Spirit Embraced in the Desert

Rodrigo García. “Last Days in the Desert,” 2016

The desert can be a hazardous and relentlessly unfriendly place, its landscape forbiddingly sere and barren. And yet it is also the place where women and men have gone to be stripped of the psychological and spiritual obstacles that stand between themselves and God. The Hebrews’ wandering in the wilderness after their release from Egyptian bondage, Elijah’s discovery of God’s still, small voice in his isolated cave, the Qumran community’s self-exile by the Dead Sea, the wilderness sojourn of John the Baptist, Jesus’ own 40 days of testing in the desert, the early desert fathers and mothers: these all attest to the fact that the silent and distractionless desert is where the Spirit can be heard.

Director Rodrigo García takes this as his theme in his remarkable film “Last Days in the Desert.” Both the plot and the dialogue are sparse, gesturing at the fact that the desert is a place for simplicity instead of complexity and listening rather than chattering. Filmed in a location, the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (just south of Los Angeles), whose severe and colorless contours are as minimal as the dialogue, “Last Days” invites the viewer to enter into rather than merely observe desert stillness.

García’s film focuses on the final days of Jesus’ (or Yeshua’s, in the film) wilderness sojourn. Portrayed by Scots actor Ewan McGregor, Yeshua experiences moments of deep despair when the Tempter tries to convince him that the Father feels no love for him. But the prodding of the Spirit is stronger than the jabbing of Satan (cleverly cast by García, and played by McGregor, as a kind of doppelganger to Yeshua). Yeshua remains firm in his conviction that he is a beloved child of God, and just as importantly learns that reciprocating God’s love means caring for one’s fellow humans – personified in the film by a troubled desert family onto which Yeshua stumbles and befriends.

The end of the film, a harrowing scene of Yeshua suffering and dying on the Cross, may come as a surprise and perhaps even a shock to viewers. It’s not that we don’t know the story, but rather that there’s no obvious sign of the Resurrection that is to follow. Where, we might ask, is the Spirit in all this? Why was Yeshua tested and found able in the desert only to end like this? But the desert of the Cross, on which Yeshua is stripped of everything – dignity, humanity, life itself – is but the culmination of the stripping he underwent in the Sinai wilderness. And just as the Spirit found him there even in the midst of his suffering, so it finds him on the Cross, too.

All in all, a very good film to watch, think about, and pray over this Pentecost season.

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