Screwtape in the Wilderness: The Devil in the Details of ‘Last Days in the Desert’
Aman huddles under a bush in an attempt to shelter himself from a whipping desert wind. It’s pointless—the bush is leafless and skeletal, and the man’s cloak is too flimsy and frayed to keep the grit from blowing into his face. He begins to laugh at the absurd discomfort of his situation: he just can’t catch a break, can he? Soon, though, his laughter melts into a wordless shout of pure frustration. He hollers his anger at the elements. Nobody, not even the Son of God, likes sand between his teeth.We’re used to a Jesus who effortlessly swats Satan aside just before diving into his earthly ministry, but Garcia’s nontraditional approach allows the imagination to safely probe unexplored spiritual territory: illumination reached via speculation.
This is only the first of many times that Last Days in the Desert portrays Jesus in a way that will be unfamiliar to audiences used to seeing a certain kind of Messiah on their movie screens. He’s supposed to be serene, confident, long-suffering. He’s supposed to get mad only when there’s a wrong to right or a lesson to impart. If Jesus is really the Son of God (we might say, echoing Satan in Matthew 4:3), then he should act like it.
But Last Days in the Desert steadfastly refuses to hit the expected narrative beats in its retelling of the story of Jesus’ wilderness temptation. Early in the film, a jump cut signals writer/director Rodrigo Garcia’s intentions. Jesus is trudging wearily along, but instead of depicting the shot in one unbroken take, Garcia inserts an edit that seems to chop out a couple of seconds from the footage, causing a stutter-like effect. The normal flow of the story has been interrupted and diverted, like a railroad switch that suddenly jerks a train onto a branching track. Instead of following its familiar path, the account of Jesus’ desert sojourn is now proceeding along a different route. We’re used to a Jesus who effortlessly swats Satan aside just before diving into his earthly ministry, but Garcia’s nontraditional approach allows the imagination to safely probe unexplored spiritual territory: illumination reached via speculation.
To this end, Garcia employs other intentional incongruities. Jesus is played by Ewan McGregor, who has the white skin and blue eyes of the ethnically inaccurate Jesus favored by Hollywood for decades. The film’s narrative centers around Jesus’ stay with a desert-dwelling family who appears nowhere in the Bible. Jesus isn’t even called Jesus; he goes by the less common Hebrew rendering of his name, Yeshua.
Satan, too, receives a dramatic overhaul. For his temptation of Yeshua, the devil (also played by McGregor) has chosen to take the same form as Yeshua. The symbolic implications of this devil-as-doppelganger portrayal are initially troubling, but further consideration reveals it as a textbook Satan move: dishonesty, spite, and self-aggrandizement all blended together. His goal is to get under Yeshua’s skin using whatever means he can—how better to accomplish this than by wearing blasphemy as a Halloween costume?
There’s a little of C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape in the DNA of Garcia’s tempter. Sardonic and self-amused, Satan has an air of worldly-wise detachment throughout most of the film, needling his adversary at every opportunity. He embellishes his Yeshua disguise with trinkets and jewelry, giving the Messiah some flash and pizzazz for once. And when Yeshua expresses uncertainty about the Father’s will, Satan is all too ready to provide his own highly reasonable take on the universe. Take notes, and I’ll tell you how it really is.
Yet for all his affected nonchalance, he can’t fully conceal his hatred and puzzlement when it comes to the divine. Just as the title character in The Screwtape Letters curses God for being an inscrutable hedonist who sanctions all sorts of seemingly pointless joy and pleasure, the devil of Last Days is flummoxed by God’s love for his creation. It’s the repetitiousness of it all that gets to Satan. The changing seasons are pretty enough, but what’s the point of cycling over and over through the same four? Why bother forgiving humanity when they’re just going to go right back to sinning? Ever the knowledgeable Old Testament scholar, Satan points out that Yeshua is only the latest in a long line of deliverers whom God has sent to his people.
Dramatic irony is at play here, since Christians in the audience know what Satan doesn’t: that Yeshua is the ultimate deliverer, the one who will consummate the salvation foreshadowed by his predecessors. But in the context of the story, Satan’s argument is a strong one. Last Days supposes that part of being human for Yeshua means that he is bound by the human experience of time and space—he can’t just pop up to heaven for a quick confirmation of the divine purpose, nor can he peer into the future to see that everything will work out in the end. At the moment, he just knows that he’s been starving in the middle of a desert for over a month, and that his attempts to help the isolated family with whom he is staying are meeting with a lot of obstacles. Satan knows Yeshua’s pressure points.
Last Days is at its weakest when it sets these explorations of Yeshua’s doubts and limitations aside and tries to focus on the family drama. The father-mother-son trio (played by Ciaran Hinds, Ayelet Zurer, and Tye Sheridan, doing a fine job with underwritten roles) follows a familiar template (emotionally inhibited father, ailing mother, frustrated teenager) that doesn’t leave much of an impression. The film seems to intend for the family conflict to be archetypal—in Satan’s instigation of a wager over the family’s fate, Garcia brings to mind the cosmic framing device at the beginning of the book of Job—but it’s so lacking in urgency and specificity that it feels generic. Given the immediacy and fascinating ambiguity of the encounters between Yeshua and Tempter, the family drama suffers by comparison.
Fortunately, the enigmatic quality of the rest of the film carries it through its thinner patches. Yeshua’s attempts to aid the struggling family lack the cinematic force of Satan’s temptations or his own troubled dreams, but the way Garcia resolves the conflict is intriguing. Audiences are used to Jesus movies that end in triumph. Last Days is unique in that respect. Garcia took us onto a different track with that jump cut near the beginning, and he doesn’t betray the film by giving us what we expect at the end. His final shot is open to interpretation. More than that, it demands interpretation. Garcia leaves us in the desert, asking what it (the desert) means.
It’s a fitting place to end a film that—in its pacing, writing, and performances—seems more interested in asking questions than coughing up answers. Like the wilderness landscape its characters dwell in, these questions are gnarled and treacherous. Garcia invites viewers to wait uncertain in the desert alongside Yeshua, pondering what we have seen, what we know, and what we can only guess at. It’s an invitation worth accepting.