A new demographic for Christian marketing
The producers of Last Days in the Desert (2016) have attempted something unprecedented. The film itself is fairly original in its approach to the character of Jesus. It is rare for a Jesus movie to be based on a wholly invented story not intertwined with at least some of the events described in the New Testament. Even The Young Messiah (2016), which invents a story about Jesus as a 7-year-old child, includes some material from the Bible. But Last Days in the Desert tells a story set entirely during Jesus’s 40 days of prayer and fasting in the desert, a time the Bible does not describe at all beyond listing three temptations Jesus faced (Matthew 4:1-11). What was Jesus doing for the other 39 days in the desert?
But when I say the production of Last Days in the Desert is unprecedented, I don’t mean the film itself. I mean that the marketing of the film has been remarkable. The preview screening of Last Days in the Desert that I attended started with an introduction by Michael Gungor, a musician who used to be a Christian worship leader but was shunned by the mainstream evangelical world when publically declared his belief in evolution and then his approval of homosexuality. It has become common, starting with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) for Hollywood studios to use evangelical celebrities to market faith-based films directly to pastors and church groups. This approach led to the success of films like Fireproof (2008), God’s Not Dead (2014), and Heaven is For Real (2014), as well as the recent Jesus movie Risen (2016). But the conservative evangelicals who supported those films would not be likely to watch a film recommended by a progressive Christian like Gungor.
This is what’s so interesting about Last Days in the Desert: I’ve never seen a film directly marketed to a progressive Christian audience before. The Hollywood marketing people have apparently decided that the audiences who made Heaven is For Real a hit would not be interested in Last Days in the Desert. So they ditched them in favor of the much smaller progressive Christian audience. But why? Last Days is not offensive. There is nothing particularly heretical about it. Some people might not like the idea of telling a story about something that’s not in the Bible, but this movie is a lot more like The Young Messiah than The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Unlike past Jesus movies that evangelicals protested, Last Days in the Desert does not try to challenge traditional theological ideas about Jesus.
A Jesus movie for fans of “art films”
And yet, I think the marketing people are right to think that most evangelicals won’t like this movie. But the reasons most evangelicals won’t like it have more to do with demographics than with theology. Last Days in the Desert requires a different sort of taste than most “Christian” movies do. Like The Passion of the Christ, this is a film that fits within the tradition of great medieval and renaissance painting, whereas many films look more like Sunday School illustrations. It made me think of “Christ in the Desert” (1872) by Russian painter Ivan Kramskoy.
Last Days in the Desert is beautiful film, but it will be challenging to watch for many people. It is what we call an “art film”— the kind of film that plays film festivals attended by professional film critics – not a Hollywood film aimed the multiplex movie theater in the mall. Last Days in the Desert is slow and quiet, with lots of silence and strange, unexplained imagery. For example, Jesus has dreams of drowning, having bugs crawl on him, being chased by wolves, and even levitating. He sees a bird attack another bird in flight, a dead dog in the middle of the road, and finds a pile of empty clay jars next to a dried up river. These images are poetic, but not allegorical where everything has a single clear symbolic meaning or interpretation. Often the images include a mixture of beauty and ugliness juxtaposed. The birds in flight are beautiful, but they attack each other. The crucifixion is horrific, but a hummingbird flies by – one of the film’s most striking images.
With apologies to Ewan McGregor, the star of the film is the astonishingly beautiful photography by Emmanuel Lubezki who has won three consecutive Oscars for his cinematography on The Revenant (2015), Birdman (2014), and Gravity (2013). The film’s aesthetic style reminded me a lot of Lubezki’s recent work with director Terrence Malick in films like Knight of Cups (2015), To the Wonder (2012), and The Tree of Life (2011). If you found The Tree of Life challenging, you are likely to be bored by Last Days in the Desert. Conversely, Last Days in the Desert is a exactly what fans of Terrence Malick would want in a Jesus movie. And, statistically, those people are more likely to be “progressive Christians” than evangelical.
Bergmanesque spiritual dryness
The opening titles of Last Days in the Desert describe an unnamed “holy man” who went into the desert “to prepare for his mission” by fasting for 40 days while praying “to seek guidance”. This man (played by Ewan McGregor in Obi Wan Kenobi mode) is later referred to as Yeshua, the Hebrew name for Jesus. After the titles, the film opens with the emptiness of the desert. The first images are the cracked dry ground of the desert and then storm clouds in the distance. Jesus’s first lines are “Father, where are you?” and then “Father, speak to me.” He is experiencing a time of spiritual dryness and thirst for God, trying to discern his vocation in the midst of a Bergmanesque silence from Heaven.
