Last Days in the Desert:
Ewan McGregor Plays Jesus and Satan in New Film
The article below was written before I saw the movie. Now that I have screened it (a rare, one-time opportunity to see it very early), I encourage you to click here and read my full, in-depth review of the film. The article below is simply speculation about the film based on research from interviews and press (although the article does have some great quotes from the filmmakers and is worth coming back and reading after you’ve absorbed the full review). -Kevin Ott, 3/9/15
“Last Days in the Desert,” (#LastDaysintheDesert) a new art film that was screened at Sundance, stars Ewan McGregor as both Jesus and Satan. The film imagines a fictional encounter that Jesus has with a family — a father, mother, and their son — during Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the desert before beginning His ministry.
Another Controversial “Bible Movie?” No. Probably not.
The big question many Christians will ask: will this film subvert and distort the intent of the Biblical text and cause controversy like “Noah” and “Exodus: Gods and Kings” did? I optimistically guessed that Exodus would play it straight and not cause any controversy, but I was woefully wrong.
But I was batting blind with Exodus. With this one we know much more about the film ahead of time. McGregor and the director, Rodrigo Garcia, who has a Catholic background, did insightful interviews with Christianity Today, in which Garcia said this: “By choosing Jesus, I know what the end is,” he says. “I have some freedoms because [the film is] an invented chapter, but I have to obey the origin and obey the destiny.”
I’m guessing, based on what I’ve read, that the film will resonate with most believers across the wide spectrum of Christianity. Let’s take a closer look of what has been reported so far.
“…my hope for ‘Last Days in the Desert’: that it will be a movie that uses imaginative fiction to help us rediscover the glorious facts about Jesus in the Biblical text, the ones that have become over-familiar to Christians, like the stunning reality that God willingly limited Himself to the confines of a human body and a human life — as messy and as undignified as that is — so that He could identify with us and ultimately pay the penalty for us on the Cross.” -Kevin Ott
What We Know So Far
Christianity Today published the best piece about the film so far, a full seven-page feature article by Alissa Wilkinson. It is superb, and I will rely on it heavily, besides thumbing through a few other reviews.
Here are several highlights I’ve read so far about this film:
1. “Last Days in the Desert” is not a Bible epic, at least not as we have come to interpret that term. The director is not particularly a fan of the “Bible movie” label, and it shows in the humble scale of the production and its non-preachy tone. It is not a larger-than-life, CGI-soaked powerhouse that clobbers you with very expensive visual effects. Its scope is small, and it spends all of its effort examining and developing the details of the characters.
2. The director, Rodrigo Garcia, who also wrote the screenplay, has chosen Jesus’ actual Hebrew name Yeshua — the name that Jesus would have been called by His fellow Israelites — instead of the English name Jesus (which isn’t even the correct translation of His Hebrew name Yeshua, which is actually translated Joshua in English — but more on that some other time). But here’s why Garcia chose “Yeshua”: “I wrote a few pages in which I called him Jesus,” Garcia explains. “But when you’re writing a screenplay and it says ‘Jesus walks, Jesus says,’ after a while, the weight of the name is paralyzing.”
Using Yeshua, however, cured the paralysis and “liberated” him, as he put it. (Source: Christianity Today)
3. The movie doesn’t burden itself with trying to survey the entire Gospel narrative. This is my favorite passage from Wilkinson’s Christianity Today feature:
Unlike the epics and myths on which most “Bible movies” are based, Last Days feels like a short story, a form which Garcia loves for its ambiguity and constraints. “Rather than tell you a whole world, they sort of immerse you in it very quickly and introduce whatever conflicts are there—some said and some unsaid. And then you come out of it more with a feeling of having been somewhere, than with that clarity that everything was wrapped up.”
4. When asked by Yahoo.com if religious people would take offense to such a human portrayal of Jesus, Ewan McGregor said this:
I can’t imagine any issue with it, because there’s never a moment that he’s uncertain of his faith. I played him as the son of God and a man who is in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights to meditate on his path, the path ahead of him, which is to go out and preach and dedicate his life, ultimately and completely, to spreading the word of God, his father.
5. In the film, Satan’s express goal is to convince Yeshua that His Heavenly Father does not love Him. The relationship between the man who Yeshua meets in the desert and the man’s son works as a symbolic commentary on Yeshua’s relationship with the Father that must be tested in the desert. Just about every reviewer who saw the film made this observation.
6. According to the CT article, Ewan McGregor, though not religious, said the film was made with “passion and respect,” and he was very excited to play Jesus in this film. He did his best to imagine what it would be like for God to “be his Dad” as he put it. “I’ve never felt like a film was as important as this one for a long, long time. I was so moved by it, and so immediately passionate and connected to it,” said McGregor.
7. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, McGregor is also quick to correct any use of the term “faith-based movie” to describe “Last Days.” It’s not made by a Christian studio or a religious filmmaker, and he is correct to point out that the film is not depicting any actual events in Scripture. It is an imagined chapter that is set within Jesus’ 40 days in the desert:
But to hear it from McGregor, Last Days in the Desert has little in common with those titles [referring to recent faith-based movies]. “I don’t see it as a faith-based film,” McGregor says. “It’s not telling a Biblical story. I think it’s a film about fathers and sons. Jesus and God are the ultimate father and son relationship.”
8. Although it is not a big budget CGI epic, Garcia chose breathtaking locations in California’s deserts using only natural lighting, and, according to reviewers, the result is spellbinding. According to The Guardian: “…[the film’s cinematography] transforms California’s Anza-Borrego Desert state park to the stark crossroads of Levantine good and evil. Just when you think you’ve seen the best magic hour landscape of rock formations, another comes to top it.”
9. Reviewers are describing it as a traditional take on Jesus, not something “bold” or “revolutionary,” which were the terms used by secular reviewers to describe the moments when “Noah” and “Exodus” deviated dramatically from the intent of the Bible.
10. As Wilkinson points out, films about Jesus go to extremes when they depict Jesus: either they write Him as 100% divine, without a shred of tangible humanity (and He ends up coming across like a humanoid or an A.I. character on-screen), or they scratch out the divine altogether and disbelieve Jesus’ claims about Himself in the Gospels. This film doesn’t make the latter mistake:
Last Days walks the line between these two, going off-book but staying true to the character. This Yeshua is confident in his identity as the son of God while also struggling and being tempted by everything that a man would find tempting: hunger, exhaustion, loneliness, anger, lust, fear. In McGregor’s portrayal, Yeshua is quietly kind, empathetic and loving, a friend and a holy man who can also enjoy a good joke. This is a Yeshua who could understand us as friends, no matter how we feel about him as son of God.
11. One reviewer described it as being more moving than “The Passion of the Christ”:
McGregor really makes the movie, and even if the film is only so-so, it’s one of the greatest performances he’s ever given. The subtle moments of humanity he brings to the part, such his sly giggle at a character passing gas (that’s right – there’s a fart joke in a Jesus movie) that got snickers from the audience, are actually some of the best moments in the movie as they convey so much of the character’s warmth. I can’t claim to be especially religious, but certainly I was more moved by what McGregor does here than I was by anything in THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST.
Is It Okay to Use Fictional Non-Biblical Scenarios to Contemplate the Bible’s Truth? In Cases Like This: Absolutely.
According to reviewers who saw it at Sundance, the fictional story of Jesus meeting a family in the desert, especially the father and son, serves as a symbolic commentary on Jesus’ relationship with His Father.
It is appended to a clash with Satan in which Satan tries to get inside Jesus’ head — another imagined chapter that could be labeled, perhaps, as the prequel to Jesus’ confrontation with Satan that is told in the Gospels but is not shown in the film.
Some Christians might protest the film’s use of a fictionalized event, but, when done with “passion and respect,” as McGregor described it, it can be a powerful way to see the Biblical text with greater clarity. This film is essentially a fictionalized short story inspired by the events of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. The story, I’m guessing, works as a symbolic composite of Jesus’ entire ministry — sort of a contemplation of the Biblical text without depicting any of the events in it.
And besides, Christians, even the most conservative, have been doing this for years. I’ve read many short stories that imagine fictional events surrounding the true events in the Biblical text. The short story called “The Story of the Other Wise Man” by Henry van Dyke, written in 1895 and beloved by Christendom ever since, is a perfect example. It imagines the life of a fourth wise man not mentioned in the Bible — using entirely fictional events — to bring a refreshing clarity to the birth of Jesus.
In other words, the use of fictional events surrounding true ones is a way to help us rediscover the actual events that have become over-familiar to us.
And that is my hope for ‘Last Days in the Desert’: that it will be a movie that uses imaginative fiction to help us rediscover the glorious facts about Jesus in the Biblical text, the ones that have become over-familiar to Christians, like the stunning reality that God willingly limited Himself to the confines of a human body and a human life — as messy and as undignified as that is — so that He could identify with us and ultimately pay the penalty for us on the Cross.
Satan Appearing as a Mirror-Image of Jesus (But with Vanity and an Attitude)
McGregor plays both Jesus and Satan in these scenes because Satan appears as a mirror image of Jesus to taunt Him. Ann Rice did the same thing in her masterpiece novel “Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana” to great effect.
Although the Bible doesn’t say how Satan looked when he appeared to Jesus, this artistic technique conveys, in a visually symbolic way, how Satan attacked and questioned Jesus’ identity and His relationship with His Father. It is consistent with the tactics of Satan in the Biblical text.
