Last Days In The Desert Movie Investigated and Explained
Man I love a good sci-fi head scratcher. And I’ve done a ton of them over the past year or two. But I also enjoy pretty much any movie that makes you sit up and go, “Wait… WHAT?” And man have I got a good one for you here today. And that is Ewan McGregor’s ‘Last Days in the Desert’ movie. Oh no, that’s a Jesus film. Just hold on. Hold on. This movie was the brain child of Rodrigo Garcia and Ewan was diligent in Rodrigo’s interpretation and visual goals. And it is a movie that secular and religious audiences should get into regardless, because the dialogue is a worth while dialogue.
I originally found out about the existence of the movie through a Rob Bell podcast wherein the talk about the creation of the film and the motivations for Rodrigo’s interpretation of Jesus. And I enjoyed the podcast so much I figured, heck, let’s post it here in case you want to listen to it. It is a spoiler free view of the story – at least mostly anyway – so feel free to listen even if you haven’t seen the movie yet. And oh, wait, I guess it is watchable right now online – you can watch now right a million places now.
The Last Days In the Desert Overview
So the movie covers a section of the Bible that is fairly specific in nature – and that of Christ’s temptation in the desert before his ministry begins. The text isn’t vague per se, it is fairly specific, but when you are dealing with Biblical texts and movies it’s always going to be fairly vague in terms of dialogue, setting, etc. So why don’t we take a peek at one of the source material passages for this film and see what we have to work with?
Matthew 4:1-3 “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2And after He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry. And the tempter came and said to Him…”
So what do we have here? We have Jesus. And the Spirit leading him into the desert. We have a 40 day fast, and then once that is over we have Jesus hungry, and an encounter with Satan. Rodrigo though has used this time period for Jesus to tell a story about a family of three, out in the desert, alone, struggling to understand one another. And so I would argue that it’s actually more about the family than it is about Jesus. Jesus, at the end of his 40 days wanders into this camp of this family and doesn’t extract himself from their orbit. And I would argue finds himself very concerned about all three.
Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot one significant character here, and that is Satan. And who is Satan played by? Oh that would be Ewan McGregor as well. Wait what? Don’t worry, we’ll get to that later. But it was a very intriguing choice for Rodrigo Garcia to make. Is it Jesus’ doubt that is Satan? Is it Satan choosing the form of Jesus? Is it a mental head trick? It definitely made for a very fascinating story to watch play out as Jesus ducks, dodges and weaves his own physical manifestation of himself.
The Last Days in the Desert Struggles
There is a troubling trifecta of a relationship that this movie is contemplating. We have the Father, who has decided that the city is a terrible place to live, and should be avoided at all costs. We have a mother who has taken very ill and needs to be cared for at every turn. And we have the boy that is not understood by the father and can’t let him know just how much he wants to go in to the city. It’s a perfect interlocking grid of competing desires and motivators. Kudos to Rodrigo there. This is the stuff of compelling art house flick material. Maybe we have something exciting to wrap our brains around?
But this movie is also a slow moving and thoughtful contemplation of what it might have been like to be the Son of God, walking on planet Earth 2,000 years ago. And in this way it is this picture and struggle that is an off putting complication to the original trifecta here.
We see Ewan as a young Rabbi, a teacher, that struggles with almost everything he says, and does. After one encounter with the mother (who was actually Satan speaking to him in her voice) we hear Jesus chastise himself, ‘less words.’ Better chosen words is what this Jesus is struggling worth. To be clear, I see a lot of myself in this depiction of Jesus (which, let’s make it clear, is not a great sign – but I’ll get to that later), and I can relate to Him more in this depiction. But a truly compelling depiction of Jesus would be a view of Jesus as both God and Man. A view of Jesus as the God Man. This depiction of Jesus is 100% man. We see zero miracles throughout the entirety of the movie – which, isn’t too problematic, seeing as though Jesus refused to do any miracles for Satan either. Right? But in Ewan’s depiction we have an unsure and doubting Christ who isn’t even sure he’s on the right path.
