×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Sundance Film Review: ‘Last Days in the Desert’

Ewan McGregor plays Jesus and Satan in this hushed, austere and stirringly beautiful drama from writer-director Rodrigo Garcia.

With:
Ewan McGregor, Ciaran Hinds, Ayelet Zurer, Tye Sheridan, Susan Gray.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3513054/

A filmmaker known primarily for his perceptive melodramas about women, from “Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her” to “Mother and Child,” now turns his attention to a primal tale of fathers and sons — including the Son of Man himself — in “Last Days in the Desert,” a quietly captivating and remarkably beautiful account of Jesus’ time in the wilderness before the beginning of his ministry. Deliberately paced, sparely imagined and suffused with mystery, writer-director Rodrigo Garcia’s seventh feature is nonetheless quite lucid and accessible in its themes of empathy, compassion and sacrifice, and grounded by a Christ/Satan dual performance by Ewan McGregor that plays vastly better onscreen than it sounds on paper. While many will find the drama as arid as its parched surroundings, with a thoughtful and concerted marketing approach the picture might well appeal to art-minded nonbelievers and Christians open-minded enough to accept an off-Scripture narrative.

Certain to elicit the full range of reactions from the faithful and the skeptical alike, “Last Days in the Desert” approaches the figure of Christ — or Yeshua, as he’s referred to here — with tremendous care and tact, yet also with a scrupulous focus on his humanity rather than his divinity. Some may well discern a connection with “The Last Temptation of Christ,” though there’s nothing here that even remotely approaches that film’s controversy-stirring elements. This is a hushed, austere and surpassingly gentle treatment of a brief chapter of Jesus’ life — probably too subdued and speculative for those inclined to find profundity in the self-glorifying “realism” of “The Passion of the Christ,” but a vastly more considered and spiritually probing picture in every respect.

We first encounter Yeshua (McGregor), his face grubby and his robes tattered, kneeling before a craggy expanse of desert that he has presumably wandered for nearly 40 days. “Father, where are you?” he utters softly, perhaps raising initial fears that Garcia’s script will borrow liberally from the collected whispers of Terrence Malick. But while there is some shared talent with “The Tree of Life” — an actor, Tye Sheridan, and a cinematographer, the great Emmanuel Lubezki — the dialogue here remains relatively sparse, even after Yeshua happens upon a father (Ciaran Hinds), his wife (Ayelet Zurer) and son (Sheridan) living in a small, isolated encampment. Accepting water from them but declining food, “the holy man,” as the father calls him, prepares to take his leave, but feels oddly compelled to stay behind — due to his innate love for humanity, one gathers, but also perhaps due to some intangible sense that all is not quite well.

He’s right, of course. (He’s Jesus.) The stakes escalate further when Yeshua is visited by a man identified in the credits as “the Demon,” who happens to be his exact mirror image. Similar to the childlike manifestation of the Almighty in the recent “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” the Demon is visible to no one but the seer, and whether that makes him a figment of a tortured imagination or a genuinely supernatural being is left very much open to debate. Yet the decision to have McGregor play both roles — which he does superbly, with sometimes only the subtlest quiver of the brow to delineate between the two — turns out to be an inspired stroke, effectively capturing the war raging within Yeshua, as well as the notion that the self, with its wants and desires, can be one’s own greatest enemy.

Departing from the gospel accounts of Satan tempting Jesus by luring him into an overt display of his power and authority, the Demon invites Yeshua to see if he can “untangle the knot” at the core of this troubled family, resolving their tension to the satisfaction of all three. As Yeshua goes about helping the father and the son with their work — hauling buckets of water, chiseling blocks of stone — he listens to their stories in private and begins to comprehend the nature of the emotional distance between them. The boy yearns to leave the desert and seek his calling in Jerusalem and beyond, eager to leave his mark on the world. But his father, whose own life has been one of bleak disappointment, has resolved that his family will remain here in the hot, dry wilderness, despite the toll it has taken on his deathly ill, nearly three-decades-younger wife.

