Last Days in the Desert (2015) | Edinburgh Film Festival 2015

June 21st, 2015
Author: Meredith Taylor

Director: Rodrigo Garcia

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Ciaran Hinds, Tye Sheridan, Ayelet Zurer

98min   Historical Drama

“Forty days and forty nights, thou wast fasting in the wild; Forty days and Forty nights Tempted and yet undefiled”.

Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeszki takes what could have been just another addition to the Jesus and father|son sub-genres and transforms it into something ethereal and luminous in Colombian writer|director Rodrigo Garcia’s LAST DAYS IN THE DESERT.

The message of the Lenten parable can be interpreted in many ways, here Ewan McGregor is cast as a strongly self-critical but sympathetic Jesus, whose ‘shadow’ torments him as Lucifer (a mirror image often sharing the same frame) or a metaphor for evil. As ‘Yashuya’ nears Jerusalem at the end of his time of meditation in the arid wilderness (actually California’s Anza-Borrego Desert), Jesus confronts a final test when he meets a family in crisis: an anxious father (Ciaran Hinds); a frustrated son (Tye Sheridan) and a wife (Ayelet Zurer) who is slowly wasting away from an incurable disease.

Solemn in tone, Rodrigo Garcia’s serene and contemplative film is high-minded, as you might expect from the subject matter. It is also full of riddles, ambiguous dialogue and mysterious mirror images of Jesus’s shadow who persistently taunts and tempts him in his final days before the crucifixion. There is even a wicked crone who asks him for water but then reveals her true identity.

A stone mason, Hinds is attempting to build his son a home on the edge of a precipice (with a view to die for, perfectly captured by Lubeszki’s visuals that reflect each subtle nuance of light from dawn ’til dusk), but his son is keen to explore the World beyond this dry desert and engages eagerly with his new found holy mentor on their trips to the watering hole. Slow-paced but strangely mesmerising, the narrative builds towards an unexpected twist which generates surprising tension, and the performances, particularly those of Tye Sheridan and McGregor are illuminating and thoughtful.

As the ‘Jesus oeuvre’ goes, McGregor feels like a more sardonic version of Pasolini’s newcomer Enrique Irazoqui in The Gospel According to Matthew – what he lacks in Irazoqui’s purity and vulnerability he makes up for in his constant self-reflection and self-criticism which reduces him to a humble figure. As a meditation of the powers of good and evil, THE LAST DAYS IN THE DESERT is reflective and edifying. There are no acts of God or parting waters but there are some understated moments of surrealism and the quiet contemplativeness of the piece offers food for thought if not Manna from Heaven. MT


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