The work of Rodrigo Garcia delves into the spiritual aspects of human realities in everyday life, finding the mystical in the connections between people. In his film “Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her,” this idea was explored in the loosely connected lives of different women. In the HBO series “In Treatment,” talk therapy serves as the venue for exploring life’s deepest questions. But in his latest film, “Last Days in the Desert,” Garcia goes straight for the spiritual behemoth, Jesus, and finds the humanity in one of his holiest experiences
This isn’t an attempt to humanize Jesus in the way that filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese did in “The Last Temptation of Christ,” showing him struggle with his longing for a wife and family. Garcia’s film focuses on one specific time in the life of Jesus, or Yeshua, as he is called in the film, when he spent 40 days fasting and praying in the desert. When we meet up with Yeshua (Ewan McGregor), he is at the end of his journey, struggling with visions of demons disguised as old women, and calling out to his father. The devil comes to him in his own form (McGregor as well) taunting and teasing him in his efforts.
He comes upon a family in the desert, living remotely, separated from any village or tribe.
All is not well there – the son (Tye Sheridan) dreams of leaving to explore other lands and cities, while the mother (Ayelet Zurer) suffers from a paralyzing illness. It seems as though the father (Ciaran Hinds) hoped Yeshua could cure his wife, but Yeshua offers simply emotional support and comfort as well as help with stone masonry. But he serves as a vessel for the family’s anxieties and secrets. He becomes their confidant, but he’s also beset by the devil, who comes to him in the night in dreams, imitating voices and causing visions. The devil even makes a wager with him – untangle this family knot and he’ll leave him alone.
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There isn’t much Yeshua has to do before events start to roll on their own, for better or for worse. Much of the themes of the film have to do with fathers and sons; with legacy and tradition and obligation. What it means to come of age, to leave the nest, and to let your son leave, have a life different from one’s own. The father/son question is an obvious one when it comes to the story of Jesus Christ, but here it is made potently humane and viable, devastatingly present.
Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki contributes his lensing to the film, but the stunning landscape does most of the heavy lifting. Shot in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in Southern California, the location is otherworldly, with tall white desert walls and ridges shooting heavenward. Lubezki uses the natural light perfectly, with pinks and purples of sunrises and sunsets painting the sky. It’s no wonder that Yeshua came to this place to talk to God.
McGregor shines in the dual role, his Yeshua questioning but serene; the devil angry, funny, and aggressive. Garcia hasn’t asked the actors to change anything about themselves (for example, accents) and so the performances feel unadorned by affect or any contrivance. It’s simply the emotions and the words that matter, offered up to contemplate in a meditative cinematic state.
Last Days In The Desert
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Tye Sheridan, Ciaran Hinds, Ayelet Zurer
Director: Rodrigo Garcia
Rated PG-13 (disturbing images and brief partial nudity)