Some critics interpreted Satan’s mirror-image of Jesus as a way of saying that the whole spat with Satan was a hallucination in Jesus’ head. They tried to paint the picture that many secularists use when they criticize the Bible: that Jesus was just a man (not divine), there was nothing supernatural, and Satan was just a figment of his imagination, especially in the desert temptation.
In fact, an interviewer was insinuating that “Last Days” was trying to make a statement and take that angle in a definite way (that the whole thing was a hallucination in Jesus’ head), but Ewan McGregor rebuffed that idea. That was clearly not his or the director’s intent, as he told an interviewer from Yahoo.com:
I think the film is open to anybody’s interpretation, and I like that. But I played them as he’s the Devil and he’s Jesus. A lot of what the Devil is saying to Jesus is trying to create doubt…But that being said, I was never trying to suggest that this [having Satan be a twisted mirror-image of Jesus] was just another sort of Jesus’s doubt. I always imagined that they really were two different people.
Are Christians Uncomfortable with Jesus’ Humanity?
Wilkinson, in her feature for Christianity Today, brought up a good point: many of the films that portray Jesus remove all shreds of humanity and focus 100% on Jesus’ divinity: “Watching these sorts of films, it’s hard to imagine Jesus being frustrated or lonely or afraid or unable to sleep because of a gnawing hunger. This Jesus probably wouldn’t laugh at a joke or tell a riddle just for the fun of it.”
I am reminded of this truth in Christian theology: “Through His human nature, Jesus Christ is fully human, possessing all the essential attributes of a true human being. Christian orthodoxy rejected Docetism, which denied the true humanity of Christ.”
In a weird way, many films about Jesus unintentionally lean toward Docetism. The modern Christian world is sometimes uncomfortable with Jesus’ fully human nature. Yes, Jesus had to use the bathroom. He burped. He had a sense of humor for no other reason than to enjoy the feeling of laughter. That is the whole point of Christianity: God took on flesh and became a man so that He could fully identify with every nuance of our fallen, imperfect experience in this world.
That being said, Jesus also never sinned. The Gospels are very clear on that point. (And that was also the whole point of God becoming a man: only a sinless, perfect human being with a rightful claim to shared divinity with the Father could have the spiritual authority to offer Himself in our place as the payment for our sins.) So there were certainly some things in His human experience that were unique.
But He was very much human. According to Christian theology, God intentionally limited Himself so that Jesus had to apprehend the Father the same way we do: by relying on the Word of God and seeking the Father in prayer, faith, and perseverance.
And, from what it sounds like, “Last Days in the Desert” captures this element of Jesus’ experience on earth beautifully, as He was confined to the limitations of His humanity. Does it go too far with it? I won’t know for sure until I see it, but from what I’ve read, it seems to walk the line just far enough without obscuring or dismissing Jesus’ divinity as the Son of God.
No Middle-Ground Between Being the Son of God and a Madman.
In the Christianity Today interview, Garcia was asked what kind of personal/spiritual questions inhabit the film, and he offered a very open, personal response:
“…If Jesus is the son of God, what an enormous circumstance, what an enormous package for him. If he is not the son of God, what a remarkable life, with what an incredible spiritual message . . . And then time: time goes by. What does it all mean in time? And if you are a believer, what does death mean? And if you are not a believer, what does death mean? Even Yeshua is not unconcerned with death in the movie.”
In every interview that the director Rodrigo Garcia did, he was described as a humble, gentle, generous man who has never had any desire to anger (or curry favor with) anyone with his film or his comments. He is simply expressing himself and his beliefs through his art. And I love that.
So I mean him no ill will when I gently point this out: Jesus never really left us the option of taking a middle-ground where we describe Him as simply a man with an amazing life and a wonderfully moral message. If you really look at the bold, shocking claims He made about Himself in the Gospel, if those claims aren’t true, then He was a lunatic.
Let me explain a little further: Jesus claimed to be God in the flesh — the only true, absolute authority on all things relating to God and on what happens in the after-life after we die. He made that claim the central core of all of His teachings, and He was so explicit about this to the Pharisees — He repeated it over and over to them — that it eventually provoked them to plot His murder. It was the ultimate blasphemy in their eyes.
And Jesus knew that. Yet He persisted with the claim that He was God — and that no one could ever come to the Father except through Him — with shocking boldness without ever apologizing for it.
Oxford scholar C.S. Lewis put it this way in “Mere Christianity”:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
To be clear, I can see that Garcia, in his quoted statement about this topic, was simply expressing good will toward people of faith. He was trying to say, perhaps, that even if a person doesn’t believe Jesus’ claims, a person can still have respect for Jesus and for the faith experience in general.
