EIFF 2015 – Last Days in the Desert
Ewan McGregor stars as Jesus in Rodrigo Garcia’s Last Days in the Desert and gives audiences a different take on Jesus’ temptation by the Devil during his personal exile in the desert.
Given that the subject matter is so intensely religious this film was going to be a challenge to put together from the start. Do you go into a project like this try to appease die hard religious people or do you not worry about the consequences and concentrate on telling a good story? This film lacks any sort of mission statement which probably causes a lot of its problems.
There isn’t much of a narrative here but the basic idea that Jesus is nearing the end of his 40 day personal exile in the desert and doubt is starting to creep in as he has had no contact from God the entire time he’s been there. Aside from that he is constantly haunted by visions of the Devil (also played by McGregor) who tries to tempt him into more selfish acts.
Jesus’ main test comes when he encounters a family and attempts to save the soul of the son (Tye Sheridan). Scenes devoted to furthering this story are the strongest and give the film a small sense of momentum as Jesus works to understand the relationship between the father (Ciarán Hinds). This fractured relationship was pretty well developed and both Hinds and Sheridan turn in good performances. Sheridan in particular does a good job playing a young boy torn between familial obligation and his own desires. His entire motivation for staying seems to be connected to his sick mother (Ayelet Zurer) but the desire to appease God comes into it as well.
McGregor’s performance is pretty uneven throughout. As Jesus he does radiate a kindness and warmth that would be expected of the character but there’s a dryness and lack of humanity to him that makes him difficult to relate to. As the Devil McGregor lays on the mischievous quality a little too thick so constantly feels off in this role.
His uneven performance might not solely be his fault as the script doesn’t give him an awful lot to work with. The dialogue is abysmal so must have been impossible to connect to on a performance level. There’s something about the staging of the scenes that didn’t feel quite right as well so McGregor probably had difficulty identifying with these characters.
The execution of the film is spotty and unfocused as well with all of the themes crashing against each other meaning that there is no strong theme anchoring the film. If the script was focused on Jesus being tempted by the devil using the family as a lens to explore those options then it might have been more interesting. Instead there are vague scenes where the Devil says something inconclusive followed by scenes of Jesus spending time among the family. I never really got a sense of what this film was actually about. There was definitely a missed opportunity to connect the fractured relationship between the father and son to Jesus’ relationship with God. I liked the idea of the Devil being a dark reflection of ourselves as well but as with everything else in the film, a lack of exploration of the idea leaves it feeling pointless.
Beyond that the film is so awfully paced that it never managed to capture my attention. The scenes are long and the dialogue is so relentlessly meandering that I found it impossible to care about anything that was going on. That isn’t to say that all films should be fast paced and packed with excitement but this one drops the ball on presenting anything worth paying attention to.
Another big problem is that the film never manages to find a strong voice to tell the story. It’s almost as if in some drafts of the script Garcia was worried about offending religious people and in other versions he wasn’t so bothered. The end result feels like a combination of the two with nothing really being said that’s worth listening to.
I wouldn’t personally recommend this one as it simply takes a long time to go nowhere. There are some interesting aspects to it that go largely unexplored and some of the acting is really good but there’s not enough here to make it worth checking out.
Some interesting ideas and strong acting aren’t enough to redeem this poorly paced film.
It’s a shame that the cast are given almost nothing to work with here with a narrative that drags on and never seems to focus on anything. Ewan McGregor’s dual role of Jesus and the Devil could have been something interesting if the idea of the Devil being a dark reflection of ourselves was developed in any meaningful way instead of taking up time.
Similarly the idea of Jesus being tempted by the Devil and using a fractured family as a lens to explore the temptations available to him would have been a strong narrative hook if it had been pursued. The end result is scene after scene of meandering dialogue and unfocused storytelling.
The lack of a strong theme means there is no real story that’s worth following here. No thought seems to have been given to pacing at any point in development either so the whole thing comes across as a complete slog to sit through.
I can’t recommend checking this film out. Anything potentially interesting is completely destroyed by poor execution and a complete lack of focus.