And we have a diabolical character in Satan that laughs in the face of God. He tells the story of a God that continues to replay possibilities over and over again. This time the son chooses to stay. Next time he chooses to leave. This time the butterfly survives, next time the butterfly dies. And Satan makes fun of this God that is so interested in the details of the choices that are constantly being played out and re-played out over and over again. So here we want to be enticed and enthralled in this gorgeously pastoral (has the desert ever been this beautiful, has the soundtrack of crooning strings ever been this beautiful?) desert storyline and all we come away with is, this guy is the startup founder of the Church? Really?
The Last Days In The Desert Misfires
There is a lot of good in this movie. Personally, I adored the family and the interworkings of their stress. I saw myself there too. I saw myself both as the father and the son. I saw the push and the pull that was there. And you know what, if someone came along and edited Jesus out as Jesus, and made him just a man from a neighboring village it would be infinitely better.
Rodrigo Garcia I’m sure, has taken a crap ton of hate and vitriol from the larger religious community for this movie. And I’m sure he’s take a crap ton of hate from the secular movie goers that were just bored out of their minds. And all for what? This?
The Last Days in the Desert Compelling Insights
For all of the shade I’ve thrown at the film, I will say this, there were sections that really made me think. My first thought was, why is it that Satan was the only one with super powers in this movie. We see two very clear instances of Satan showing Jesus the future. And another time when Satan floats above the cliff just showing off his skill like a Jedi who hasn’t learned to control his powers.
But is that accurate? Yes, actually it is. So let’s take a look at the rest of the Biblical account and see what we can glean:
And the tempter came and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God. Then the devil took Him into the holy city and had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command His angels concerning You’; and ‘On their hands they will bear You up, So that You will not strike Your foot against a stone.'” Jesus said to him, “On the other hand, it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.'” Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; and he said to Him, “All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.'” Then the devil left Him; and behold, angels came and began to minister to Him.”
So we see several instances here of Satan doing miracles of sorts. First he somehow took Jesus up to the top of the temple. There is some sort of teleportation or flying or something happening here. The second one is the time that Satan showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. How does one do this? In a vision? Was it future kingdoms? Past kingdoms? Current ones? It’s a miracle regardless. So yeah, I do think that Satan would have done some cool tom foolery during this encounter.
But this wasn’t the encounter found in Matthew and Luke. This was either before or after (I assume after but I’ll get to that later) the temptations… almost a cycling down of hostilities. And yet at the end of the Biblical account Jesus told Satan to leave, and he left, and was ministered to by Angels. Now that would be an ending to this movie. A better ending than we are given anyway.
Here’s another question, did Jesus ever ask Satan for anything? He clearly does in this movie. “Show me his future Satan”… And so Satan complies. Really? I mean, really? Whether you believe he is God or not, you have to believe that Rodrigo believes he is. And if he is presenting a Godly depiction of Jesus then you have to see this as a fairly serious error.
Last Days in the Desert Possible Interpretations
I think there are a few things that we can all agree on with regard to this movie. Jesus has headed out to the desert after being baptized and he encounters Satan. But beyond that, there are probably a million different interpretations of how Rodrigo was intending this movie to be interpreted.
Theory #1 – Loose Interpretation View
From this theory’s perspective, Rodrigo was taking the passage of the Bible, and loosely interpreting it before our eyes. We watched Jesus walk into the desert, and we watched him walk out of it. Among the events we witnessed we saw Satan tempt Jesus with food, power, and dominion. Just not literally.
The problems with that theory are many. First is the title of the movie. “The Last Days in the Desert.” The second being that we never really see much in the way of the three specific temptations listed in the Bible. Jesus never really seemed hungry… ever. Jesus never really seemed desirous of power. Jesus was never asked to do any miracles. He was tempted by the mother at one point. But I’ve always been of the mind that that would be the best way to get me… it wouldn’t be the best way to get God. So it’s kind of a silly way to tempt Jesus. Which was why Satan didn’t tempt him that way. Which makes it weird that that was how Rodrigo did it. Anyway, you see the flaws with this model.