And I think that’s a wonderful spirit. I wish there were many more directors like Garcia in Hollywood. I am grateful for him.
Did Jesus, While On Earth, Have Memories of His Heavenly Existence?
Christian theology teaches that Jesus, as the Son of God, existed eternally and enjoyed perfect fellowship with the Father in the eternal past prior to His earthly ministry.
The film, according to reviewers, has Jesus, at one point, becoming so desperate and lonely for the Father as He endures the test of the desert, that He asks Satan to tell Him what God looks like in Heaven (since Lucifer has been before the throne of God) — sort of like asking a native of your hometown to describe it because you miss it but you can’t remember what it looks like. The film is clear in its depiction that Jesus is the divine Son of God made flesh, but it portrays Jesus, in the limits of His humanity, as having no memory of His Heavenly existence.
Whether its theology is spot-on or not, the film apparently tries hard to depict Jesus’ longing for close communion with the Father, and this is at least consistent with the general intent and spirit of the Gospels.
But I would probably argue that the Christian Scriptures paint the opposite picture about Jesus’ memory, especially when, in John 8:58, Jesus references His pre-earthly existence in eternity as if He were remembering it when He tells the Pharisees: “Before Abraham was, I AM.” In Luke 10:18, He says that He saw Satan fall from Heaven, a reference to an event that happened before Jesus’ birth.
I’m not sure how dogmatic I would get about that debate though. I suspect one could make some strong arguments in either direction. Either way I think it’s fascinating that the film (apparently) depicts Yeshua as being so hungry for a connection with His Father — so homesick for Heaven — that He resorts to asking His enemy to describe home. There’s something very touching about that. Although obviously it’s fictional, it works as a broad, symbolic commentary on something very true in the Gospels: Jesus had an incredibly strong, constant yearning for His heavenly home where His Father was.
Is The Faith-Based Crowd Really That Critical About Movies?
Many of the reviewers mentioned how ruthlessly critical the faith-based community can be. I have spent the last 30 years in a wide variety of Christian communities, and I would say that 80% of them do not go into full-on freak out Beast Mode when they come across a movie that doesn’t perfectly match the Scriptures.
Because they know it’s just a movie, and Hollywood, frankly, is not a very important blip on their radar (if a blip at all). Even many Christians who love film and are engaged in pop culture know that a movie is just a work of art — a product, like a chair made by an artisan. You either like it and sit in it or you don’t. The Christians I have known are fairly laid back in that way, and if they perceive that a movie is dissing their faith, they just keep walking by the chair and move on with their lives.
To be clear, I think anyone has the right to stand up for what they believe, especially if they feel that a movie is being subversive, malicious, or dishonest about its portrayal of something precious to a person of faith. We don’t have to be rude about it, but we should stick up for ourselves.
But, based on everything I’ve read so far, I’m guessing that “Last Days in the Desert” — even though it’s an art film and not a faith-based movie — will be a work that plenty of faith-based moviegoers sit in — like a carefully crafted hand-made chair — and relish, finding it surprisingly comfortable, sturdy, and beautiful.
That’s my hope at least.
A Closer Look at the Cast and Crew:
The cast: Ewan McGregor plays Jesus and Satan; Ciarán Hinds (“Munich”, “There Will Be Blood,” the voice of the grandpa rock troll in “Frozen”) plays the father whom Jesus meets in the desert; Tye Sheridan (“Mud,” “The Tree of Life,” “Joe”) plays the son whom Jesus meets; Ayelet Zurer (“Man of Steel,” “Angels & Demons”) plays the mother; and Susan Gray (“The Lords of Salem”) plays a demonic woman who I’m guessing will somehow try to confront Jesus in the desert.
The director: Rodrigo García has directed mostly in television (“Blue,” “Christine,” “In Treatment.”) His film credits include notable features like “Mother and Son,” “Albert Nobbs,” and “Nine Lives.” He was born in Columbia, and his father, Gabriel García Márquez, is a major figure in literature (Latin-American magical realism). Is Rodrigo someone whose beliefs will perfectly match those of Christians like myself? I’m guessing not. But that doesn’t mean “Last Days in the Desert” should be discounted. In his media interviews, he seems like a gentle, humble, insightful soul, and I would think this sensitivity would transfer over to how he handles the life of a Man who commands the love and worship of millions of people.
Some premier talent in the crew: Emmanuel Lubezki, the award-winning cinematographer (“Gravity,” “Birdman”) has made a masterpiece with “Last Days in the Desert,” according to the reviews.
The composers, Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, are frequently complimented in reviews for making a well-proportioned, sparse, haunting score of just a few strings — a stunning musical sound scape to match the stunning landscape.