Last Days in the Desert (4 stars)

Last Days in the Desert

EIFF 2015: Tender, thought-provoking biblical drama starring Ewan McGregor

On paper, it sounds all set to be quite the turkey. A superstar actor, not always celebrated in terms of his depth, playing both Christ and the Devil, and wandering around a desert having conversations with himself about the meaning of faith...? But what’s really startling about writer-director Rodrigo García’s stripped-back imagining of some of Jesus’ time in the wilderness is how well it works, and how quietly entertaining it proves to be.

Ewan McGregor’s craggy, pensive Yeshua (his Hebrew name is used here) is fasting, meditating on his awkward relationship with a particularly demanding Father, and batting off efforts by his playful doppelganger to exploit his doubts, when he encounters a family who both welcome him in and subtly ensnare him in their problems.

The young mother (Ayelet Zurer) is gravely ill, and her condition has exposed tensions between the father (Ciarán Hinds) and son (Tye Sheridan). The boy wants to travel and seek his fortune, his father wants him to follow family tradition and remain in the punishing desert. Within this set-up, García’s minimal script and the cast’s surefooted performances uncover delicate questions of loyalty, self-sacrifice, love, ambition and parenthood that are relevant to Yeshua’s own unusual life situation, without offering him any easy answers.

McGregor’s dual role allows him to play to his strengths – open-faced amiability as Yeshua, and glinty mischief as the rather sympathetic Devil figure – and Hinds is marvellous. The dialogue can at times be more New Age than New Testament, and one unnecessary flourish at the end rather mars the film’s unpretentious simplicity – but the timeless dilemmas are genuinely well-observed, and despite its gentle pace and tenderness, the film packs some emotional shocks. Emmanuel Lubezki’s stunning rendering of the sculptural desert rocks (actually in the Colorado Desert of Southern California) rounds out a classy, thought-provoking package.

Screened on Sun 21 Jun as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2015. General release TBC.

Last Days in the Desert

  • 4 stars
  • 2015
  • US
  • 1h 38min
  • Directed by: Rodrigo Garcia
  • Written by: Rodrigo Garcia
  • Cast: Ewan McGregor, Tye Sheridan, Ciaran Hinds, Ayelet Zurer
  • UK release: 21 June 2015

Yeshua (McGregor) is fasting in the desert and warding off a mischievous tempter (McGregor again) when he meets a family that ensnares him in their troubles. Startlingly effective story about Jesus, with McGregor playing to his strengths and Hinds marvellous as the father of the family. Classy and quietly entertaining.