Last Days in the Desert, a gutsy new independent film by Rodrigo García, is the worst “Jesus movie” out there with the best Jesus to ever incarnate on the silver screen.
This Yeshua doesn’t work miracles. He doesn’t teach children. He doesn’t walk on water. In fact, we never even see Yeshua rise from the dead. This Yeshua laughs at jokes in the desert, and finally, he almost feels real.
I wonder if many traditional “Jesus films” trip over themselves because they try to tackle the impossible job of illustrating Yeshua’s complete humanity and his complete divinity. I honestly don’t think it can be done in film. Last Days in the Desert succeeds only because of it its unidealized portrayal of Yeshua as fully human. Without crossing into the realm of heresy, any shred of his divinity is carefully cloistered outside the frame of García’s poetic take on the dead-horse Jesus narrative. The film, with its five-character cast, is set in the Judean wilderness as Yeshua’s forty-day temptation comes to an end. Ewan MacGregor plays both a brilliantly empathetic Yeshua—the characters use his Hebrew name—and an equally brilliant Lucifer in what is unmistakably an unreligious and extra-biblical parable about sonship and fatherhood. It’s an art film—a glassy sword-and-sandals movie minus the swords. Slow, quietly meditative, and tastefully strange in turns, it breaks the cinematic conventions of the genre.
The story underlines a metaphorically pregnant relationship between a father character and a son character that Yeshua meets in the desert. In one of the more poignant moments in the film, the son refuses the will of his father in a sequence that vaguely hearkens to the sacrifice of Issac. The scene becomes a microcosm for an alternate view of history where Yeshua refuses the will of God in the garden of Gethsemane. And the consequences are grisly. But those moments of terror that Yeshua must have felt at his approaching death leap off the screen in a visceral way through the miniature drama painted in broad strokes in Last Days in the Desert.
It’s an important film, a bold baby step in its genre, and a step that I hope will be affirmed by the broader Christian community even though this Yeshua may be uncomfortably human. From the perspective of Messianic Judaism, the movie smacks of rabbinic storytelling and presents a thoroughly Jewish messiah (even if he does have an English accent.) Most importantly, the film highlights the human suffering of Yeshua in a way that makes his redeeming work meaningful and accessible. I tend to agree with the German soldier, Jürgen Moltmann, who converted to Christianity in an Allied prison camp when he writes that modern theology must be developed “in earshot of the dying Christ.” It’s an uncomfortable place from which to develop a theology, but it serves to hang our belief on the unsavory human experience of the Word becoming flesh. And like the Yeshua of Last Days in the Desert, maybe our Yeshua will begin to feel real.