What you get out of Last Days in the Desert will largely depend on what you bring into it. It’s a spartan, contained little look at a few days in the life of Jesus that will probably be too meditative for the religious crowd that would normally eat a Jesus flick like this up, but may also be too religious-minded for the art house weirdos that director Rodrigo Garcia clearly has in mind. None of this makes it a bad picture—on the contrary, when all its strengths manage to coalesce, it can be extremely affecting—but it’s a tough sell.
Ewan MacGregor stars as Jesus. Maybe you’ve heard of him. The film imagines a few days towards the end of Jesus’ (or, as this movie has it, the Hebrew “Yeshua”) fasting in the desert, where he was tempted by the devil to give up his plan to go, well, be Jesus. Garcia toys with the biblical narrative a bit, casting MacGregor as the devil too, which makes Yeshua’s temptation seem less like the eternal battle between good and evil than an internal battle between doubt and faith. The Jesus of Last Days in the Desert is not the steely-eyed stick in the mud common to earlier biblical adaptations, but a far more tortured soul. He hasn’t heard from his capital-F Father in quite some time, and that’s bugging him something fierce.
It’s in this state that he stumbles upon a family eking out a living in the wilderness. There’s the proud father (Ciaran Hinds), his sickly wife (Ayelet Zurer, always impressive) and their son (Tye Sheridan, who worked such wonders in Tree of Life and is far from the only thing this movie has in common with that). Yeshua feels a kinship with the family, but is sensitive to the growing, unspoken conflict between the father and the son. Their silent agitation mirrors his own father/son relationship struggles, and he seeks to put theirs right—all while the devil eggs him on from the shadows.
MacGregor turns in two terrific performances here, but he’s more interesting as the devil—glinty eyed and mischievous, yet given to occasional moments of genuine emotion too when the script calls for it, which isn’t often. It’s a sparse affair, this movie, more focused on atmosphere than dialog. What’s left unsaid feels more significant than what isn’t, and while this can occasionally make for gripping sequences, the movie drifts into occasional aimlessness. Rodrigo Garcia (son of the iconic Gabriel Garcia Marquez) has his father’s knack for austere mood, but not quite the same gift for crafting familial conflict. The viewer must take the film’s assertion that the father and son are in deep, embittered conflict at its word, since story itself struggles to convey that tension.
Fortunately, when Garcia’s script gets a little lost, the film’s other fine elements are able to sweep to the rescue. Emmanuel Lubezki is among the most bankable cinematographers in Hollywood these days, and he’s able to give the same eye-popping treatment here that he did in Gravity and Birdman. Through his work, the desert becomes as much of a character as anyone else here, by turns harsh and majestic, with the whole sky either stretching to the heavens or bearing down oppressively.
And even the gorgeous vistas aren’t as good as Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurrian’s haunted, haunting soundtrack, which provides a spine to the script’s proceedings whenever Garcia can’t (or won’t.) His own aloofness doesn’t always serve the needs of the story, which is a little too confident in its own strengths, but manages to be more effective meditation on Yeshua’s divine relationship than the family’s terrestrial one, which may have been the point all along. Because when you get right down to it, who among us hasn’t found our ideas of God and fatherhood, for better or worse, intertwined?
(Rated R for violence and nudity)