Updated: Mar 30
Leading up to Easter & Passover, I'm reflecting on the 12 top Bible movie adaptations either of Jesus' last days or of the original Passover events. Last Days in the Desert shows Good Friday only briefly (spoiler!), and yet I'm including it as well because it is very much a Lent film (the 40 days of Lent are based on Jesus' 40 days in the desert).
Written & Directed by: Rodrigo Garcia
Starring: Ewan McGregor as Jesus & Satan
Adapting: Satan Tempting Jesus in the Desert (Mark 1:12-13, Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13)
While being tempted by Satan in the desert, Jesus encounters a father and son (and mother) struggling to communicate with each other about their conflicting desires. Jesus accepts Satan’s challenge to reconcile the family and begins to build a relationship with the stubborn but loving father & his idealistic but frustrated son.
Photo from: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3513054/mediaviewer/rm1345789440
As you noticed in the synopsis, the film doesn’t follow any of the temptations recorded in the gospels but instead explores what else might have happened during Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. This allows the creativity of the filmmakers to drive the bus. As a result, the film includes characters, struggles, and themes that have little precedent either in the gospel or in subsequent tradition. At times these innovations can make it hard to even determine when or how this story fits into the sequence given to us in the gospels, and little effort is expended to reconcile or explain these apparent discrepancies. Even so, between Satan's tactics in the film and what we see in the gospels. Throughout the story, Satan is attempting to undermine or distort Jesus’ sense of sonship.
The portrayal of Satan’s character is also quite innovative. The film casts the same actor for both Jesus and Satan, and in doing so suggests that Satan either has a sibling relation to Jesus or is a manifestation of some aspect of Jesus’ psyche. Satan propounds some rather unorthodox ideas (e.g. that God has created, destroyed, and remade the world countless times in order to play around with the details). While it’s true that we can’t exactly take Satan at his word, it almost seems like the Jesus of the film does. When Satan finally lets Jesus go, it’s not because Jesus has quoted some Torah and rebuked him in a “Get behind me Satan!” moment. Rather it seems as if Satan has simply gotten bored and decided to give up.
The Aragorn Effect is definitely at play here... Jesus, our main character, has his sense of doubt amplified and his confidence diminished so as to make him relatable to the mere mortals in the audience.
While there are many ways in which Last Days bucks the historical tradition of biblical adaptation, in doing so the film ends up following contemporary adaptive traditions quite closely. The Aragorn Effect is definitely at play here, as it also is in Jesus Christ Superstar and The Last Temptation. Jesus, our main character, has his sense of doubt amplified and his confidence diminished so as to make him relatable to the mere mortals in the audience. The addition of a sexual temptation to Jesus’ trials is also a predictable modern move.
Milton exerts a significant pull over the film as well. His most well-known work founded the tradition of depicting Satan as likable and somewhat tragic but also a quite dastardly figure – a tradition that McGregor is surely aware of and influenced by. Milton's lesser-known Paradise Regained sets the precedent for the concept the film more generally (an expanded look at Jesus’ temptations in the desert) and even for some of the specific events (e.g. Satan initially encountering Jesus while disguised).
That's it for now. Next up is my exploration of two more original stories couched within biblical adaptation, The Robe and Risen.