According to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus Christ fasted for forty days and nights in the Judaean Desert, a wasteland in what is now Israel and the West Bank, east of Jerusalem. During this time there, Christ was tempted by the Satan. In Rodrigo Garcia’s “Last Days in the Desert,” a haggard-looking Ewan McGregor plays both Jesus and Satan, and his inner dialogues are set against the mundane problems of an impoverished family.
Shoot in less than two months at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, “”Last Days” begins with Jesus alone walking. If you’ve ever been in the desert, you might think this is insanity–wandering into a desert alone. Borrego Springs had a record high of 122 fahrenheit and record low of 20. The Judean Desert recorded 103.5 F in the summer. Walking isn’t an easy task. Water is scarce and so are humans. Away of the city of Jerusalem, Jesus has time to think. There is life in the desert, but it is more subtle and yet stripped down to the basics of water, food and a incessant nagging desperation for both.
Away from the distractions of friends and family and abundant food, Jesus comes upon a family of three: father, son and mother. The mother seems much younger than the father. The father, played by 63-year-old Ciarán Hinds, loves the desert. He endeavors to build a house from stone and what little wood can be found, assuming that his son, played with a yearning earnestness by Tye Sheridan, will remain in this desert and continue this meager, isolated homestead. The mother, played by the 46-year-old Israeli Academy Award-winning Ayelet Zurer, is ill. She spends most of the time, lying down under the shade of a bare bones tent as if waiting for death. She is not cheerful nor angry. She has given up thinking about her future and only hopes that her son will be happy. The son wants to please his father and his mother, but longs to go to the city, Jerusalem. The devil asks how Jesus will resolve this problem.
The solution comes from the father. He has an idea. The son, however, refuses to do as his father wishes. The results is brutally tragic. Yet that is life for the poor and faith comes from not having everything you’ve prayed for easily granted or even granted in the fashion that you consider best. That is for the writers of fairytales and even in their original tellings, fairytales were gruesome at times.
Garcia captures the quiet desperation of the desert and yet cinematographer Emmanual Lubezki also shows us the other worldly wonder of Anza-Borrego subbing for the Judean Desert. It makes you want to visit this local bit of desert. McGregor’s Jesus hesitates to take on the mantel of responsibility, knowing that giving hope to the hopeless is not the same as answering their prayers with easy solutions. He knows that suffering is part of the human condition. As the devil, McGregor flashes with anger and impatience, mirroring the inner battle we all must face.
Yet at the end, as the writer Garcia reminds us that Jesus did die for our sins and as he left the desert and headed back to civilization, he left behind any hope for a peaceful life, dying in a way deemed appropriate for the civilization he came to save. Some felt this segment was unnecessary, but it forces one to think of the young son who must live with the thought that his father died for him. The movie clearly becomes about fathers and sons and the sacrifices one makes for the other.
Jasper, which plays a role in this tragedy, is a type of quartz, an aggregate of microgranular quartz, that is opaque and often red due to iron inclusions. There is actually a Jasper Trail in Anza-Borrego. Jasper can be found in California as well as other states. Jasper is one of the stones of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Perhaps we should all take time for contemplation in the desert and listen to the subtle sounds of life and learn to appreciate the small things that mean so much to survival there: water, food, shade, hospitality and kindness. “Last Days in the Desert” opens May 13 at the Monica Film Canter, but will open on May 20th at the Pasadena Playhouse 7.