LAST DAYS IN THE DESERT AFI FEST 2015 FILM REVIEW
There is an interesting sort of genre or sub-genre that is suggested by actual historic events and personages which provide springboards for the mind’s eyes of writers to imagine “what if”? For instance, I recently saw the play Scott and Hem at the Falcon Theatre, wherein playwright Mark St. Germain conjures up what might have happened when Ernest Hemingway paid F. Scott Fitzgerald a visit while TheGreat Gatsby author lived in Hollywood. In Rogue Machine’s splendid 2013 One Night in Miami… bard Kemp Powers concocted a knockout drama based on an actual gathering of Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke at the motel room of Cassius Clay after he’d K.O.-ed Sonny Liston Feb. 25, 1964 in the Sunshine State. Aside from the fact that they ate vanilla ice cream, little is known about what actually occurred behind closed doors that night - but this didn’t stop Powers from rather brilliantly envisioning what may have gone down at the Hampton House Motel and Villas.
Now, in Last Days in the Desert Bogota-born writer/director Rodrigo Garcia has taken on an even bigger subject than Mohammed Ali: Jesus Christ. And as if that isn’t too big a part to bite off (although portraying Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars franchise since 1999 gave him on the job training to play J.C.), in a double role Scottish actor Ewan McGregor (1996’s Trainspotting and Brassed Off) also plays Satan, as Jesus’ sparring partner. Garcia’s confabulation is based on the portion of the New Testament when Jesus reputedly fasted and prayed in the wilderness for 40 days and nights and was tempted there by Lucifer.
During his wandering in the desert Jesus encounters and throws his lot in with a father (Belfast-born thesp Ciarán Hinds) and his troubled family. This outback interlude leads to ruminations on father-son relationships - and from a Freudian point of view, the son of god must have had some pretty thorny daddy issues. (And as a virgin’s child, his Oedipal complex must have been extremely complicated.) Along the way, Jesus also periodically grapples with Satan’s diabolical temptations, as the devil tries to trap and trip Jesus up.
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Two-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki’s (2014’s Birdman; 2013’s Gravity) stunning cinematography unsparingly reveals the stark landscape, which looked to this reviewer’s untutored eyes to be what had been known as Judea. But in fact, this film was shot on location at that other Holy Land - SoCal, with Anza-Borrego Desert State Park doubling for Israel.
Garcia’s meditation on Biblical matters is likely to be of deepest interest to the religious-minded. For some of them, the Last Days in the Desert will be the first film to go see. On the other hand, given how dogmatic Bible-thumpers can be, some narrow-minded “his way (as they interpret it) or the highway” Christian zealots may find Garcia’s desert diversion to be apocryphal, if not outright heretical. McGregor’s depiction of a rather ragtag, dusty, messy messiah may offend their sensibilities (but for God’s sake, he was in the desert for 40 days, so what would you expect?) and the fact that the same actor portrays Jesus and Satan may rankle some holier-than-thou sorts.
However, this admittedly impious atheist found Last Days in the Desert to be an interesting, absorbing, philosophical rumination on spirituality, the Gospel and Jesus. Although the last shot perplexed me Last Days reminded this film historian of Luis Bunuel’s 1965 Simon of the Desert, shot in Mexico by another great cinematographer, the fabled Gabriel Figueroa.