Ewan McGregor stars as both Jesus and the devil in Rodrigo Garcia’s seventh narrative feature, Last Days in the Desert, which premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and received a limited theatrical released in May of 2016 from BroadGreen Pictures (shortly after the distributor released another phenomenal title lensed by Emmanuel Lubezki, Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups). Despite a cultivated central performance from McGregor as the dueling personas, this somber, haltingly paced production is questionably filmed in English and, much like religious themed horror films, can’t manage to transcend the limitations of the belief system inspiring it. Those partial to human conflicts measured in sectarian metaphor may appreciate yet another inquiry into Christ’s final days, but those without biased patience may find themselves wallowing in its unwieldiness. At one time an adept purveyor of what could loosely be termed the modernized ‘women’s picture’ with expert titles like Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her (2000), Nine Lives (2005) and Mother and Child (2009), director Rodrigo Garcia has gone off into more provocative territory following the stilted bauble, Albert Nobbs (2011).
Yeshua aka Jesus (Ewan McGregor) wanders through the desert, arguing with Lucifer, who appears in mirror image of himself to torment, tempt, and philosophize about his father’s big plan. On his way back to Jerusalem, it’s not long before Yeshua stumbles upon a Son (Tye Sheridan), who is stuck with his dying Mother (Ayelet Zurer) and emotionally distant Father (Ciaran Hinds). A family of stone cutters, the son is destined to live out a harsh and meaningless existence just like his father. They’re currently building the boy his own stone hut, but the boy’s mother wishes more for her son, and conversations about taking the boy back to the city with Yeshua remain on the table. Meanwhile, Yeshua becomes lodged between the father and son, who have difficulty communicating, not unlike how we’re led to believe Yeshua feels about his own father. Rather than move on, he stays to see what he can do for this family in need.
In the twin, yin-yang roles of Jesus and the devil, McGregor gives what can be described as engaging and committed performance, though this isn’t really the kind of dynamic we’re unaccustomed to, holy or not. Though a bit too old for the role, his accents, the English language, and eye color aren’t quite right for Mr. Christ, but McGregor does a fine job of making us forget that, from time to time. The same can’t be said for young Tye Sheridan and even a supposedly sickly Zurer, both with those distracting, impossibly nice pearly whites. Sheridan is saddled with the responsibility of Garcia’s weaker moments. A strange moment of flatulence may be oddly comical, yet twirling around in his cape in the dunes screaming “I’m a good son” is related unbelievably.
The generally crusty Ciaran Hinds is a nice touch as a father who is difficult to love. But Christ himself is outshined by the film’s superior sound design and the beautiful visual artifice, which turns San Diego into a believable Palestinian backdrop. Those looking for a serviceable exploration of this chapter from Christ’s life will surely be disappointed, while those impatient with this sort of posturing will most likely fail to get on board with Garcia’s noble yet hopelessly obtuse aim.
BroadGreen Pictures sticks to a DVD release of their religious themed title, released in a 2.40:1 widescreen transfer with Dolby Digital 5.1. Picture and sound quality aren’t compromised, and the aspect ratio is efficient for Lubezki’s skilled desert landscapes. No extra features are included on the release.
Spare in its contemplation of Christ’s humanistic struggles, this assuredly won’t be the last cinematic temptation of the controversial figure, but Last Days in the Desert is surely one of the most visually astounding yet unremarkable portraits of the historical personality.
Film Review: ★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★½/☆☆☆☆☆