I’ve been told that I don’t really get super artsy films. Don’t get me wrong. I like artsy films but it’s with the super artsy ones that I sometimes leave the theater scratching my head. The subtlety with which the story is told, through the script, the acting, and the cinematography, makes it hard for me to comprehend the deeper meaning that others glean from the film. I think this is what happened when I saw Last Days in the Desert. Even though I didn’t get it right away, further reflection on the film has garnered some thoughts. I’m sure the Holy Spirit was involved in that part.
Lots of wandering
Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia imagines one possible scenario that might have happened to Jesus as he wandered at the tail end of his 40 days of fasting and praying. And wander he does, and then more wandering, and even more wandering. The landscape is bare, rocky, dusty, hot, and seemingly endless, not a nice place to get stuck in.
It is here that Yeshua (Ewan McGregor) kneels in the dirt and mutters, “Father, where are you?” We see a broken Jesus. His ratty robes and grungy face do little to hide the weariness he feels at this stage of his journey. When he stumbles across a half-finished shelter made out of slabs of stone, he asks the boy he finds there for water. He is even willing to work to pay for it. What the father (Ciarán Hinds), mother (Ayelet Zurer), and son (Tye Sheridan) are doing living in the middle of nowhere is not clear but they invite Yeshua to stay for the evening meal. He accepts their hospitality for the night, but politely turns down food explaining that he’s fasting.
Enter the devil
As he (again) wanders away the next morning, Yeshua changes his mind, almost as if he feels guilty leaving the little family to their own devices in such a harsh place. Thus, he enters into their small but dysfunctional lives. As he attempts to help out, he’s pestered by the Devil, also played by Ewan McGregor. Another temptation comes when the Devil challenges Yeshua to set things right for this family.
Just a little theological point of contention to bring up here. The Devil cannot know the future, as it seems he does in the film. As an angel, the devil has a vastly superior intellect to ours and may seem to “predict” the future through observation and deduction. Still, we human beings have free will and the devil cannot know our actions certainly until they are done.
In my estimation, the Devil in the film was a bit like Wormwood, from The Screwtape Letters, actually putting his Uncle Screwtape’s dastardly advice into practice. The Devil fed Yeshua with manipulative words and freaky dreams. At one point, Yeshua responds, “You liar!” and the Devil shrugs his shoulders saying, “Yeah, I am.”
I found it fascinating that the filmmakers chose to use the same actor for both Jesus and the Devil. How does the saying go? Sometimes, we are our own worst enemy. True, but the reality is that there is evil in our world and the devil is around, taking any opening that our sin gives him to lie and manipulate. In one way or another, we all need deliverance from evil, no matter how great or how small since we are all sinners. Jesus overcame the devil, he did not give into the temptation. In him we have hope that, through grace, we can also resist the devil.
The Jesus of Last Days in the Desert is a human Jesus. He showcases the best of what it means to be human. Not in big ways but small ones—ways we are capable of imitating: through humility, compassion, generosity, listening, care for the sick and dying, and dignified work. Fortified in his resistance to the Devil through his interaction with this family, Yeshua makes it through those last days in the desert to embark on his public ministry.
Seeing Jesus in this familial setting and helping out in whatever way he can, makes me think that the filmmakers (probably unknowingly) have issued every audience member a challenge: think about the situations you find yourself in and the people there with you. How can you showcase the best of what it means to be human to them? How can you be the human face of God’s love and mercy?