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Family Movie Review: Last Days in the Desert (PG-13)

LastDaysInTheDesert ChesapeakeFamilyMovieReviewKernel Rating (out of 5): whole popcorn kernalwhole popcorn kernalwhole popcorn kernal

MPAA Rating: PG-13        Length: 98 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 13+. This film focuses on Jesus’s time spent wandering the desert for 40 days, and specifically contrasts his behavior with that of the Devil. The film isn’t typically faith-based, however; its content is more philosophical than explicitly tied to modern-day Christianity. Some questions about identity that may go over tweens’ heads; one parent is dying of sickness and another character accidentally falls from a cliff; some brief partial nudity (a topless woman, with her hair covering her breasts); a fart joke; and some disturbing imagery in the desert, including snakes, a pile of ash that was once a person, decaying animals, and Jesus on the cross.

‘Last Days in the Desert’ is more introspective and self-reflective than explicitly Christian, and in that way isn’t your typical faith-based film. It drags a little too long, but is interesting in its consideration of Jesus as a man, not only a religious figure.

By Roxana Hadadi

Faith-based films have become a legitimate cinematic genre in their own right over the past few years, but few—if any—of them are like “Last Days in the Desert.” This contemplative film wonders what Jesus went through during his 40 days in the desert, and its questions about morality and identity are both interestingly inward-looking and frustratingly meandering. Not an attempt at a Hollywood epic like “Risen” or an irritatingly sexist offering like “War Room,” “Last Days in the Desert” is less about God and more about man.

Most of “Last Days in the Desert” doesn’t take its content directly from the Bible or scripture; it also doesn’t straightforwardly adapt the three temptations the Devil offered Jesus during his 40 days of praying and fasting. Instead, “Last Days in the Desert” presents Jesus—here called Yeshua, his Hebrew name—as a man struggling to understood himself and his relationship with God, wondering about whether his faith is enough, what he’s supposed to do, and who he is supposed to be.

“Father, where are you?” asks Yeshua (Ewan McGregor, of “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens”). It’s clear he’s unmoored, and when the Devil (also played by McGregor) shows up, his self-doubt only grows. “I am a liar, that’s the truth,” says the Devil, but his talk about how God has abandoned Yeshua, how he has built countless other worlds with other children, is certainly meant to rile Yeshua. The Devil doesn’t hate God, but he definitely doesn’t regard him with respect or affection—and his skepticism and sarcasm seem to hit home for Yeshua, who asks Devil what God is like. After all, the Devil has been in his presence, and Yeshua hasn’t.

Their push-and-pull dynamic becomes more intense when Yeshua meets a family in the desert: Father (Ciarán Hinds, of “Frozen”), Mother (Ayelet Zurer, of “Man of Steel”) and Son (Tye Sheridan, of “Mud”). There’s friction between the three of them, with the stonesmith Father wanting Son to follow in his footsteps and stay in the isolated desert, while Son wants to leave for Jerusalem, and Mother is dying.

It’s this family that the Devil focuses on in a wager with Yeshua: If he can bring each family member some kind of inner peace, then the Devil will leave him alone for the rest of his trek through the desert. With that in mind, Yeshua gets to know these people, and through observing Father and Son’s relationship will hopefully gain some insight about his own bond with God.

Or at least, that’s what the movie implies is happening inside Yeshua’s mind. What is creative about the film—its willingness to let Yeshua wander—also ends up being a detriment by the end, when the conclusion feels somewhat opaque. The film ends in a way that veers toward the mainstream religious messages it otherwise eschews, and it’s a little surprising to have an ending that seems so tidy.

But before then, “Last Days in the Desert” works well by doing things differently. Having McGregor play both Jesus and the Devil is an inspired choice, and the cinematography is always stark, sometimes scary, and often beautiful. For viewers willing to go off the beaten path of faith-based films, “Last Days in the Desert” is worth seeing.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.

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