A long time ago, in a desert far, far away, I found myself standing in a half-circle with a handful of professional Christians on a film set in the middle of effing nowhere. I was invited there, along with a pile of smart people, for a sneak peek at a little indie art house production, written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia. The film, Last Days in the Desert, imagines Jesus toward the end of his famous 40 days of prayer and fasting, as his journey intersects with that of a boy and his parents, dwelling in the desolate dry wilderness. While Satan continues to pluck at his insecurities, Jesus finds himself drawn into the little family’s plight, as they grapple through sorting their lives. The screenplay was short, the dialog sparse, the cast and crew minimal, and I was super curious to see how this would play out on screen.
Cast, crew, dirt.
Shortly after we arrived on set, actor Ewan McGregor came over to shake hands and introduce himself to us, one by one, saying, “Hi, I’m Ewan…I’m Ewan, nice to meet you…I’m Ewan, how are you?…Hey, I’m Ewan…” Like we might not know he was Ewan. When I called home that night, my kids asked what Obi WanMcGregor was like, and I told them the truth. “He was kinda like a homeless person…but, like, if a homeless person’s eyes were made of the Caribbean Sea.”
It’s true. The guy I met was gross and dirty, and I don’t recall him actually smelling bad, but he looked like he probably smelled bad. Let’s just say, I did not have the urge to run my fingers through the greasy mess of matted hair that hung limp from beneath his head wrap. And, much to my own surprise, I had zero desire to make out with Ewan McGregor’s crusty mouth or to allow his gritty hands anywhere near the small of my back. In fact, after we shook hands, I quickly wiped mine off on the side of my pants like an asshole. I’m not sure what they used to make his finger nails look so painfully dry and dirt-caked (it was probably some expensive, organic, rejuvenating Hollywood makeup artist’s magical witch potion), but it looked like mud and poo, and it made me feel icky. I was honestly having a hard time reconciling the hot mess in front of me with the charming Scottish boy-toy of my dreams, and my body felt confused.
See what I mean?
In his defense, McGregor was aptly dressed for his role as Jesus, but this was not like any version of Jesus we’re accustomed to meeting in films about the iconic religious figure. This was not a powerful, omniscient robe-clad Jesus, or a kind-eyed, forgiving Jesus. This was not a beaten, bloody submissive Jesus, or even a smiling, warm, welcoming Jesus.
This was Jesus, fully man.
It was a rare depiction of the Jesus who “grew in wisdom and stature”, who learned and matured, Jesus who asked questions and sought answers, because he didn’t always have them. This Jesus appeared tired and tattered, disheveled and uncertain, physically sapped by the conditions of the desert, emotionally stunned by the expansive silence. Hungry for the love of a distant Father. Thirsty to hear His voice.
It’s been a full two years since I read the manuscript, talked with the director and a couple of the producers over lunch, met the actors, and watched a little bit of the action on set, but – FINALLY – last Sunday in a darkened Episcopal church in Pasadena, I got to see whatever came of Ewan McGregor’s dirty Jesus, that lonely little family, and the last few days in the desert.
Nutshell? It was so good. And I cried.
Want more? Ok, fine.
Last Days in the Desertisn’t so much a story about Jesus, as it is the story of fathers and sons. It’s about boys becoming men, being both brave and afraid, simultaneously clinging and letting go, searching for independence while seeking approval. It’s about grown men who still somehow long for assurance from the men who grew up before them, and the generational handing over of a broken baton. It’s about wanting to do the right thing, but maybe not being quite sure what the right thing is, or who you’re doing the right thing for.
The relationship between fathers and sons is perhaps the most complicated of all relationships, and we see layer upon layer of it here through the musings and complaints of the father and son in this story; A father who loves his son desperately, but can’t say it, and a son who desperately wants his father’s blessing, but can’t see it. The Devil (also played by Ewan McGregor) is insightfully aware of this timeless father/son tension, and uses this to try to speak doubt into Jesus’ own attempt to connect with his father, God.
Disclosure: As the mother of THREE SONS who, at 22, 18, and 16, are each smack in the middle of this exact same kind of coming of age bullshit, I felt the struggle and the pain and the longing of the son so keenly it made my heart actually physically hurt. His desire to be recognized by his father, to please his father, and, at the same time, to be free of his father’s ideas and expectations made me ugly cry…. UGH. NOW I’M CRYING AGAIN!
In a world where Christians are greedy for blockbuster, feel-good movies with high production values and low thought content, Last Days in the Desert is almost ridiculously low-key in its approach to Jesus. We are never told what to think about the deity of Jesus. While there are some elements of faith and mysticism, which leave room for theological debate, the film is uniquely and refreshingly free of doctrine. During a panel discussion after Sunday’s screening, Garcia described his imagining of Jesus in the desert – obviously inspired by the 40 days of fasting found in Christian scripture – as being “reduced” to its most basic elements. Much like the desert itself.
This reductive simplicity of the story is perfectly echoed on screen by cinematographer, Emmanual Lubezki (Yes – Gravity, The Revenant – THAT Emmanual Lubezki!), who shot every outdoor scene using only natural light. Every sweeping expanse, every endless landscape, every radiant crevice, and shadowy corner came to us directly from nature. The beauty of the desert as seen though Lubezki’s lens is breathtaking in an epically organic kind of way. (You should really, really, really try to see this on a great big screen in a theater. I’m not even kidding. You’ll thank me.)
Last Days in the Desert is far more of a spiritual/psychological think piece than your average faith based film. It’s artistic. It’s raw and rare, and a little bit uncomfortable. While box office flicks like God’s Not Dead and Risen seem to have become the Bible tract of the 21st century (a cheap, easy way to tell anyone who will listen about the saving power of Jesus Christ without having to actually, y’know, get toknowthem) this artsy-fartsy indie film will likely leave you and your friends with more messy questions than tidy answers.