And so a battle for these three souls begins, though the human conflict remains largely a matter of terse exchanges and resentful gazes, plus a few tense suggestions of Old Testament violence and one unexpectedly ripe moment of earthy humor. In a way that manages to be profoundly if not literally faithful to Scripture, the Demon makes clear that he’s targeting Yeshua, too — predictably enough, by dangling the wife as a potential lust object, but also, perhaps, by visiting the holy man with slo-mo nightmares of drowning or being pursued by wolves.

“I am a liar, that is the truth,” the Demon deadpans in one of the film’s more memorable lines. But lies though they may be, even Yeshua is not entirely immune to the gnawing doubts planted in their “Seventh Seal”-style debates, in which the Demon — who is not without his own flickers of vulnerability — denounces God the Father as a distant, fickle and selfish entity, more besotted with the beauty of his creation than with his one and only Son. That the relationship between the Hinds and Sheridan characters is meant to hold up an earthly mirror to Yeshua’s own sense of abandonment is clear enough, though it’s only one resonant point in an eloquent discussion that ranges from the seeming futility of all existence to the indescribable joy (and agony) of being in God’s presence.

Despite the restrained presentation and the occasional touch of lyrical abstraction, Garcia’s conception of this material is strikingly simple and intuitive. The character details are kept purposefully understated, but thanks to the actors — particularly the magnificent Hinds, his careworn face riven with lines of suffering and regret — we have an almost immediate sense of who they are and the lives of earthly extremity they’ve endured. And while the casting of yet another white man in a (vaguely) biblical context may earn scorn from the anti-“Exodus” crowd, McGregor, who’s more than a decade older than Jesus was at the time, gives a performance of grave tenderness and humility. He plays Yeshua above all as a deeply human Messiah whose every gesture — allowing a large insect to crawl up his arm, or gently laying a hand on the ailing mother — bespeaks a desire to understand the world he’s entered into and identify fully with its subjects.

After resolving the family drama with an emotional force that may catch some off-guard, “Last Days in the Desert” arguably goes too far in the final stretch, orchestrating two significant leaps forward in time. The apparent purpose of this is to provide the audience with the traditional satisfactions of a Christ narrative, but also to ensure, somewhat needlessly, that we grasp the lessons of patience, forgiveness, love and endurance already laid out in the preceding 90 minutes. That misstep aside, expect the more specious complaint that Garcia, who has done more than most male directors to put the thoughts and emotions of women front and center (most recently in “Albert Nobbs”), has told a story that embodies, rather than critiques, the repressive patriarchal mindset that governs so much organized religion.

Yet Garcia has touched upon something stirring and true here, and he’s risen to the occasion with perhaps the most singularly gorgeous piece of filmmaking of his career. Making especially noteworthy contributions are the composing team of Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, whose lovely string orchestrations frequently punctuate the long silences, and editor Matt Maddox, at times segmenting the narrative with a few stately fades to black.

Still, the most astonishing technical achievement here, to no one’s surprise, is the crystalline beauty of the cinematography. Momentarily putting aside the bravura long takes of “Gravity” and “Birdman,” Lubezki works his usual miracles with natural light and landscape (Southern California’s stark Anza-Borrego Desert State Park stands in for Israel), lending his majestic widescreen compositions an almost sculpted appearance; the sun itself could be positioning itself according to Lubezki’s exacting instructions. Whether humanity is worth dying for may remain an open question for some, but these luminous images make as powerful an argument as any for seeing the world through God’s eyes.

Popular on Variety

Sundance Film Review: 'Last Days in the Desert'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 25, 2015. Running time: 99 MIN.

Production: A Hanway Films presentation, in association with Ironwood Entertainment, New Balloon and Aspirational Media of a Mockingbird Pictures and Division Films production, in association with American Zoetrope. (International sales: HanWay Films, London.) Produced by Bonnie Curtis, Julie Lynn, Wicks Walker. Executive producers, Nicolas Gonda, Michael Macs, Erik Lokkesmoe, Corby Pons, Paige Dunham, Jason Durant Walker, Abby Whitridge Berman, Elizabeth Koch, Kristina Kendall. Co-producers, Allan Magled, Berj Bannayan. Co-executive producers, Michael Zakin, Nash Edgerton, Ilene Feldman, Ryan Rettig.