Theory #2 – Thin Slice View
In this viewpoint, The Last Days in the Desert was just a couple of the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness. If Satan only tempted Him three times there was plenty of left over time that we could fill. So, sure, He very well could have stumbled upon a family and interacted with them for a few days. Could happen. And during that time, Satan could have prodded Jesus, and continued to interact with Him in spite of his failure the three previous times.
Theory #2a – Middle of the 40
Permutation 1 of this theory is that we are seeing Jesus somewhere towards the middle-ish-endish… but not the end of the 40. Maybe Jesus has been tempted once or twice, but not three times.
Theory #2b – End of the 40
Permutation 2 of this Thin Slice View is that we are seeing the last couple days of the 40. The temptations have already occurred. And Jesus is all but done. To support this, we actually see Jesus take a bite to eat… don’t we? I saw him conscientiously pick up something, but it and swallow. Didn’t we? So that would have to be the final day of the 40 if that were the case. Right?
Flaws of the Thin Slice View and 2a & 2b
So much was left out of what the Biblical accounts said had happened. Right? At the end of the 40 days Jesus was hungry. Which stands to reason. Jesus told Satan to leave. And then Jesus was attended to by ministering angels. Yes? None of that happened in this movie. Satan wasn’t sent away… he left, and Jesus was surprised he was leaving. (“My feet hurt.”) There were no angels. No conclusion to the encounter. So in this interpretation, the best perspective is the theory #2a, we are seeing somewhere post temptations, but pre conclusion. Right?
Theory 3 – Complete Allegory View
And the final perspective is that it is a complete allegory. Satan is actually Jesus’ doubt. The temptations never occurred and the battle royale never happened. We saw the some totally of the interactions as Jesus warred mentally over this family he was encountering.
Flaws of the Allegory View
Well, your honor, the chief problem with the Allegory view is the fact that Ewan himself has disputed this interpretation of the movie. Here, see for yourself:
“You can think the Devil is an embodiment of Jesus’s doubt, and that’s fine, that’s good. I like that everybody has their own interpretation of that,” he continues. “But for me, I was playing Jesus, whose father is God, and I was playing the Devil as Lucifer, a fallen angel who has been in the presence of God and now reigned in Hell.”
“Once I stopped trying to find him in other people’s writings, or other people’s imaginings of him, and started looking for him in my own—who do I think he is, who do I think he was?—then that’s when I found him,” he said.
So the key problem here for the Allegorists is that it wasn’t how Rodrigo intended it, or how Ewan intended it either.
Last Days in the Desert Take Aways
Personally, I think the theories are so bad because the movie is a bit of a mess. It doesn’t jive with the few verses we have of scripture. And it doesn’t jive with the Biblical account and view of what we knew about Jesus.
I really wanted to like this movie. We have Rodrigo, who is a very good director bringing us a high powered cast of actors to investigate a section of the gospels that is very interesting. We have Ewan McGregor not in one lead role, but in two lead roles. We have amazing cinematography and gorgeous music. This movie should be an art house given. It should be a slam dunk, and yet the movie is a bit of a flop.
How is it possible that Rodrigo has taken one of the most amazing sections of the Bible and turned it into such a snooze fest? And I love introspective, contemplative movies. Adore them. How is it that he has taken the Christ of the Bible, upon which the salvation of mankind is based, and neutered him to the point wherein he is asking Satan for advice? Again, I loved the family dynamics here. Stumble upon them sans Christ and we have Oscar gold happening. Empower Christ to at least be charismatic enough to give wisdom and dispense guidance to the family? Sure, have them not take it. But as a Rabbi, he should have had the ability to speak life into their lives. Let alone as the Son of God beginning his ministry as a Rabbi.
What I did love about this movie is that I saw my own struggles and problems in Yashua’s life. I saw my own frailties there. I saw my own desires to help, and my own lack of ability there. So for me, as a picture of my own desire to do good in spite of my inability, yes. It’s all there. But this isn’t me we are talking about. It was the creator of the universe, walking about as man, revolutionizing the world. Rodrigo seems to have missed that point.