Last Days in the Desert
Directed by: Rodrigo García.
Written by: Rodrigo García.
Starring: Ewan McGregor (Jesus), Ciarán Hinds (Father), Ayelet Zurer (Mother), Tye Sheridan (Son), Susan Gray (Demonic Woman).
Rodrigo Garcia’s Last Days in the Desert is a somewhat refreshing Tale of the Christ in that it lacks the overindulgence of the Biblical epics of Hollywood past, and the narrow minded preachiness of the new films aimed squarely at Christians (films like God’s Not Dead for example). It takes Jesus seriously as a character – both his human and God side, in a story that writer/director Rodrigo Garcia has wholly invented. It takes place at the end of Jesus’ time in the desert, on his way to Jerusalem to what we know will be a bloody fate, but he does not. On the way, he happens across a family, and is determined to help them resolve their issues – ones that mirror his own issues with His Father. The Devil, who like Jesus is played by Ewan McGregor, taunts him at times – saying that Jesus is only trying to avoid his fate.
The family Jesus comes across is just three people – a teenage Son (Tye Sheridan), who wants to escape from his family and head to Jerusalem himself, his older, strict Father (Ciaran Hinds), who wants to keep him close, and his much younger Mother, Ayelet Zurer, who is slowly dying. Jesus thinks he can come up with a solution that will make all three of them happy – although most in the audience will be like Satan – and know that it isn’t likely to work out that way.
I appreciated Garcia’s approach to the material. This is a more down to earth story of the Christ than we normally see – there are no miracles here, although he does levitate once. Like many Biblical stories, it is essentially a parable – but a much darker one than you normally see in New Testament. It is a thoughtful film – one of those rare ones that paint Jesus as a person of doubt and introspection, and essentially tells a story in which he does not succeed in doing what he sets out to do. Visually, the film is gorgeous – as any film shot by Emmanuel Lubezki – winner of the last three cinematography Oscars – is. Unlike the film Lubezki has won for – from directors Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity) and Alejandro G. Innaritu (Birdman, The Revenant), the camera here isn’t constantly in motion. Like the film, it quieter movement, and gorgeous imagery.
Yet, as much as I admired parts of the film – Ewan McGregor’s performance among them – I don’t think that Last Days in the Desert ultimately adds up to very much. The film has a slow pace, which at times is fitting to the subject matter, and at times, just plain dull. Ultimately, Last Days in the Desert is a film whose intentions I admire, but I cannot say that I enjoyed watching the film, and it’s all just a little too thin to give you much to chew on when it’s over. I wish we had more religious films like this – but I also wish this one was just a little bit better.