“When I started thinking about it in those terms, as a man who is frustrated he can’t communicate with his father — well, there’s not a guy in the world who hasn’t had a moment like that with his own dad, so I understood that.”
“Talking to your father is like talking to a rock.”
— The Devil (Ewan McGregor)
“He’s so busy with his little things. Everything is more important to him than you.” Ewan McGregor is talking to Ewan McGregor. The Ewan McGregor who’s listening is Yeshua, also known as Jesus. He’s out in the desert, fasting and praying on his way to Jerusalem. The Ewan McGregor who’s talking is the Devil, cast out of heaven and still mad about it.
So starts the dilemma that shapes Last Days in the Desert, yet another meditation on the Jesus story. That these days are “last” is key: you know what Yeshua knows, which is that he’s going to Jerusalem (to die), and as he tries to sort out what that means and how it works, this directive comes from a father (in this case, God) who’s not inclined to share.
In between exchanges with the Devil, Yeshua comes in contact with a few other folks out in the desert, people plainly provided to embody lessons, for this troubled son. “I’m a little lost,” he tells a young man (Tye Sheridan) he meets in the desert, who pretty much immediately confides in the stranger that he’s hoping to get to Jerusalem himself someday.
Come to find out, a driving reason for that desire to go to Jerusalem has to do with the boy’s father, (Ciarán Hinds), with whom he has a difficult relationship. As tends to happen under circumstances like these — Yeshua stays on for a few days, helping the father to build a structure he imagines will one day be his son’s home — the visitor becomes a sounding board for the father and son who are having trouble talking to each other.
The father is skeptical of religion, and, taking Yeshua for a “holy man” fasting in the desert, questions him repeatedly about his faith. The son’s concerns are more immediate: he doesn’t want to stay out there in the middle of nowhere, tending to goats, but his dad sees in him a reflection of himself, or at least a way he can preserve himself, as a kind of legacy. Each has high expectations, and neither can articulate what he wants or perceives, except in bursts of anger.
If Yeshua takes a few minutes to see the parallel with his own situation, wandering and wondering as he is, you can’t miss it, perhaps especially when you see the individual to whom both son and father do turn, repeatedly, for solace. That would be the mother (Ayelet Zurer), at the moment dying of some terrible unnamed wasting disease. She lays in the tent, sometimes making her way outside to the cooking fire, her chalk-pale cheeks illuminated by the flickering light as she looks with pride on her son, with love on her husband, and with inexplicable but probably inevitable trust on the stranger.
But of course, the mother is not only the mother. She’s also a vehicle for temptation and testing, a means for Yeshua to prove his faith. At first he sees her in the roles she plays for her family, a source of guilt for her husband (he’s lost another wife before) and also for her son (who says he’d leave his overbearing father if it weren’t for his obligation to care for his dying mother). For Yeshua, the mother-wife becomes something else again, as the Devil uses her to frighten and mislead the son of God. In scenes presented as Yeshua’s nightmares, he wakes with a start in the tent with her, at which point she speaks directly to him and to the audience via point-of-view-camera. In these scenes, the woman incarnates a series of dilemmas for her guest, describing her physical agony, sharing secrets concerning her indiscretions, offering her bared breasts to him (a painfully trite vision of temptation).
Thankfully, such unimaginative images are set off by others that are more inventive, even inspired. More than once, Emmanuel Lubezki’s exquisitely low-angle or close shots of Ewan McGregor debating Ewan McGregor make visible their complex tensions, their similarities and their conflicts. When the Devil accuses Yeshua of being his “father’s son”, angry and vengeful, Yeshua comes back with a bland sort of aphorism, “Failure is its own punishment.” The Devil laughs, “That’s daddy talk,” a taunt that underscores the paradox of being God’s son, ordained to follow his word, the story that can never be revised completely.
This may be one way of thinking about the story in Last Days in the Desert, which can only rethink its story within limits. In this iteration, Yeshua is a man of faith, a man who knows his fate but has the capacity to question it, too. In retelling that story, in reimagining the dynamics — of father and son, of Yeshua and Satan — the movie hints at some new possibilities even as it reverts to the old. The mother-wife-seductress here again carries too much metaphorical weight, providing backstories and motives for men and boys in crisis, but provided with no story or perspective of her own.
As she waits to die, she hopes her husband and son will find their ways without her, will resolve their struggles and feuds, and survive their heartaches. “The desert is ruthless,” observes the father by way of explaining why he wants his son to stay in it rather than moving to the city, so the son can learn the same lessons he has learned. But as you look out on that desert, the men so puny against its vast resilience, you might imagine another story. It may be, you begin to see, that the desert is not the problem here.