Last Days in the Desert – EIFF 2015

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Rodrigo Garcia’s s haunting non-Biblical take on the aftermath of Christ’s forty day exile in the Desert with a wonderful dual performance from Ewan McGregor.

Having lost his way on the journey back to Jerusalem Jesus (Ewan McGregor) meets a family who offer him shelter. The father (Ciarán Hinds) works the barren landscape with his teenage son (Tye Sheridan) trying to make a home in this inhospitable environment. Mother (Ayelet Zurer) is bedridden and dying and wants her son to leave this place for a better life. The boy is torn between obeying his father and his own desire to escape the desert. For the moment he is playing the good son but the distance between them is growing. Jesus recognises within this family the conflict he feels towards God and decides to stay and help them.

All the while The Devil appears to Jesus in his own image mocking him, playing tricks, and asking the difficult questions Jesus is clearly thinking himself. Why such arbitrary cruelty? Is there any purpose to God’s grand design? This Satan is another wounded son, a rebel cast out for disobeying his father’s commands. McGregor’s use of his body and voice mean there are no problems telling them apart. Jesus is pensive and still, while his Devil smiles and spits out one-liners as the two bicker like the leads in a buddy movie. Despite their opposing views a genuine bond develops between them built around God’s absence from their lives. When they finally part ways their last moments together are oddly affecting.

Slow-paced and meditative Last Days in the Desert is a world away from the relentless brutality of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004). The emphasis on the humanity of Christ means he never becomes the pious unknowable icon as in so many films based on the bible. Its themes of parental abandonment and doubts about God’s reasoning make it feel like a classier version of the B-movie The Prophecy (1994), which in turn played like a dime store reworking of Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost.’ Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera-work captures the remoteness and harsh beauty of the desert landscape though filming took place in Southern California rather than Israel. The only real misjudgement comes during an unnecessary final few shots which undercut the subtle, moving drama preceding them.

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