In the elegaic drama The Last Days in the Desert, which premiered at Sundance on Sunday night, Ewan McGregor portrays a spiritual seeker who is variously addressed as “holy man,” rabbi and Yeshuwa. He is never, however, called by the name by which most people would identify him: Jesus Christ. And he’s not like any Jesus you’ve ever seen before on film.
In the movie, which was written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia, McGregor plays the son of God not so much as the messiah but as a deeply human guy with a pronounced daddy complex. Trudging solo through the desert where he has fasted and prayed for 40 days toward Jerusalem, he is shown wrestling with his faith in moments of anxiety, uncertainty and hardship. He looks to the sky and speaks aloud to his “father” (who never replies in any conversational way), explaining to a family of nomads who take the prophet in, “I was looking for a place to look inward and find myself.”
Gorgeously shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Birdman), The Last Days in the Desert arrives in Park City as one of the relatively rare religious-leaning films screening at the festival—on the heels of an era unofficially hailed by Hollywood as “the year of the Biblical movie” that saw the release of such epics as Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings.
But to hear it from McGregor, Last Days in the Desert has little in common with those titles. “I don’t see it as a faith-based film,” McGregor says. “It’s not telling a Biblical story. I think it’s a film about fathers and sons. Jesus and God are the ultimate father and son relationship.”
The actor pulls double duty in the movie, also portraying Satan (referred to as “the Demon” in the film’s credits) who repeatedly appears to Jesus, provoking him and rattling his resolve via hissed accusations that the Lord is unconcerned with him and “self-centered.” In one of Last Days’ most compelling sequences, the holy man hits pause on his adversarial relationship with the devil to ask what God looks like and whether or not he has a face.
“It’s maybe the best scene I’ve ever played in my life,” says McGregor. “Jesus! The depth of the questioning, the twists and turns, the sort of one-upmanship between Jesus and the devil, it’s such a wonderful scene! Lucifer was a fallen angel. He’s been with God. He knows God. Jesus has not had that experience.”
Garcia, the Colombian-born filmmaker behind the dramas Nine Lives and Albert Nobbs (who, incidentally, is the son of celebrated magical realism novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez), chose to frame the film around a phase in Jesus’ life that does not appear in any Biblical scripture. As a means crystallizing his humanity, the writer-director chose to place Jesus in the sphere of a family (Ciaran Hinds, Ayelet Zurer and Tye Sheridan) fraught with inter-personal tensions over the course of three days that change their lives.
“In a way, I thought of this movie as the adolescence of Jesus,” Garcia says. “Of course he’s already 30 in my story, three years out from being crucified. But I always thought of it as an adolescence. He went out to the desert looking for something. He got things but not everything that he needed. And for me, it was almost as if he wanted to spend time with God, he had to spend time with people. That’s what was missing in his journey. A little human messiness.”
Martin Scorsese’s take on a similar period in Jesus’ life, The Last Temptation of Christ, managed to infuriate Christians while earning no small amount of critical scorn. Garcia, for his part, says he is uncertain how the religious community will receive Last Days in the Desert.
“I can only approach the human side of this character,” says Garcia. “How do you approach the divine? It’s not something we can wrap our minds around. Quite simply, whatever your stance is, if you believe Jesus is the son of God, that’s an enormous destiny for someone. That’s a fascinating thing to discuss. If you don’t believe Jesus was the son of God, he had an incredible message and was a spiritual giant.”
“I was neither out to please people or piss them off,” he continues. “This is my character. This is the humanity that interests me.”