God is some thing that “holds you together all while tearing you apart.”
Such is the confusion experienced by Ewan McGregor’s Jesus Christ in this film from Albert Nobbs director Rodrigo Garcia. While the film is respectful in its tone, it should be noted that its portrayal is more along the lines of Jesus the Man rather than Christ the Divine. The role of Satan is also played by McGregor in a tantalizing and provocative hook that may increase public interest in the film.
The film begins just as Jesus of Nazareth lives out the last of His forty days in the desert. He is dutiful and obedient, even if struggling somewhat with His connection to God. Satan has been torturing Him throughout His sacrifice, and it has clearly interfered with His ability to concentrate and dwell in the presence of the Holy Spirit.
In a fictional turn, however, Jesus encounters a family of three on His way out of the desert and strikes a deal with Satan: if Christ can solve the family’s array of issues to the satisfaction of each and every family member, then Satan will leave Jesus alone. It doesn’t seem to be a particularly challenging task, and Jesus’ interest in the family was peaked nonetheless, so He agrees to the detour.
What follows is an allegory for Christ’s (and, by extension, every human being’s) rich and complicated relationship with His own Father: the longing for approval but on His own terms; a struggle to understand just exactly what it will take to impress His Father; and the endless love of a Father that results in unthinkable sacrifice.
Keeping the focus on universal archetypes, the screenwriter refuses to name the characters that make up this fictional family, and they are known only by Father (Ciarán Hinds), Mother (Ayelet Zurer), and Son (Tye Sheridan). If the allegory wasn’t already obvious, the Mother is also largely absent from the film; struck down with a debilitating illness, she is kept hidden from the world in the family’s tent and steps out only in the most dire of circumstances – and even then can hardly walk. The Son would like to make his way to the city and away from the isolation, boredom, and loneliness he feels living with his family in the desert; this is the source of his conflict with the Father, who insists that the Son learn discipline and continue the family’s work. But the Father secretly struggles with his own demons, and stretches himself to meet the wishes of the Son.
This is one of the most contemplative (and gorgeously-shot) films audiences have seen in years. It gives a surreal first impression; one just doesn’t expect such a meditative reflection of spiritual substance – and even less so that such a film would star a Hollywood heavyweight. As surreal as it may seem, the film is made for believers – just as Passion of the Christ was. Indeed, it requires a certain patience; much of the film unfolds without dialogue, symbolizing Jesus’ search for answers from His Father. “What would Thou have me do?” he asks more than once. Though the dialogue is sparse, the questions it provokes are not, and it lingers in the mind for days. Though there are many questions, the film does seem to provide at least one concrete answer: the tug-of-war relationship between Father and Son, no matter how strained, is always tethered in love.
Last Days in the Desert is screening at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in the non-competitive Premieres category and has yet to be acquired for U.S. distribution.
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Image Source: Sundance Institute