Last Days in the Desert
Last Days in the Desert – Inspired by the biblical story ‘The Temptation of Christ’ detailed in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Yeshua (Hebrew for Jesus) is tempted by evil while alone in the wilderness.
Ewan McGregor is Jesus — and the Devil — in an imagined chapter from his 40 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 himself up for a dramatic test.
“I wrote a few pages in which I called him Jesus,” Garcia explains. “But when you’re writing a screenplay and it says ‘Jesus walks, Jesus says,’ after a while, the weight of the name is paralyzing.”
As Garcia reminds me, in his native Spanish, Jesus is a common name. “But in English, it has big connotations”—nobody in the English-speaking world names their kid Jesus. “Once I decided I’m going to call him Yeshua, it liberated me.”
Unlike the epics and myths on which most “Bible movies” are based, Last Days feels like a short story, a form which Garcia loves for its ambiguity and constraints. “Rather than tell you a whole world, they sort of immerse you in it very quickly and introduce whatever conflicts are there—some said and some unsaid. And then you come out of it more with a feeling of having been somewhere, than with that clarity that everything was wrapped up.”
Forty Days in the Desert
Three of the four gospels tell this story: after his baptism by John, Jesus goes into the Judean Desert to fast and pray for forty days. As recounted in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, Satan tempts Jesus during this time in three conversations, and Jesus resists. By the time he leaves, he is ready to start his public ministry.
Last Days imagines a story set during the final few days in the wilderness. After over a month of solitary wandering, Yeshua is tired, dirty, exhausted, hungry, and lonely, weary of not hearing his Father’s voice. He happens upon a family in the wilderness who recognize that he is a holy man and offer him shelter and hospitality; in return, he offers them some help with carpentry.
The father, played by Irish actor Ciaran Hinds has a relationship with his son familiar to anyone who has ever been a teenager: equal parts love and confusion, trying to both connect with him and protect him, but not sure how to do either. The son (Tye Sheridan, the brilliant young American actor seen in Mud, The Tree of Life, and Joe) obeys his father and cares for his sick mother (celebrated Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer), but dreams of living in Jerusalem.
Yeshua forms relationships with both the boy and his father over the course of their conversations, but he has another conversation partner: Satan himself, a suaver version of Yeshua with a glint in his eye. Satan taunts and tempts Yeshua away from the work that lies ahead, suggesting that the Father doesn’t really love him.
The Father of Lies
Some of the film’s most unforgettable scenes are conversations between Yeshua and Satan, both played by McGregor. Satan, in Garcia’s telling, looks just like Yeshua, but is his opposite—“it really is just an attitude,” he says. “The demon has some jewelry, just to underscore some vanity. Like he was like, ‘I’m going to dress as you, but with style.’”
As recorded in John 8:44, Jesus calls Satan “a liar and the father of lies,” and that is how the film imagines him. Religious audiences may find themselves thinking, that’s not an orthodox take on the story, only to remember that this character was lying to Yeshua with every word.
And yet, in the Scriptural account, Satan was once Lucifer, the most beautiful of all the angels that God created, who was cast out from heaven because of his pride. Garcia’s take on the fallout of this (I don’t want to spoil it) is marvelously heartbreaking. He conceived of the character as “the black sheep, the punished child. It makes you feel [like] these two are (at least metaphorical) children of a father whose opinion counts a lot to them. That’s any child, really.”
Not a “Bible Movie”
In the last year, it’s been hard to read about movies without hearing about the “year of the Bible movie,” but neither Garcia nor McGregor think Last Days fits the genre. When people pointed out the similarities to McGregor during filming, he told them, “Well, I think we’re more of an art film. We’re not trying to make a Biblical story.”
That said, one of the unavoidable risks in making a movie featuring Jesus is how audiences will receive it—and religious audiences have been notoriously critical of films that don’t stick purely to the text. I asked Garcia what he thought about that. He pointed out that while you can’t make a movie wanting to please anyone, “I always thought that there was nothing very graphically provocative about this story.”
Religious audiences often react to particularly offensive images, he noted, like the ones that appear in movies like The Last Temptation of Christ. “I thought the way I was telling the story, the most that could happen was some people would say, oh, he’s got an odd point of view, but not that anyone would say this movie cannot be seen.”
And non-Christians have made movies about Jesus in the past. “I think everyone wants to approach him,” Garcia says. “For example, there’s a Pasolini version [The Gospel According to St. Matthew, 1964], which in many ways is very beautiful, and in some ways it’s stylized, and in the same ways it’s radical in the sense that they’re almost like Italian peasants. And yet it’s made by a Communist gay man. So . . . why not me?”
“With Christians and non-Christians alike, first of all, the story has to be compelling,” he continues. “Wherever you come from, the basic bones of Jesus’ circumstance, everyone understands. So I hope that the story of him encountering this family with their own father/son problem is a compelling enough story for anyone . . . I’m happy if whoever sees it has questions. The movie is full of questions. The movie’s all about my own questions.”
Garcia knows these are hardly new questions, but they captivate him.”I think that has been written about many times in other stories, Christian or not—if half of Jesus was human, there must have been a fear of death, an insecurity. A doubt.”
Plenty of movies based on the Bible try to keep audiences engaged with fast cuts, driving plots, or eye candy. Last Days leaves space for its audience to lose themselves, to look on what Christ might have seen and consider what it might have been like to be him. It is a warm, generous, and unexpected story, much like Yeshua himself.
“It was done with nothing but respect and passion,” says McGregor.
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Release Date: (Theaters) May 13, 2015
Release Date: (DVD/Blu-ray) TBA!
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