'Last Days in the Desert': Sundance Review

A beautifully made, thematically opaque rendition of a secular version of a holy man’s time in the wilderness

Rodrigo Garcia’s adamantly non-divine rendering of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness.

Communication between parent and child has been a problem through the ages, and so it is between God and his only son in Rodrigo Garcia’s adamantly non-divine rendering of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness in Last Days in the Desert. Given the relatively scant treatment of the Nazarene’s long fast and three temptations in the New Testament texts by three of the disciples (John doesn’t mention the interlude at all), there is plenty of room for interpretation here on the part of an imaginative writer. But Garcia’s take, however beautiful physically, is intellectually opaque and creatively cautious, leaving the interested viewer, whether or not a believer, with much to wonder about but little to actually chew on. As this is decidedly not a film that could be successfully marketed to the Christian crowd that supports certain Jesus-related projects, it’s hard to see what the audience for this intellectual exercise might be.

“Father, where are you?” “Father, speak to me,” calls out Yeshua, as he is referred to here, from the desolate landscape the scruffy, unwashed man has clearly been inhabiting for some time. He has come here looking for answers, a sign, some clarity about the mission upon which he has embarked. But he is answered only with silence, an enormous sky, largely lifeless terrain and, upon occasion, the appearance of a doppelganger, a taunting, tempting demon who’s his exact double (both roles are played by Ewan McGregor). Peppering him with puzzles and challenges, this fiend doesn’t so much tempt Yeshua as taunt him, insisting that his creator is amused by him, that God has many other children but that He loves only Himself.

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On his journey back to Jerusalem after his puzzling expedition, Yeshua encounters a few desert inhabitants other than his twin, beginning with a crazy beggar who accepts his water and then laughs at him. More significantly, he finds a stone cutter (Ciaran Hinds), his ailing wife (Ayelet Zurer) and their late-teens son (Tye Sheridan). The father has somehow eked out a living this far from civilization, but with his wife dying and his son keen to leave this place and see the world, he is in a crisis.

So Yeshua stops to see what he can do for this family in need and this interaction becomes the dominant component of Garcia’s dramatic take on the subject: Denied clarification of a grander, cosmic role for himself by a father who will not speak to him, he applies himself to what he has done before and will continue to do — help people who perhaps cannot help themselves and give them clarity and righteousness of thought to improve their lives and find a better path forward.

As a non-religious, non-evangelical take on Yeshua the man, his nature and mission, this is plausible enough. He tries to comfort the wife and helps the man with his work (the visitor’s training as a carpenter and builder are useful here). While the traditional father insists that the boy remain in the desert and follow in his shoes, Yeshua quietly encourages the boy to go to Jerusalem if that’s what he wants; the city, he says, is “Dirty and corrupt. But also alive. Very alive.” When the conflicted young fellow runs around yelling, “I am not a bad son!,” Yeshua can perhaps identify with his sentiments.

The big scene, such as it is, involves a precarious descent by rope over a dangerous desert cliff to get at some particular stone. With the boy saying he can’t do it, Yeshua volunteers but the father insists upon undertaking the dangerous mission himself, with catastrophic results.

From this point on, it can only be said that Garcia works in mysterious ways. He cuts suddenly to Yeshua hanging from a cross in the desert; there is no one else around, not two thieves nor any spectators, only a disembodied stick that touches his torso and a hummingbird that poetically hovers in front of his anguished face. His body is wrapped and put in a cave that’s closed up with stones, upon which some women sit in mourning. Then cut to a familiar desert lookout, where two modern-day visitors seen in long shot admire the view and take a picture.

Is Garcia’s Yeshua in fact not the same Jesus who had such impact on the world, who was crucified with others and understood why? Was there another man with the same name in the next valley over who actually was subjected to temptations and got down to Jerusalem before this fellow? Or was this outwardly ordinary man possessed of such insight and inspiration that, upon beginning his ministry, he was able to inspire and lead multitudes? Might the son of the stone cutter meet him again and become one of his disciples? Garcia has stripped his story down to one of such simple elements and limited subtext that it has little weight other than what one might personally wish to apply to it.

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Although he’s technically 10 years too old for the part, McGregor (the latest in a line of cinematic blue-eyed Jesuses) impressively handles the role of this solitary seeker; he’s entirely credible as a man who’s grave, searching and a tad bewildered at not having found the help he expected, but he’s neither overbearingly brooding nor excessively humble. He’s still looking for the answers.

Shot on locations in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park due east of San Diego that serve as stunning stand-ins for historical Palestine, the film benefits enormously from the beautiful work of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who made a point of not using any artificial lights. He and Garcia go way back as collaborators; originally trained as a cinematographer, Garcia used to work as Lubezki’s camera operator. When he became a director, Garcia chose Lubezki to shoot his first film, Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her.

The unusual score by Danny Densi and Saunder Jurriaans employs just a simple use of a few strings.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production: Mockingbird Pictures, Division Films
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Ciaran Hinds, Ayelet Zurer, Tye Sheridan, Susan Gray
Director-screenwriter: Rodrigo Garcia
Producers: Julie Lynn, Bonnie Curtis, Wicks Walker
Executive producers: Nicolas Gonda, Michael Macs, Erik Lokkesmoe, Corby Pons, Paige Dunham, Jason Durant Walker, Abby Whitridge Berman, Elizabeth Koch, Kristina Kendall
Director of photography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Production designer: Jeannine Oppewall
Costume designer: Judianna Makovsky
Editor: Matt Maddox
Music: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans

98 minutes