Ciaran Hinds doesn’t see “Last Days in the Desert” as just another movie about Jesus. It is that: Ewan McGregor plays the Messiah himself, credited by his Hebrew name Yeshua, seen burning off the tail end of his days in the Judaean Desert. But it shares little else with the current rash of faith-based cinema. Titles like “Son of God,” “The War Room” and “Miracles from Heaven” are aimed exclusively at the faithful. “Last Days in the Desert” is slow, contemplative — an art film without a preachy bone in its body.
“I saw it as a very human story — that’s what it did to me,” the Irish actor explains to us during some time off from his current gig: appearing in the Broadway revival of “The Crucible” with Saoirse Ronan and Ben Whishaw. “Its framework is biblical. But Rodrigo approached it in a way that made it very human.
“Jesus is very human. He has a mission of questioning, searching what is out there. He’s not wandering around mysterious and godlike. It’s all very real, not particularly religious.”
In the story — an invented tale — McGregor’s Yeshua encounters a family living among the sand dunes: a stern stonecutter (Hinds) battling with his wannabe-prodigal son (Tye Sheridan). Meanwhile the mother (Ayelet Zurer) lies in their tent, slowly dying.
Directed by Rodrigo Garcia (“Mother and Child,” “Albert Nobbs”), “Desert” is as loath to evangelize as it is to offer a single, easily digestible message. It invites viewers to ruminate on mortality, on cosmic insignificance, on the humanity of even the holiest (and, with its devil character, also played by McGregor, least holiest) of figures. Hinds personally glommed onto the idea of fathers and sons. His character can be severe, but he also makes attempts to bond with Sheridan’s young man — and badly.
“He just doesn’t have the skills,” Hinds says. It could also be, he posits, a generational thing. Hinds’ character was probably treated even more cruelly by his father, and he’s just unthinkingly carrying on tradition. “Now we know it’s always important to let them fly, to find their own direction.”
Hinds has some connection to the film’s religious side. Born in Northern Ireland in the early ’50s, he was brought up Catholic. “I was an altar boy and all that. Now I’m a lapsed Catholic,” he recalls. “But I salute people of faith. I’m not particularly happy with huge, organized religion, because I think it’s a personal matter. But I do understand these organizations exist to help people.” He’s not crazy about the extreme sects. “My relationship to fundamental religion is a quiet despising of them, because they tolerate and brook no other ideas.”
He’s not sure how they’ll take “Desert,” an austere, sparse, openly philosophical film that includes characters contemplating mortality and their insignificance in the universe. Ditto that it features not only a Jesus who’s human, but a devilish character only he sees as a vision.
“In the classical framework he’s tempted by the devil. But this devil taunts, he doesn’t tempt,” Hinds explains. “We know that he’s a fallen angel. Once upon a time the light shone on him as well. He feels resentment, quiet rage, bitterness. He’s humanized him and made him a sibling that’s jealous of Jesus’ connection. He’s much more human in that way. But of course, he’s still got the best lines.”