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.