The first question the film raises, then, is whether Jesus, as described in the New Testament, could have felt the absence of God. Like most Jesus movies made by non-Christians, Last Days in the Desert emphasizes the humanity of Jesus. Christians naturally assume that, since Jesus was the incarnation of God in flesh, Jesus must have continually felt God’s presence. But do we really know that? There seems to be evidence that Jesus did sometimes feel the absence of God. For example, hanging on the cross Jesus prays “My God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27:46). And in the Garden of Gethsemane he seems in great anguish (Matthew 26:37-38), which doesn’t fit with the way we usually assume the peaceful presence of God is supposed to look. So why not think Jesus would experience periods of dryness like the rest of us? The greatest saints throughout history have all talked about the “dark night of the soul” as a period of doubt and testing which everyone eventually goes through so that they will come out stronger afterward. If Jesus was fully human, and had to grow in wisdom and stature (Luke 2:52), then he presumably would have had to develop his spiritual strength just like the rest of us do (see Romans 5:3-4, James 1:2-4, etc.).
Fathers and sons finding themselves
Another interesting and poetic choice the filmmakers made was to have the same actor play both Jesus and the Devil. If the Devil can appear in any form he chooses, why not appear as Jesus himself? How unsettling would it be to be tempted by someone wearing your face? From the first moment the Devil shows up, the film establishes its main theme as the relationship between fathers and sons. Your mother calls you Yeshua, the Devil says, but “What does your Father call you?” In many ways the film – written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia, son of the Nobel prize-winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez – is more interested in fathers and sons than it is interested in Jesus. The first word of the film is “father”, after all. It is as if Jesus was simply selected as the most archetypal example of a Son trying to please his Father – or, more autobiographically, for Garcia to explore his feelings about having to fill the impossibly big shoes of his own father. But it is good enough art to work on multiple levels, as a film about relating to fathers or a film about Jesus or a film about the meaning of life.
The latter theme shows up when Jesus meets a Man (unnamed in the film, played by actor Ciarán Hinds) who says the world ends when you die. There is no after life, he says, but we leave our children behind as the legacy to establish the only meaning of our lives. Jesus, of course, does not agree, but he does admit to the Man’s son (again, an unnamed Boy, played by Tye Sheridan) that he came to the desert to “find myself” and the meaning of his life. (All the more ironic, then, that he finds a Devil who looks just like him!) What he actually finds in the desert is the Man’s home, a small hut and an unfinished house under construction at the top of a tall hill that seems to overlook the whole world. When Jesus first arrives, the Boy asks where he is going, and Jesus says “To Jerusalem, but I’m a little lost”. Later in the film the Devil will accuse Jesus of purposely avoiding Jerusalem, stalling on his mission because “You’re scared to go on. You’re not ready.” Instead Jesus wanders in the desert, a place the Man says “strips away your vanity” and shows you who you really are.
Beauty and the mystery of God
At one point, Jesus sees beautiful shafts of light shining through the clouds. But the Devil shows up to make fun of such beauty. He tells Jesus not to expect anything more from God than useless beauty. “Talking to you father is like talking to a rock. He is so busy with his little things. … Like the shape of a dew drop. Everything matters more to him than you.” Later the Devil suggests that God is such a perfectionist that he has occasionally scrapped the universe and started over just to get the tiniest detail right, like the angle of a leaf. He mocks such beauty, calling it “self-indulgent”. But at one point Jesus catches the Devil enjoying the wonder of a shooting star. The Devil claims he is bored by such beauty, because he was watched it all since the beginning. Though the movie doesn’t mention this, it is worth pointing out that according to one traditional interpretation the Devil himself was that first shooting star, one of God’s most beautiful creations (Isaiah 14:12, Luke 10:18, Revelation 12:3-4, 9).
The Devil says he can’t understand God’s plan, because it is so repetitive. God keeps doing the same thing over-and-over, day after day, century after century. The Devil even claims that God has created other universes before, restarting the whole thing at the end of time. Jesus asks whether anything ever surprises him, and he says no. People always live the same lives and make the same mistakes. Sons always repeat the sins of their fathers in a never-ending cycle. But, interestingly, the Devil admits that, while he can usually forsee what will happen, he can’t when Jesus is involved. Apparently the film is imagining that Jesus has the power to change things in a way that the rest of us do not.
Jesus is thus one of those “surprises” that the Devil says do not exist. Jesus is able to break the cycle of human sin. The Devil says the “previous tellings” of the world’s story were a “little bit different” than they are now that Jesus is involved. “Now it is your turn” to tell the story, he says. “Can you do any better?” That’s the question the film leaves us with at the end. Did Jesus make a difference to this Man and his son who he met in the desert?
The Man, his wife, and their son all feel frustrated and trapped in their lives, each having conflicting and apparently irreconcilable desires. The Devil challenges Jesus to resolve the family conflict in a way that satisfies all three people involved.
All the Man ever wanted in life was to raise cattle and be a butcher like his father. But the Man’s father was harsh and strict. He raised the Man to believe that every man must make his own way in life and refused to teach him his trade. The Man says this was selfish. He tries to correct his father’s mistake and teach his own son his trade. He praises Jesus for learning carpentry which is a trade that can always provide for one’s children. The Man is trying to take care of his son as best as he knows how. All he really wants is for the Boy to have financial security, and to know his father loves him. So he teaches the Boy his trade, treating him as he wished he had been treated.
