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Sundance Raves About Ewan McGregor as Jesus and the Devil in ‘Last Days in the Desert’

Sundance Raves About Ewan McGregor as Jesus and the Devil in 'Last Days in the Desert'

Early critical praise bodes well for Sundance premiere “Last Days in the Desert,” which had its first official screening over the weekend in Park City.

Writer/director García moves from the tangled women’s tales of his earlier films (“Nine Lives” and “Mother Child” among them) to this male-driven, imagined chapter of Jesus’ 40 days of fasting and praying in the desert, where he confronts the Devil. Ewan McGregor plays both roles in this hotly buzzed drama lensed in just five weeks by “Birdman” cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who reunites here with “The Tree of Life”‘s Tye Sheridan, costarring alongside McGregor and Ciaran Hinds.

Here’s what critics are saying so far. While decidedly noncommercial, the film is likely to be a controversial gotta-see-it among Christians and adventuresome moviegoers.

Screen Daily: “A powerfully meditative experience that grapples with themes of faith, destiny, death, and fathers and sons, ‘Last Days In The Desert’ possesses the attributes that have been the hallmark of writer-director Rodrigo García’s best films: It’s emotionally uncluttered while being narratively ambitious. A take-it-or-leave-it minimalist exercise in spiritual symbolism, this imagining of an encounter between Jesus and a struggling family can occasionally be too poetic and metaphoric for its own good. But Ewan McGregor’s dual performance as Jesus and his demonic tormenter ensures that ‘Last Days In The Desert’ never loses track of its grace and humility.”

Variety: “The most astonishing technical achievement here, to no one’s surprise, is the crystalline beauty of the cinematography. Momentarily putting aside the bravura long takes of ‘Gravity’ and ‘Birdman,’ Lubezki works his usual miracles with natural light and landscape (Southern California’s stark Anza-Borrego Desert State Park stands in for Israel), lending his majestic widescreen compositions an almost sculpted appearance; the sun itself could be positioning itself according to Lubezki’s exacting instructions. Whether humanity is worth dying for may remain an open question for some, but these luminous images make as powerful an argument as any for seeing the world through God’s eyes.”

THR: “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.”

The Guardian: “On the spectrum of Jesus movies this belongs closer to Pasolini’s ‘Gospel According to Matthew’ than, say, Nicholas Ray’s ‘King of Kings,’ at least in its ascetic aesthetic. Certainly more than the recent wretched Mark Burnett and Roma Downey production ‘Son of God.’ The off-book exploration will, I think, be of value to believers, but that’s an issue for the film’s marketing department. As an artwork about a man with a calling, the rich, hazy time spent in the desert certainly inspires.”

Collider: “It’s hard to bring something new to the story of Jesus Christ, but García succeeds in offering up a unique portrait of the man that is neither defamatory nor overly reverant. It’s a fascinating film that’s somewhat hindered by a tendency to meander in places, but it’s not a totally unfulfilling experience thanks to a fairly poignant conclusion.”

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