Writer-director Rodrigo García’s Last Days in the Desert offers a potentially refreshing respite from the recent spate of faith-based films peppering the cinematic landscape. This is the Nine Lives and Mother and Child filmmaker’s own The Last Temptation of Christ: a religious film that attempts to present a humanized version of Jesus Christ, who’s surrounded by temptation and wracked with the same doubt as the mortals whose fates he holds in his hands. This stands in stark contrast to the ham-fisted certainties presented in films like the two God’s Not Dead features, which are plagued with mustache-twirling straw men meant to easily confirm the audience’s beliefs.
In García’s story, toward the end of his 40 days wandering the Judaean desert, Yeshua (Ewan McGregor)—the Hebrew name corresponding with Jesus—encounters a family and becomes involved in their conflicts. The father (Ciarán Hinds), a secular man-of-the-earth type with a distrust of humanity, is grooming his son (Tye Sheridan) to take over the family’s carpentry business out in the desert, but the boy feels that universal desire to strike out on his own; his terminally ill mother (Ayelet Zurer) sides more with him, expressing her preference that he learn a trade and secure a better life in Jerusalem. In Last Days in the Desert, this father-son relationship is meant to mirror Yeshua’s own ambivalent relationship with his Holy Father, one marked by doubts about his own mission to spread God’s word; in García’s film, Satan, who takes the mirror-image form of Yeshua himself, challenges him to try to solve all of this family’s problems in the cleanest way possible.
García offers a more internalized take on Jesus’s crisis of faith than the outwardly tortured soul presented in The Last Temptation of Christ. This introspective quality is matched by an austere aesthetic, with Emmanuel Lubezki’s wide landscape shots and Danny Densi and Saunder Jurriaans’s solemn string-based score, combined with the script’s spare use of dialogue, instilling a mood of intimate contemplation. Hinds subtly evokes the anguish behind the father’s stoicism, which makes the man’s one clumsy attempt to try to forge an emotional connection with his son—through a riddle, which is something the boy regularly enjoys—both touching and amusing. And McGregor’s customary detachment scans as observant watchfulness and thoughtfulness in this hushed context; he also brings enough energetic relish as Satan to make the contrast between good and evil palpable.
Alas, García ends the film on a frustratingly opaque note. By resolving the conflicts within the family, the film purports to offer some kind of resolution of Jesus’s own internal conflicts. And yet, it’s never made clear how witnessing this family deal with their specific issues affects his own perspective on his destiny to serve an elusive Holy Father; instead, García simply closes his drama out with obligatory scenes of Christ on the crucifix before his death and eventual resurrection. As sincere as it is, Last Days in the Desert doesn’t completely escape the inherent age-old trap of movies about Jesus Christ: how to make a noble man designated by God to spread his Word to the masses into a genuinely interesting and dimensional screen character.