Sparse and austere, Rodrigo Garcia’s “Last Days In The Desert” is a meditative and moody look at fathers and sons through the eyes of Jesus as he vision quests through the desert seeking guidance from his own savior. While quiet and gorgeous to look at thanks to the stunning photography of Emmanuel Lubezki (“Birdman,” “The Tree Of Life”), Garcia’s drama is sometimes a little too whispered and distancing too impart much emotional or spiritual deliverance.
A minimalist effort to be sure, Ewan McGregor stars as Yeshua (the Hebrew name for Jesus), fasting and wandering the desert for 40 days, trying to replenish his faith and find some answers. Feeling forsaken, he hasn’t heard from his father in a while, both literally and figuratively. Yeshua comes across the form of the devil (Ewan McGregor again), who fills his head with self-doubt and uncertainty. He also has hallucinatory, fever-ish dreams that suggest fear and entrapment, wolves chase him, he almost drowns, and other Jungian and metaphorical imagery surfaces.
As Yeshua’s peripatetic journey continues, he converses, argues, and quarrels with the devil as Lucifer tries to influence him about the futility of it all. Eventually, as he begins his return to civilization, Yeshua comes across a goat-herding family in the middle of a desert, including a proud father (Ciaran Hinds) who doesn’t understand his son, his slowly dying wife (Ayelet Zurer), and his resentful boy in question (Tye Sheridan). As Yeshua spends private time with each family member he begins to understand and empathize with the father/son issues that have parallels with his own life.
Feeling a strong personal connection and love for this family, Yeshua is tempted, tricked, and even angered by the devil when he suggests the father and son relationship is doomed. The devil becomes a formidable psychological antagonist, prodding and probing at Yeshua’s psyche, and seeing how far he can twist and manipulate him. But, as a film abundant in metaphor, biblical or otherwise, their battles are arguably just another struggle with the self, the ego, and faith.
An elegiac and graceful film, “The Last Days In The Desert” is mostly contemplative, focusing on the interior life of those involved. While characters speak, perhaps the most paramount forms of communication is everything left unsaid in between bouts of conversation, the reactions and responses to pointed words.
As you’d probably imagine, “The Last Days In the Desert” is gorgeous to look at, though cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s methodology this time in the complete opposite of his work in “Birdman,” as he embraces stillness over kinetic energy. There’s a silent, quiet power in it al l— the overpowering vast skies with epic clouds are breathtaking — and it gives plenty of time for the viewer to not only reflect on the movie and its themes, but their own lives, their own relationships, their own fathers. The unforgiving desert practically becomes its own character in the film too, it’s anthropomorphic layers and ridges both soothing and cruel depending on what pocket of landscape Yeshua has traversed.
For better or worse, I spent a lot of time in my head during “The Last Days In the Desert” ruminating my own relationships and the universal struggles of trying to love the ones that often hurt you the most. I suspect that many audience members did the same. Garcia’s resonating film marinates on what is perhaps life’s greatest conflict: the period when the child becomes the adult, where the relationship dynamic changes and estrangement sets in. Bitterness and resent ruins the relationship between fathers and sons in this picture, and the film also explores the notions of communication, how we as loved ones talk to each other, but often never truly talk to one another.
Composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans (“Enemy”) are absolutely one of the hottest tickets in town these days in the indie world — they scored a total of three films at Sundance including “Nasty Baby” and “The Wolfpack” — and there’s a good reason why. Their haunting orchestral works are gorgeous and often super unnerving. While their somber compositions here are equally brooding, there’s an opaque and mysterious quality to them that doesn’t guide the viewer as much as some of their music in the past.
Perhaps that’s because despite being a movie about the most fundamental of relationships, “Last Days In The Desert” is a little aloof. The spare and stark attributes keep the viewer at a mild emotional distance ,and while it does provide spiritual and food-for-thought nourishment, it doesn’t do so with enough ardor to connect on a moving emotional level. This complaint is also not always true. ‘Desert’ does have one great scene of tragedy and loss that does strike at the soul of the viewer.
Ewan McGregor is more convincing as the impish and conniving doppelganger devil than as the flawed and doubt-filled Yeshua. And it must be said the decision to keep the Scottish accent feels like a curiously dubious and distracting choice, at least at first. The trio of Hinds, Zurer, and Sheridan are also quite excellent, but the muted, passive-aggressive nature of their relationships sometimes don’t incite enough poignant conflict.
Certainly a thought-provoking movie, given the mythic subject matter, “Last Days In The Desert” doesn’t quite stir the heart as much as it does the mind. As such, and given its ascetic qualities, its commercial prospects are going to be fairly limited. Those expecting a “The Last Temptation of Christ”-style backlash will need to be reminded that was a big studio movie at the time and Garcia’s film feels much more introspective and art house by comparison. An admirable and touching picture, “Last Days In The Desert” can be deeply moving in moments, but as restrained and elegant as it is, the picture never quite transcends. [B-]