California at Riverside, he earned a BA in film from Biola University and an MA in philosophy of religion and ethics from Talbot School of Theology.