‘Last Days in the Desert’
Director:
Rodrigo Garcia
Stars: Ewan McGregor, Tye Sheridan
Rating: PG-13
3 (out of 5) Globes

At first it looks like it’s going to be less “The Young Messiah” and more “‘Gerry’ but with Jesus.” Like the lost heroes of Gus Van Sant’s hyper-austere art film, the Messiah — called, when he’s called it at all, by his Hebrew name, Yeshua, and played by a grave Ewan McGregor — spends the opening stretch of “Last Days in the Desert” wandering about an arid wasteland. He’s alone but not always. He has the Devil (also McGregor) to mock and needle him. But mostly he’s doing little but traversing rocky, dusty landscapes and rocky formations, burning off the final stretch of his “temptation” jaunt before he can go off and achieve his destiny.

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This is as far afield as you can go with Biblical cinema, especially today, when multiplexes are regularly crammed with faith-based fodder aimed exclusively at the penitent. But don’t mistake this for extreme art cinema for truly adventurous viewers. After a mostly wordless first reel — though one not always above the occasional cheesy, TBN-style effect, like the sight of a hissing old crone with a tail or a nightmare about drowning — “Desert” settles into a domestic drama, of sorts. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t mean business.

Imagining a slither of time not elaborated upon in the Gospels, it finds McGregor’s standoffish Yeshua hesitantly agreeing to hang with a family who, like their ancestors, have taken up a miserable residence among the sand. There’s a stern father (Ciaran Hinds) and a son (Tye Sheridan) so ready to light out for civilization that he talks of his murdering his elder. Yeshua tries to keep his distance, to remain a dispassionate observer. But he can’t resist trying to help, maybe setting these mere mortals off for a destiny never intended for them, if it was ever intended at all.

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Despite being shot in an actual desert by rock star “Revenant” cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, this isn’t a showcase for actors and crew braving the elements. Directed with relative minimalism by “Alfred Nobbs”’ own Rodrigo Garcia, it’s a tiny, intimate drama with five credited actors, equally fond of scenic nighttime vistas that would look great on your desktop and drab, plain shots during the harsh of daylight. That it explores the conflicted, human side of JC may make it sound like “The Last Temptation of Christ” (minus the brash flirtations with controversy), but it shares more DNA with Eugene O’Neill and Sam Shepard. It soon blossoms into a tale of sons battling fathers with poor communication skills — both the one played by Hinds and the man (allegedly) upstairs. Then again, Hinds' character — alternately gruff and hurt, struggling to bond with a boy who may never accept him — is at least trying to connect.

This might make “Desert” feel appealingly small — a renegade Jesus movie content to be almost any genre than a Jesus movie. But it’s calm and increasingly heady, furtive about its ambitions. Throughout this domestic turmoil, Yeshua hangs back, sporadically interfering, but mostly staring off into the distance. He’s not anguishing over the question of his divinity. He is anguishing over the idea that he’s a mere witness to people whose lives don’t, in the grand scheme of things, matter. He knows God’s plan and knows he has to accept that he’s made acquaintances with people who will barely qualify as statistics — whose very existence will be forgotten by the literal sands of time. This isn’t a film about faith so much as it is about mortality, making up a story of the Christ to remind us that we’re all insignificant — that we are, to put it more tritely than the film does, dust in the wind (dude). 

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge