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Last Days in the Desert

Year: 2016
Production Co: Mockingbird Pictures
Director: Rodrigo García
Writer: Rodrigo García
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Ciarán Hinds, Ayelet Zurer, Tye Sheridan

After the baptism of Christ, The Bible says he wandered the desert for forty days and nights, fasting. The New Testament passage that describes the event doesn't go into any detail, but several other passages reference the event as the period in which Satan appears to tempt Jesus into sin.

Last Days in the Desert has a cinematic antecedent in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) – which depicts Satan showing Jesus what life could be like as a normal man with a wife and family, including the infamous and Catholic-baiting scenes of him imagining sex with Mary Magdelene.

But writer/director Rodrigo Garcia's version of events – though beautifully shot and well acted – isn't nearly as politically explosive. If you're in the mood for a straight narrative that moves at a decent clip, you might find yourself shuffling in your seat.

Soft-spoken and kind, Jesus (Ewan McGregor) is wandering in the desert outside Judea – starving, tired, freezing at night and sandblasted and parched during the day. A stranger has appeared to him in several guises including that of Jesus himself – someone he seems to understand is Satan trying to derail his path to righteousness.

He comes across a family scraping a living as best as they can out of the desert; a stoic father (Ciarán Hinds), a sick mother (Ayelet Zurer) and a son (Tye Sheridan) who doesn't want to grow up never having seen the glittering city of Jerusalem he's heard about.

In an effort to find the penance he's seeking during his quest, Jesus stays with the family to help while they build a house on a hill further up the mountain, all the while fending off the sultry seductions of his nemesis. Satan will try anything, from making a bet with Jesus that he can't save the family from imploding to appearing as the sick mother, suddenly vivid with health to tempt him with lust in the dark tent in the middle of the night. But through it all, Jesus has less trouble ignoring Satan than he does trying to navigate the desires of the family members all pulling in different directions.

There's a lot of image and allegory you can take as deep subtext to work out later if you like, or they might just be other methods Garcia uses to give the film a languid pace, as unhurried and unforced as the sand blowing across the desert flats around his characters.

In one scene, a huge cockroach walks into the tent one night, Jesus putting his hand down to it and letting it walk slowly up his arm and across his chest to fade out. In another, he and the son are collecting water in the stream when the son crouches down to prod disinterestedly at the dried out remains of a dead fox. He emits a loud fart, he and Jesus share a wordless laugh about it, and the scene's over. They're just two strange motifs that seem to mean something not immediately apparent.

Some wide shots of the desert (filmed in inland California) approach David Lean-levels of beauty and gravity, and neither the story nor the dialogue are ever rushed. There's a lot to appreciate in the visuals and the performances, and the effects presenting McGregor on screen against himself are as seamless as last year's Legend starring Tom Hardy as London's Kray twins.

The sometime banter between Jesus and Satan has the most narrative zing, but a tighter story might have made a better overall movie.

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