Last Days in the Desert (2015)

  • Time: 95 min
  • Genre: Adventure | Drama | History
  • Director: Rodrigo García
  • Cast: Ewan McGregor, Ciarán Hinds, Tye Sheridan


Ewan McGregor is Jesus – and the Devil – in an imagined chapter from his forty days of fasting and praying in the desert. On his way out of the wilderness, Jesus struggles with the Devil over the fate of a family in crisis, setting for himself a dramatic test.

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  • A man looks out at his surroundings. A parched landscape of craggy hills gazes back. He appears uncertain at times, resigned at others, persistently beset by the elements whether it be the rocks crawling into his flimsy shoes or sheltering himself from the cold, cold nights. “Father, where are you?” he wonders to the sky and is answered with nothing but silence. The man is named Yeshua, and he is the Son of God.

    Faith is his sustenance, though it needs replenishment. His simmering self-doubt manifests itself in dreams of drowning or being chased by wolves. Apparitions appear – a beggar woman who cackles and recedes her tail when he shares his water with her, then the devil himself who happens to be his exact mirror image. More corporeal are a family living amidst the emptiness: a commanding Father (Ciarán Hinds), an ailing Mother (Ayelet Zurer), and a 16-year-old Son (Tye Sheridan). There’s tension between the Father and Son; the Father wants him to remain on the land, the Son yearns to go to Jerusalem and leave his footprint in the world. The Son resents the Father, the Father cannot comprehend the Son.

    Stirred by his natural instinct to help and comfort, the man is further compelled to “untangle the knot” of bitterness and unhappiness that is slowly but surely constricting the family when the the devil proposes the wager. If the man can resolve the situation to everyone’s satisfaction, then the devil will bring him no bother for the rest of his journey. The devil naturally makes no promises to further corrode the man’s confidence, goading him into debates over the futility of loving a God who cannot be a father to one when He is a father to all of his creations.

    Though the conflict between the Father and the Son may parallel the man’s own estrangement with his father, it is the conversations between the man and the devil that lend heft to the film and marinate in the mind long after viewing. Casting Ewan McGregor in both roles emphasises Yeshua’s war within and further undergirds Garcia’s focus on the human rather than divine aspect of his central figure. “Your good intentions are wasted here,” the devil tells Yeshua – the family can ruin itself without his involvement. When Yeshua wonders what will happen if he fails to fulfill the devil’s mission, the devil retorts, “Failure is its own punishment. That’s Daddy talk.” Indeed, much of the talk centers around the most distant of daddies. The devil castigates God as a fickle and selfish being, someone who will destroy and recreate in order to amuse himself with minor variations, someone who loves his work and his power rather than his Son. Does Yeshua truly believe he is the one and only, that his sacrifices will matter a million years from now?

    More intriguingly is how the devil is infused with his own vulnerabilities, resembling not so much a malevolent being as a son disgruntled over being unable to please his father. One of the more extraordinary moments finds Yeshua asking the devil if he has seen God’s face. There is no face, the devil declares, only a thing that swallows you, makes you feel worthless, yet makes you feel that you and He are one and the same. “It’s confusing,” the devil concludes with an almost sad chuckle.

    If Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was an endurance test of the visceral, then Rodrigo García’s imagined evocation of the Messiah’s time fasting and wandering in the desert may be too burdensome an emotional cross for some viewers to bear. Deliberate in pacing and stripped to the bone in terms of subtext, Last Days in the Desert may prove too opaque to sustain viewer interest. Nevertheless, there’s enough here to recommend the film, from the McGregor and Hinds’ understated but excellent performances to the staggeringly beautiful cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, who once again sculpts natural light to breathtaking effect.

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