Religious stories have found their way into mainstream television and cinema in various ways. Many of the elements from such texts have been incorporated into original plots in order to provide a familiar piece that will undeniably connect with audiences around the world. Some borrow more than others, although relying too much on religion can turn some off. Given that I'm not a religious person, the preaching of a single faith can feel manipulative. Even the more mainstream pictures such as Paramount's Noah felt ineffective when trying to incorporate more direct translations to the silver screen. Writer/director Rodrigo García is taking a more arthouse approach to a religious story, although it doesn't quite embrace its most intriguing elements.
On a mission of fasting and praying, Jesus (Ewan McGregor) travels the desert for forty days. As he begins to make his way out of the wilderness, he finds a teenager (Tye Sheridan) and his parents (Clarán Hinds & Ayelet Zurer) with a predicament. The young boy wants to pursue his own life in Jerusalem, but his stern father and ill mother require his help in the desert. Jesus struggles with Lucifer (Ewan McGregor) over the fate of this family.
Last Days in the Desert follows the dynamic between Jesus and Lucifer. Like much of the film, it's a subtle element, although it happens to be one of the feature's strengths. Jesus attempts to ignore the fallen angel, but ultimately accepts a debt that could result in Lucifer leaving Jesus alone for the remainder of his journey. As expected, Lucifer plays tricks on the film's lead at all hours of the night. It follows the classic idea of good versus evil, except the antagonist's screen presence is actually quite minimal. While their interactions are quite interesting, García utilizes the feeling that Lucifer is always lurking somewhere in the shadows of this desert to his advantage. The beauty of the landscapes soon turns into a haunting environment, where evil and temptation continue to follow Jesus. However, it is the wager between them that takes the spotlight.
There are two separate stories of father-son relationships: one between the man and the teenager in the desert, and the other between God and Jesus. There are a lot of similarities to be found within each respective relationship. While both sons feel as though they have disappointed their fathers, they don't understand the reasoning behind many of their actions, or lack thereof. Last Days in the Desert places a lot of importance on humanity. There's a clear examination of human interaction, as we explore the turmoil taking place in the two different relationships. This is an interesting approach to the story, although García doesn't entirely embrace it. By the end of the film, we should feel undeniably connected with this troubled family in the desert, but they feel closer to portraits of those in biblical times, rather than actual people.
Since the film is told with a more arthouse approach, the pacing can be quite slow. There are entire sequences of watching Jesus and the boy walking across the desert without more than a word or two of dialogue. Some audiences will find these silences symbolic, while others will find them to be dull. There are certainly more than a few lulls to be found here, since the characters aren't explored much and the plot is a lot better in concept than it is in execution. With a great amount of the film feeling reasonably secular, it's quite jarring when the finale includes an entire nonsecular sequence that greatly conflicts with much of what came before it. While members of the religion will undeniably appreciate the effort, those outside of the faith may find it to be uneventful and ineffective.
Regardless of the story, the big draw to the film will be the fact that Ewan McGregor plays both Jesus and Lucifer. These are obviously two opposite roles with radically different portrayals, yet McGregor succeeds. With a minimal amount of dialogue, he spends much of his screen time acting with his facial expressions, eyes, and body language. In the role of Jesus, he often has a look that is determined, yet cautious. While he's willing to do whatever he must, McGregor introduces a great amount of hesitance to the role that works quite well. Meanwhile, he brings a certain snarky nature to his performance as Lucifer. This role offers quite a bit more dialogue, and rather than delivering intimidation, he brings a portrayal that is charming, although we come to see just how deceptive he can be. Tye Sheridan is quite good as the teenage son, as he tries to make the role more relatable. Nevertheless, the screenplay is what ultimately hinders the performance. Even so, the strongest asset that Last Days in the Desert has to offer is its performances.
Despite having an interesting concept, writer/director Rodrigo García's film doesn't satisfy in its execution. It takes a different approach than other religious based features with its arthouse appeal, although it fails to make the characters feel like anything more than symbolic representations. I never found myself connected with any of the characters, making it difficult to become engaged. The dynamic between Jesus and Lucifer is absolutely fascinating, but the film often shies away from this, as well as any other controversially curious topics. It feels like a film that's afraid to explore new ground, when that's exactly what it should have been doing. Even with all of the film's faults, Ewan McGregor's performances as Jesus and Lucifer are superb, as he is what truly makes the film more than a forgettable religious flick. Last Days in the Desert is much like the barren wasteland that it takes place in; thought-provoking and beautiful from afar, but is ultimately empty and lonely within. Rent it.
Last Days in the Desert played at AFI FEST 2015 presented by Audi on November 10th and November 12th.