Verdict: It’s strangely mesmerizing, and filled my night with interesting discussions about Christianity in cinema. If that appeals to you, go for it.
“Last Days in the Desert” isn’t enjoyable, or particularly moving. It’s not engaging, or exciting, or terrible, trashy. Nonetheless it’s magnetic, mesmerizing as it presents a revised take on Jesus’ forty days in the desert.
The film stars Ewan McGregor as a bedraggled Jesus (pronounced here Yeshua) making his way out of the desert at the end of his forty days fasting and praying. Following him is Satan, also played by McGregor, a trickster that only he can see, tempting him along the way. Yeshua stumbles across a lone family, the mother deathly ill, the son desperate to leave the desert and the father intent on staying. He joins them, looking in his final days for the confirmation and spiritual relief he has sought in his desert journey.
Daddy issues drive the film, both the adventurous son’s conflict with the father he respects and Yeshua’s longing for God. The film emphasizes that Yeshua’s time in the desert is one of fear, of doubting his father and fearing the weakness that doubt brings to him. Noteworthy: writer/director Rodrigo García is the son of a great figure himself, famed Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez. García’s films have generally received mixed reviews, so I can imagine “Last Days”’s father/son schism as a stand-in for his own, what with his dad winning a Nobel Prize for Literature and all that.
Even if that’s the case, though, the film doesn’t beat it home. The father and son are clearly meant to highlight the relationship trouble between Yeshua and God. Yeshua doesn’t bring it up often, but his doubt is always there, evident in his violent dreams and long glances cast around the desert. There’s a lot of looking in this movie, lots of eye action where there’s not much stuff happening, part of its entrancing stillness.
The film’s starkness is at times off-putting, too cold and still to really engage in. Visually its stillness is beautiful. The ever-wonderful Emmanuel Lubezki shot the film, after all, and if we learned anything from everybody’s favorite pile of drivel “The Revenant” it’s that Lubezki can make anything so gorgeous that it can be misconstrued as “good”.
However the narrative slowness will probably lose an average audience. There’s little conflict aside from the differing desires of the father and son, whose dissatisfactions are expressed only in soft words to Yeshua.
This might be a good time to talk about the merits of estrangement, though. In most cases we want immersion. Nobody wants to see a movie they can’t get lost in, right? But in some cases pushing the audience out of the film can be good. Like, in “Last Days” a lot of weird stuff happens. Yeshua and Satan have a strange relationship in which they sometimes talk like old friends who disagree about politics, and then the next moment Satan is transforming into a topless woman to tempt him. That’s flippin insane, in the context of the Bible as well as García’s insistence that he didn’t make a Bible movie.
It’s dissecting the mutated Christian narrative that made this movie worth the ticket price. My lack of engagement with the characters gave me the space to think as the tale unfolded, the stillness providing a serene, unobtrusive backdrop.
Does this make it a good movie? Eh. But it made it an interesting watch, and provided some conversation fodder and tasty brain feeding after the fact. That works for me. So while I can’t say that I loved it, I’m glad I’ve seen it.