MOVIE REIVEW: Last Days In the Desert

Last Days In the Desert proves that a movie about Jesus can be true but not factual, faithful but not Biblical.

Last Days is a reimagining of Jesus’ wilderness temptation, the episode which Biblical authors render most completely in Matthew 4 and Luke 4. Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the desert, and at the end of that period, when he was weakest and most vulnerable, Satan tempted him. Last Days imagines what it must have been like for Jesus on a personal level — how confusing, tiring, and saddening his trial must have been.

The script, written by Rodrigo Garcia who also directed the film, is as sparse as the desert itself. With only five characters, it would make an easy adaptation for the stage. But that would omit the visually splendid setting. Shot in the Colorado Desert of Southern California, the film looks and sounds stunning.

Last Days is not a Bible study. It does not tell the story the way Matthew and Luke do. In fact Garcia announces his intent to divert from the Biblical script in bold ways, adding characters and temptations that aren’t included in the gospel accounts. Jesus, referred to throughout the movie with the Hebrew pronunciation Yeshua, and played respectfully by Ewan McGregor, encounters a family in the desert — a stubborn father, a sick mother, and an ambivalent son. He encounters the tempter, also played by McGregor, who holds out to him food, sex, despair, disbelief, and power, all of which Yeshua rejects.

Viewers familiar with the Biblical account will be tempted to engage a complex compare-and-contrast exercise.

  • The gospel accounts include three temptations, all stated propositionally; Last Days offers more temptations in more subtle ways.
  • The gospel accounts don’t include any characters but Jesus and Satan; the film includes three more.
  • Was Garcia drawing parallels between the father/son relationship in the desert and the unseen Trinitarian relationship?

But the power of Last Days is not in its fidelity to the 11 sentences Matthew wrote about this episode, but in the vivid, dust-blown, and true-to-life reality it brings to them. Traditional Christian belief holds that Jesus was at once fully God and fully man. Theologians call this the hypostatic union. Last Days assumes Yeshua’s divinity but puts his humanity on display. We see Yeshua’s knitted brow, his confusion about what is being offered to him, his uncertainty, his faith. And those of us with long years of struggle to overcome temptation will recognize the film’s fidelity to an older pattern: this is how the deceiver works. He confuses the issue. He questions reality. “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat…?’"

Matthew and Luke record Jesus’ temptation in very propositional ways. “I will give you all this splendor if you worship me.” But Last Days reflects a pattern that will resonate more with Christ followers. “Take a little for yourself; there’s no harm in that.” And it’s in this way that the movie stays true to Christian experience even as it diverts from the Christian scriptures.