This movie, directed by Rodrigo García (Mother and Child), follows Jesus Christ's (Ewan McGregor) last days of fasting and praying in the desert as he walks back to civilisation. As he is facing exhaustion and hallucinations in an unforgiving environment, Christ meets the Devil, who tries to test him.

Jesus walks.

SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: For the committed watcher of Ewan McGregor, the opening minutes of Last Days in the Desert, Rodrigo Garcia’s spare, luminous retelling of Jesus’s 40 days spent fasting in the desert, offers distilled pleasure. There is long-haired Ewan (here called Yeshua) shuffling across the sand in layered robes; Ewan pausing, looking thirsty, solemn, thoughtful; Ewan walking again, sipping water, panting, shivering; Ewan casting his eyes to the horizon, thinking he hears something, deciding not.

More happens in Last Days of the Desert, but it all plays out with the same sense of demonstrative, entrancing simplicity. Garcia strips the New Testament versions of Christ’s wandering to their mythic bones, and from them grows a slender fable of fathers and sons, mystery and grace.

"This is a profoundly lonely Jesus"

“Father, where are you?” Yeshua whispers early on. By way of reply, he encounters a demon (also McGregor) full of taunts and temptation, and then a small family—father (Ciarán Hinds), ailing mother (Ayelet Zurer), and teenage son (Tye Sheridan). Camped on the edge of nothing, the family appears as much an apparition as the demon, but their concerns are timeless. The son wishes to leave the desert, and make his fortune in Jerusalem; the father, embittered and proud, is resolved to stay, as his ancestors did, despite watching a second wife fail in the punishing heat. Yeshua decides to stay a while with the family, and spends his days with the two men sourcing and cutting stones to build a small, undefined structure. The demon challenges Yeshua to solve the family’s “entanglement” to everyone’s satisfaction, and Yeshua tacitly accepts.

“What is Jerusalem like?” the son asks Yeshua. Corrupt, but alive, he replies—the opposite of the desert, it would appear, whom the father and even Yeshua seems to find purifying in its closeness to death. To live is in some way to engage corruption; all life, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, is a process of breaking down. But must purity involve suffering, even death? These are the questions that animate Garcia’s deceptively simple exchanges between Yeshua and his desert family, and Yeshua and his demon twin.

This is a profoundly lonely Jesus. The comfort he offers to others—“No one is alone”—he does not or cannot extend to himself. “There is only me,” he tells the demon, who knows more of Yeshua’s Father than he does, including whether or not he wears a face. In the demon’s telling, God treats human suffering as sport, delectating especially in slight variations on the same, wretched scenario, played out over and over, for eternity. Yeshua wants to save the miserable little family, but in trying to help participates in a moneymaking venture that ends in disaster. Was it God’s will, or the devil’s?

Garcia touches on points of doctrine and philosophy only lightly; rather than inhabiting it, they disperse and settle over the film’s ashen, blown-out landscapes like a haze. Yeshua cannot offer solutions, only comfort; the film’s best scenes make quiet, graceful, human work of his doing just that. The desert (the film was shot in Southern California’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park) appears as a gorgeous, abandoned kingdom, where no human should turn except to suffer. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki has a way of balancing the sun and earth just so, so that the one appears to burst on contact with the other. The resulting image makes an argument for the face of God—a source of light so powerful that it bears human eyes only from the safe remove of storytelling, of myth.

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1 hour 38 min