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Holy Family Business

Gilles Bruno Mingasson

Last Days in the Desert (2015)

The weathered figure emerging from the wilderness after five weeks of contemplation and fasting in "Last Days in the Desert" is referred to either as Yeshua or by the all-purpose epithet of Holy Man; but there's no ambiguity in Rodrigo Garcia's film about who he actually is. And he's also clearly Ewan McGregor, an actor whose skills at underplaying inner conflicts don't get much of a run out these days but which potentially suit the son of God and his inklings of an appointment at Calvary pretty well. If you happen to think that a hyperbolic screen Jesus is the wrong approach, then Mr. Garcia's sober and sedate film may be right up your aisle.

Apart from some quick dream imagery, Mr. McGregor's Jesus remains earthbound and softly-spoken, mostly engaged in a debate with a devilish doppelgänger about the world and God's intentions. These chats eventually discuss the idea that God has pressed the reset button several times already, although that kind of chewy theology goes on the back burner once Jesus encounters an unnamed heartsick father (Ciarán Hinds), a dying mother (Ayelet Zurer) and their son (Tye Sheridan). After that, Mr. Sheridan's character becomes at least as central as Mr. McGregor's; and the conversations get into the strife of fatherly intentions and maternal loss. Whether Yeshua quite gets the message about parental tough love as intended is left ambiguous.

Everyone involved keeps more or less his or her own accents, which always takes some getting used to in films set in the vicinity of Jerusalem; but the disconcertingly odd desert landscapes — filmed in no less a holy land than southern California by Emmanuel Lubezki — give the story some effective and ethereal ambiguities all on their own. A long way from religiosity but authentically psychological in its way, Mr. Garcia's scheme to investigate a religious figure through nonreligious means puts him in good company: although the end result would have been about as different as it gets, this film could easily have borrowed the title of Paul Verhoeven's long-planned New Testament story and just called itself "Jesus: The Man."


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