Director Rodrigo García claimed two themes interested him most in his articulation of Jesus’ untold 40 day fast in the desert. The first: the primordial idea of how a boy becomes a man, a step that Garcia contents happens “with or without his father’s help of permission.” The second theme surrounds the notion of creationism, both in a spiritual and storyteller’s sense. García himself underwent a creation process in the construction of Last Days in the Desert, weaving a fictitious narrative out of a notable absence in Jesus’ origin story – only mentioned in passing in the Gospels but entirely bereft of detail. This absence of a story drew García to the project, offering him an entrance into a narrative that felt to him inspired, fresh and wildly important.
In Last Days in the Desert, the first theme is tackled with obvious symmetry. On the last leg of his sandy spirit journey, Yeshua (Ewan McGregor) a.k.a. Jesus is heading home to Gaililee, a community that has praised and forsaken him in equal measure. Entering the home stretch and somewhat disappointed that his Dad has gone all hush-hush on him, Jesus feels just the slightest bit forsaken. His food- and spirit-hungry skepticism is only exacerbated by the arrival of the Devil (again, Ewan McGregor) a personified shadow demon whispering doubt at the robes wearing deity.
As his faith is bent but not broken, he comes upon the desolate home of a few essentially human folk, barley living off the arid sterility of this harsh desert land. Soon, his spiritual self-actualization is at odds with his inherently human desire to help these people in needs. Deciding to give himself over to the toil of these hard-working but flawed mortals, Yeshua must remain focused on his own metaphysical well-being while playing mediator to the internal familial strife of these desert clan (problems that include stilted interpersonal relationships and a dying matriarch.)
As Yeshua contents with the difficulty of his own distant, difficult to please father figure, the offspring of this newfound family, a boy known only as Boy (Tye Sheridan), struggles with his own unideal paternal rapport. The boy projects a warm intelligent in his penchant towards self-satisfied riddles and Sheridan ably reflects a brand of hushed acumen. Wanting to travel to Jerusalem to take on an apprenticeship doing anything other than this deserted carpentry, he asks to take up with Yeshua on his travels, offering to abandon his family in the night and pretending to be his son. There’s no WWJD contemplation as the little-big-man-upstairs gives him a brusk “Uh uh.” Sensing his son’s withdrawal, the father (Ciarán Hinds) seeks advice on how to bond with his son, eventually proving that even the best riddle cannot bring together two men clashing over something as fundamental as maturation.
In Christian Scripture, 40 days and 40 nights is the gold standard for spiritual enlightenment – with Moses also forgoing food and company for a 40 day stretch before penning (hacking?) the Ten Commandments – but García’s Last Days in the Desert wrapped in just five weeks. Filmed mostly in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park of Southern California, Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Birdman) adds his own signature touch to the visual flourish of García’s gazes into gritty nothingness. Though his product here is a distant cousin to the uninterrupted camerawork of both Birdman and Gravity, Lubezki illuminates the desert into otherworldly effect, predominately only with the use of natural light.
Unlike those aforementioned features that were by definition go-go-go, Last Days in the Desert is periodically immobilized by its sense of stagnancy. Through solid performances, dazzling cinematography and an alluringly minimalist narrative, it closely resembles the devil on Jesus’ shoulder in not ever being quite bewitching enough to fully tempt us onto its side. Though it does get tigerishly close.
García delivers some surprisingly compelling, though sleepy, material for a “Jesus in the Desert” art film but his post-screening testaments that this is a tale of unquestionable divinity (he contents that the Yeshua onscreen is most definitely a God, and not just a man. Here, I was thinking he was telling the story of a man, and only a man) only managed to chill my lukewarm reception of this sun-scorched film even more.