In Rodrigo García’s Last Days in the Desert, Ewan McGregor plays Jesus and the Devil, and he brings a surprising amount of sincerity to both seeker and snake. It sounds like stunt casting, but it’s not. Many of the Devil’s temptations, questions, and asides feel like they could be coming from within Yeshua, or “the Holy Man,” as he’s referred to in the film. The Devil toys with Jesus’ own insecurities — whether that’s meant metaphorically or literally, you can decide for yourself. Last Days in the Desert focuses almost entirely on the time Jesus spent in the desert before coming to Jerusalem, and the first words he utters are to the sky are, “Father, where are you?” This is a portrait of the prophet as a man of doubt.
Jesus is looking for God, trying to find a way to communicate with Him. All he finds is an endless stretch of desert. Shot with aching beauty by Emmanuel Lubezki, however, that desert becomes something else. In the film’s early scenes, which alternate between intense close-ups and gorgeous wide-shots, the horizon feels unattainable. This is a landscape of inexpressible longing — for grace, for meaning, for some kind of connection. And Jesus is always set apart from it, a figure who does not belong. It’s even driving him mad: Early on, we see him laughing maniacally as he picks what look like thistles or twigs from his hair — this guy is not ready for a crown of thorns yet.
All that begins to change when he comes across a family who have settled on a small hill. The father (played by the always-great Ciarán Hinds) is a stern, no-nonsense man who recognizes in Jesus yet another preacher “looking for something here that you cannot find somewhere else.” The mother (played by Ayelet Zurer) is mostly bedridden, dying. The boy (played by Tye Sheridan) is a restless dreamer, eager to see the world. He confesses he’s even wandered off and seen Jerusalem from a distance. “It shines so much, and I want it so much I could scream,” he says, adding, “Wasting life is a sin.” Unfortunately for him, however, the father is determined to settle this patch of rock, and when the sick mother dies, there’ll be no going anywhere: “A grave ties a man to the land forever.”
The son’s relationship with the father, of course, at times mirrors Jesus’ relationship to his own heavenly father. And it is here, among the business of life and among these desperate people, that Jesus seems to find the connection he’s been looking for, to commune with the mind of God. As the film proceeds, the imagery becomes more textured, too; we start to feel the rocks, the sand, the rays of gentle sunshine, and even, at one point, a pile of ashes that once was human. “Love God above all things,” Jesus says near the end, then adds, “Love life.” For this haunting, beautiful movie, the two are one and the same.