I am not religious but I love stories of The Christ. I don’t mean Ben-Hur (though I do love both the original silent and Charlton Heston versions of the film) but films like Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, all very different approaches but for their efforts to show us the human side of the Son of God.
In Last Days in the Desert (2016) filmmaker Rodrigo García (the son of Nobel Prize winning author Gabriel García Marquez) imagines the 40 days that Jesus spent praying and fasting in the desert in this intimate drama. Ewan McGregor plays Jesus (called Yeshua here, the Hebrew name for Jesus) as well as the devil, who appears in the guise of Christ himself, like a taunting dark mirror who baits and debates him over his beliefs, his ideals, and the failures of humanity. As he walks the desert (the California Badlands stand in for the Holy Lands) and calls to the sky for guidance from his Father, only his satanic doppelganger answers, declaring God to be vain and uncaring. Then he meets a family—an aged stonemason father (Ciarán Hinds) who has lived his life there, his dying, younger wife (Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer), and a teenage son (Tye Sheridan) who wants to leave the desert and find a life in Jerusalem—and he stays to work with them and help them work out their conflicts.
The story of a patriarchal father who demands his restless son remain in the desert and a young man with his own dreams is not in the Bible per se but it evokes Christ’s own questions as he seeks guidance from his Heavenly Father and suggests the collision of Old Testament duty and New Testament compassion. It is simple and primal, with unadorned, plainspoken yet eloquent dialogue and a story that plays like an enigmatic parable with no easy answers to Yeshua’s questions. The imagery, from multiple Oscar-winner Emmanuel Lubezki (The Revenant) is stripped down and striking, finding a stark beauty in the inhospitable landscape, and McGregor gives a tender performance as a very human Christ who finds wonder in the world and beauty in humanity, but also acknowledges the mortality of man. It gives resonance to his ultimate sacrifice on the cross.