Last Days in the Desert
2016, PG-13, 98 min. Directed by Rodrigo García. Starring Ewan McGregor, Tye Sheridan, Ciarán Hinds, Ayelet Zurer.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 20, 2016
Writer/director Rodrigo García’s imagined episode that takes place toward the end of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert is, for the most part, a decidedly secular affair. As a character, García’s Jesus, here called Yeshua, is an ascetic who has more in common with the imperfect holy men of a Buñuel or Pasolini movie than the irreproachable paragon that’s depicted in the modern-day Christian filmmaking movement. García’s Yeshua is fallible but not profane, troubled but not tormented to the degree seen in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, mortal but not physically scourged like he is in The Passion. Until the end, where Last Days in the Desert cops out with a conciliatory epilogue that feels tacked on, the film presents us with a searcher trying to find the holiness within, a strength he needs in the absence of hearing his Father’s voice.
The narrative boils down to the eternal conflict between fathers and sons, a struggle depicted in two parallel storylines. As the film opens, Yeshua (played by blue-eyed Scot Ewan McGregor) is seen wandering in the desert, crying out, “Father, where are you?” On his way back toward Jerusalem, he encounters a family living in remote isolation; he stops for water but stays to be of service. The father (Hinds) recognizes Yeshua as a holy man, the ailing mother (Zurer) finds comfort in his touch, and the teenage son (Sheridan) confides to him his desire to defy his father’s wishes and go live in the big city. Meanwhile, Yeshua is not so much tempted as challenged by the devil, who appears in conversation as a mirror image of himself (McGregor in dual roles), creating a dialogue that reflects a schism that almost seems more psychological than spiritual.
Last Days in the Desert is a Jesus story that plays well for the nonfaithful who nevertheless appreciate the example of Jesus and his teachings. Lensed in natural light by three-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki (with whom García has worked previously), the landscape also takes on an ascetic tone (California’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park becomes an apt stand-in for the Israeli desert). As in some of his previous films (Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her, Mother and Child, Albert Nobbs), García tends to pull his punches in the clinch without following situations through to their logical conclusions. Still, in giving us a holy man who is still learning how to become the true son of God, García has created a parable that’s more humanist than religious.