Writer/Director Rodrigo Garcia’s intention in Last Days in the Desert is to be true to the sparse New Testament account and flesh it out with his own fantasies. He wanted to present a picture that is different from the one in the Bible which results in a surreal, highly symbolic work. He explained this in a Q&A after the screening of the film at the Austin Film Festival. To depict Jesus as the human who has gone into the desert to fast, meditate, and pray, he shows him in double images, one to represent Jesus and the other the devil tempting him, which could also be seen as the ego and the id (conscious and unconscious). These two argue with each other (just as we do when we’re ambivalent about what to do), demonstrating the human Jesus’ doubts, his anger, and his own ambivalence. Garcia does make the two images slightly different in appearance—for instance, the devil image has an earring dangling off his left ear.
A strong father-son theme runs throughout the story, beginning with Jesus praying, “Father, where are you?” “Speak to me.” As he wanders in the desert, he comes across a family residing there, a father (Hinds), his ill wife, and their son (McGregor), and gets drawn into their conflict, which is one primarily of father vs. son, with the mother taking the side of the son who wants to leave the desert and make his way in the city of Jerusalem, a place the father regards as evil. The father wants him to finish the house, which has already been started, and remain in the desert. Jesus spends the night and intends to be on his way, but turns back to help in building the house. This gives the father and the son—and to some extent, the mother—a chance to tell the holy man their sides of the conflict.
Garcia places wonderful symbolic images throughout the film, which heightens interest in a relatively slow-moving drama. For instance, once, Jesus is pulling twigs out of his hair and suddenly breaks into helpless laughter. (Irony: it foretells the crown of thorns that will be placed on his head.) Another time, when Jesus is around a campfire with the family, and they offer him something to eat, he declines in order to maintain his fast. The son observes, “She (his mother) wants to eat but can’t; he can eat, but won’t.” Another time, they have a disagreement about the meaning of a shooting star.
The picture is well cast, with McGregor giving one of the best performances in a very active career sprinkled with numerous nominations and awards. Here, he transitions back and forth between Jesus and the devil, shows wise counsel with the father and son, and conveys the burden he faces in being the Son of God. Ciaran Hinds can be depended upon to give solid performances in whatever role he plays and to receive awards for the TV series, “Game of Thrones” and “Rome”, and the films, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Eclipse. Young Tye Sheridan started his career and received good marks in major films—The Tree of Life, Mud, and Joe—and lives up to those in Last Days in the Desert as a somewhat sullen, resentful teenager who obeys his parents but seethes underneath the whole time. He vacillates between feelings of anger and doubt and strong pronouncements that he has been a good son.
The supreme cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki filmed Last Days in the Desert in the unusual, gorgeous Anza Borreo Desert outside of San Diego, which has an interesting pleated appearance in its rocky, reddish hills barren of vegetation except small shrubs. He brings out the troubled features of the players, captures the light and color variations of the desert, and follows the, sometimes, frightful occurrences artfully. The music of Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans is modern to reflect the surreal quality of the film in its isolated setting and the characters’ turmoil, which blends well with the dramatic and visual elements.
A meditative film worthy of multiple viewings to reflect on its teachings.