But the Boy doesn’t want to be a builder like the Man. The Boy wants to go to Jerusalem and then travel on the sea. He wants to leave home and make his “footprint” on the world. But he is afraid to tell his father about this. So he just does what he thinks will make his father happy, quietly resenting his life and taking care of his terminally ill mother. The Mother knows she is dying and has watched her son spend his life taking care of her. She wants her son to choose his own trade in Jerusalem, to leave home and not simply hang around to watch her die. She begs the Man to take their son to Jerusalem so he can become an apprentice to a craftsman. But the man says they do not have enough money to pay for such an apprenticeship. Is there any way to resolve this situation?
Does Jesus make a difference?
SPOILER WARNING: The rest of the review contains descriptions of the only plot events that actually happen in this relatively quiet story. Stop reading here if you don’t want to know.
One possible solution comes up soon: there is a chance that the Man has discovered a valuable rock deposit that he can sell and make enough money to get his son an apprenticeship in Jerusalem. But the Man and the son cannot obtain the rock without Jesus’s help. Initially the plan is for Jesus and the Man to lower the Boy down a cliff to get the rock. But the Boy is afraid and the Man volunteers to take his son’s place. When a rock slide sends the Man falling to his death at the bottom of the cliff, it turns out that the Man has literally sacrificed his own life to save his son.
Jesus does not miraculously intervene in the family’s lives, though the film suggests that he could have. The Devil says Jesus could have pulled up 10 men on the rope. Jesus says that’s “nonsense”, though he does seem to have some ability to perform miracles, because he begins to cure the dying mother’s illness before she asks him to stop.
It might seem that Jesus has failed to resolve the family conflict. But it seems to me that he does effect a reconciliation between father and son, though it is ambiguous. Everyone in fact gets what they want. Without his father holding him back, the Boy gets to leave home and go seek his fortune in Jerusalem, and the Mother gets her wish that the son to decide for himself what career to have. Even the Man even gets what he wants. All he wanted was for his son to recognize that he loved him, which he does. The Boy realizes that he was not a bad son, and the Man realizes that he was not a bad father. The Mother whispers “your son loved you” over his corpse, and, after the Mother burns the Man’s body, the Boy takes his father’s ashes with him when he leaves home.
When all is said and done, Jesus has made a difference, though one that required significant suffering and death. Most importantly, he has broken the cycle of sin and resentment between father and son. When he first challenges him to try to change things, the Devil tells Jesus he foresaw that if Jesus had not stopped to stay with the family in the desert, the Boy would soon have murdered his father and then run away from home. After Jesus’s intervention, the Man still dies but in a way that the Boy is reconciled to him. This seems to me a beautiful parable of the power of Christ to change lives by inspiring self-giving love in those who know him. After the Boy leaves home, Jesus asks the Devil to show him the Boy’s destiny. We don’t see the vision Jesus has, but we do see him smile. Jesus has succeeded in making a difference.
Actions over words
The Man’s Christ-like death in his son’s place is a testament to speaking love through action. After Jesus tells the Man to talk to the Boy about his feelings, the Man tells Jesus a father speaks to his children through example and does not need words. The relationship between words and actions is another major theme in the film. After lamely spouting a mouthful of clichés and platitudes, Jesus tells himself he needs to “find better words”. Intentions are good, he says, but words alone can be hollow. “Better yet”, he says, “find an action. Otherwise silence.”
Interestingly, this is how God is portrayed in the film: all action and silence. At one point Jesus asks the Devil what it is like to be in God’s presence and whether God has a “face” you can look at. The Devil says God does not have a face but God’s presence produces a “confusing” and overwhelming feeling of “worthlessness” while at the same time a sense of unity in which “you and He are one and the same”. This idea of being “one” with God is partly an appeal to the tradition of Christian mysticism. The Boy, too, says when he is walking alone in the desert he feels at one with God and all of creation. But being “one and the same” with God is also a reference to the idea that sons are just like their fathers. Here the Devil is saying he feels like one of God’s sons, a feeling that also produces a sense of shame at not be able to living up to standard that all sons feel their father creates for them.
Again we see the way the film uses the relationship between God and Jesus as an archetype of the universal relationship between Father and Son. And again the film works on both levels. Christians can relate to idea of feeling that you have fallen short in the presence of true holiness. But in Jesus we find the ability to accept that God loves us anyway. Jesus never doubts that in the film, despite the Devil’s taunts. It is the Devil himself who doubts God’s love. When Jesus leaves at the end, the Devil jokes “Give my regards to the Old Man”, but there is sadness behind his laugh and a kind of longing to actually see God again. The Devil is the fallen son who ran away from home because he couldn’t believe his Father loved him.
When Jesus blesses the Boy and sends him off to Jerusalem, he says “Love God above all things. And love life.” Tell riddles; laugh at farts; watch shooting stars. See the useless beauty in all things and know that your Father in Heaven loves you, even if He says it more in actions and through example than in words.