Crew: Directed, written by Rodrigo Garcia. Camera (color, widescreen), Emmanuel Lubezki; editor, Matt Maddox; music, Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans; production designer, Jeannine Oppewall; art director, John Demeo; set decorator, Lisa Clark; costume designer, Judianna Makovsky; sound, Peter J. Devlin; sound designers/re-recording mixers, J.M. Davey, Zach Seivers; special effects coordinator, David Waine; visual effects producer/supervisor, Ivy Agregan; visual effects, Soho VFX; stunt coordinators, Nash Edgerton, Keir Beck; associate producers, Allison Avery Jordan, John McKeown, Amy Lynn Quinn; assistant director, McKeown; second unit director, Edgerton.

With: Ewan McGregor, Ciaran Hinds, Ayelet Zurer, Tye Sheridan, Susan Gray.

More Film

  • A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon

    Film Review: 'A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon'

    No asteroids are hurtling toward Earth in “A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon,” though a flying frozen pizza does softly slice the top off an elderly shopper’s hairdo: That’s roughly the level of quirky peril we’re talking about in the latest outing from Aardman Animations, and as usual, the British stop-motion masters cheerfully prove that [...]

  • Slam

    Film Review: ‘Slam’

    The disappearance of a fearless female Palestinian-Australian slam poet triggers suspense and powerful social and political commentary in “Slam,” an outstanding slow-burn thriller by expat Indian filmmaker Partho Sen-Gupta (“Sunrise”). Starring Palestinian actor Adam Bakri (“Omar,” “Official Secrets”) as the missing woman’s conflicted brother, and leading Aussie performer Rachael Blake as a troubled cop, Opening [...]

  • Igo Kantor

    Igo Kantor, Producer and Post-Production Executive, Dies at 89

    Igo Kantor, whose Hollywood career took him from Howard Hughes’ projection room to supervising post-production on “Easy Rider” and producing B-movies like “Kingdom of the Spiders” and “Mutant,” died Oct. 15. He was 89. Kantor, who was born in Vienna and raised in Lisbon, met “Dillinger” director Max Nosseck on the ship to New York. [...]

  • The Lion King

    Average Movie Ticket Price Falls 4% in Third Quarter of 2019

    Average ticket prices for the third quarter have dropped 4% to $8.93, down from Q2’s $9.26, the National Association of Theatre Owners announced today. However, compared with the third quarter of 2018, ticket price has risen 1.1% from $8.83. The summer box office is down 2.13% from 2018, though the third quarter box office is [...]

  • Tilda Swinton to Preside Over The

    Tilda Swinton to Preside Over Marrakech Film Festival

    Tilda Swinton, the iconoclastic British actress and producer, is set to preside over the 18th edition of the Marrakech International Film Festival, succeeding to American director James Gray. Swinton, who won an Oscar and a BAFTA award for best supporting actress for “Michael Clayton,” has been leading an eclectic acting career. She has collaborated with [...]

  • The King Netflix

    Middleburg Film Festival Brings Hollywood to Virginia

    For the last seven years, audiences have flocked to the Middleburg Film Festival. Running October 17th – 21st, and situated in the wine-country hills of historic Middleburg, Virg., the festival usually highlights some of the year’s buzziest titles, and 2019 is no exception. “We’re a smaller festival with fewer overall screenings than other events, so we [...]

  • Kelly McCormick and David Leitch'Fast &

    'Wheelman' Director to Helm 'Versus' From David Leitch, Kelly McCormick (EXCLUSIVE)

    “Wheelman” director Jeremy Rush is in negotiations to helm the action movie “Versus,” with Kelly McCormick and David Leitch producing. Rush will direct the Universal movie from a script penned by “Three Musketeers” scribe Alex Litvak and “American Assassin” writer Mike Finch. Plot details are being kept under wraps, though it will follow the genre [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content