Virginia Film Festival: ‘Last Days in the Desert’

Ewan McGregor in 'Last Days in the Desert'

Ewan McGregor in ‘Last Days in the Desert.’ Photo Courtesy of the Virginia Film Festival

It seems difficult to create a fresh perspective on Jesus, given all of the films and television specials that have been released over the years. However, director and writer Rodrigo García was able to do just that in his latest film, Last Days in the Desert. He focuses on a few days at the very end of the forty-day period that Jesus (Ewan McGregor) spent in the desert, fasting and praying before starting his active ministry.

García and producer Julie Lynn were both interviewed recently at the Virginia Film Festival by Harry Chotiner, a professor at New York University. The director, appearing on a large screen through video chat, summed up his film as a story about men “finding destiny under powerful fathers.”

One startling aspect of the film is a significant casting decision: Ewan McGregor plays both Jesus and Lucifer. “Lucifer uses human ways to destabilize Jesus,” García said. “He’s the least politically correct character.” Save for a couple additions of jewelry and his evil smirks, Lucifer looks the same as Jesus. His abilities in shape-shifting and mimicry are both entertaining and creepy at once.

There are accounts in the Bible about Lucifer’s efforts to tempt Jesus – asking him to turn stones to bread, jump from a pinnacle, and turn from God. These parts of Scripture are ignored in favor of a different plot. Coming upon a family in the middle of the desert, Jesus is challenged by Lucifer to resolve their problems. The family, which remains unnamed, has a father (Ciarán Hinds), a son (Tye Sheridan), and a dying mother (Ayelet Zurer). The son dreams of going to Jerusalem, but the father wants build him a house and remain in the desert. The major issue is communication, which places Jesus somewhat in the role of intermediary. Second to Lucifer, Ciarán Hinds as the father gets some of the best lines. “It doesn’t matter that we don’t talk,” the father says about himself and his son. “We’re not women.”

Rodrigo García takes questions from Julie Lynn and Harry Chotiner.

Rodrigo García takes questions from Julie Lynn and Harry Chotiner. Photo: Pat Cuadros

When other films depict Jesus at work, he’s not usually undertaking dusty and potentially backbreaking tasks like lifting huge stones, as he does here. That level of strain tends to be saved for the carrying of the cross. Additionally, survival itself in the desert is an arduous endeavor, as he copes with fasting, isolation, and the weather. The desolate sands and rocky outcroppings seem to dwarf McGregor as he walks along, his dark brown garb standing out amidst lighter coloring of the terrain.

It’s also interesting to note that the script, totaling to a mere 60 pages, is rather sparse in dialogue. “More than a couple of agents called asking, ‘Where’s the rest of it?’” García remarked. Thus the frames, artfully rendered by Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman, Gravity), convey the moods in the silent moments beautifully and enable the film to be more of a psychological study of Jesus’s fears and doubts. It’s not a fool proof presentation though, leaving some moments hanging.

It’s not much of a spoiler to mention that the ending of Last Days in the Desert includes the Crucifixion. “I didn’t want people going out of the theater wondering, ‘Who was that?’” Garcia explained. There are, in essence, three possible endings running together that encompass the weakest part of the film. The overall conclusion feels disjointed, detached, and unsatisfactory. Nonetheless, Last Days in the Desert is a unique exploration of Jesus’s human side in way that is contemplative, creative, and respectful. It’s a version capable of stimulating discourse among religious and non-religious individuals alike.

This article was first published on Blogcritics.org, under the same title.

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