Christian cinema is doing well. Just look at the frequency with which faith-centric movies reach our screens these days (even if in limited release), as well as how their production values have improved. In terms of profitability, religious movies are a pretty safe bet – with the keyword there being “safe.”
There’s money to be made especially with Bible movies, but in order to do that they need to satisfy their waiting Christian audience. Unsurprisingly then, filmmakers are generally unwilling to rock the boat by veering too much from the source material. When directors have applied a hefty dose of artistic license to scripture in the past, it’s normally ended in controversy. Remember Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ? Boycotts and bomb threats were the result when people heard Willem Dafoe’s Jesus fantasized about sex with Mary Magdalene in the movie.
So big screen Bible stories tend to be functional, unimaginative efforts. This makes November DVD release Last Days in the Desert a rarity – because it is a full-blown art house effort.
Written and directed by Columbian filmmaker Rodrigo Garcia, Last Days in the Desert chronicles Jesus Christ’s final stretch of fasting, prayer and wandering during his 40 days in the Wilderness. Afraid of the path ahead, feeling disconnected from God, and continually taunted by the Devil, Jesus (called Yeshua here, and played by Ewan McGregor) stumbles upon a family caught in a crisis of conflicting wants. As Yeshua attempts to help father (Ciarán Hinds), son (Tye Sheridan) and mother (Ayelet Zurer), He finds himself examining His own relationship with His Father.
First things first, if you are a fan of Ewan McGregor, Last Days in the Desert is must-watch. Although the actor definitely fits the Euro-Christ mould, he gives an incredibly strong performance – as both human Yeshua trying to do good, and as his dark mirror self, which is the form the Devil takes. In an otherwise leisurely, quiet film, these scenes between Good and Evil are thought-provoking and full of energy.
It’s just that, as a whole, Last Days in the Desert is not an accessible movie for the masses. For one thing, it really takes its time. The film may be only 95 minutes in duration but with its long contemplative silences, it sometimes feels like you’ve been watching it for 40 days. For another, Last Days in the Desert makes viewers work to find meaning, and that may involve two or more viewings – if you’re up for it.
As pluses, the film is strikingly scored, and spectacularly shot. Garcia is a former cinematographer, and Last Days in the Desert takes full advantage of its location shoot in California’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. In fitting its themes, most of the film seems to be set on a mountaintop, looking down on a parched, primeval planet. The casting may not be authentic, but the world onscreen certainly looks like Ancient Judea.
Last Days in the Desert is an intimate, respectful tale with a multiple elements that work. However, it is also one of those opaque movies that will probably split audiences because of its absolute refusal to provide answers after flinging out a number of plot hooks. For some viewers the lack of spoon-feeding will be refreshing; for others it will be extremely frustrating. Either way, Last Days in the Desert feels like something different: a Bible movie with serious artistic and spiritual ambition.
Last Days in the Desert is available now on Ster Kinekor DVD.
Last Updated: November 28, 2016