Let’s get right to the point: Christian audiences are going to be wary of a Sundance film that features Ewan McGregor playing both Jesus Christ and Satan. Given the standard cinematic treatment of religion in general and Christians in particular, you can’t fault the devout for anticipating sacrilege, no matter how much they liked McGregor as Obi Wan Kenobi.
So here’s the bottom line: “Last Days in the Desert” probably won’t make your Easter movie rotation alongside “The Ten Commandments” or “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” but it probably won’t inspire protests, either. It’s a thoughtful, beautifully shot film that respects its characters.
“Last Days” tells the story of an imagined encounter Christ had on his way back to Jerusalem after his 40-day fast in the desert. His return will commence his formal ministry. But on the way, Christ encounters a small family trying to build a home in the desert.
The family is in a predicament. The mother (Ayelet Zurer) is ill, probably near death. The father (Ciarán Hinds) is intent on finishing the home so their son (Ty Sheridan) can build a life in the desolate area. Unfortunately, the son would rather go to Jerusalem and build a life of his own choosing.
Ever hospitable, the father invites Christ to rest with the family. But he has not arrived alone. Satan has been following Christ, engaging him in conversation and pestering him with myriad temptations. Satan offers Christ a bargain: solve the family’s predicament, and the Prince of Darkness will leave.
The idea here is that Christ is still relatively early along in his “line upon line” development, and “Last Days in the Desert” is largely about the process he undertook to become the Savior of the World.
The body of the film follows Christ as he lingers with the family, helping them with the home’s construction, and deals with the untrustworthy tongue of the devil. Their conversations — again, with McGregor playing both roles — are insightful, interesting and even amusing, even if they aren’t letter perfect in terms of doctrine.
Director Rodrigo García does a good job allowing Satan to voice relevant and probing philosophical questions while still respecting Christ’s higher ground. Christ’s relationship with his Father is also reflected in the relationship between the father and son who are building the home. McGregor’s performance is well-suited in all respects and gives an effective portrayal of Christ as he develops full confidence in his role.
Unfortunately, what would have been a PG-rated film will be inaccessible to many Christian audiences thanks to two instances of frontal nudity, neither of which feels absolutely necessary. (One involves Satan’s efforts to tempt Christ, and the other takes place during the burial of another primary character.)
If you do opt to see the film, be advised to bring a canteen along. “Last Days” is a breathtaking film in terms of its desert cinematography. There are few shots in its 90-minute-plus running time that don’t include sweeping desert vistas and inspiring if desolate scenery. Just keep in mind that this beauty will make you very thirsty.
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“Last Days” is a thoughtful film, but its most poignant message comes from its curious final shot (consider this a mild spoiler alert). We leave the primary narrative outside Christ’s garden tomb, but then the film fast-forwards 2,000 years into the future, back to one of the same dramatic desert peaks used in the story. There, a pair of tourists take pictures of each other on the same spot where the Savior walked earlier in the film. It’s a compelling piece of perspective that García leaves open to interpretation.
“Last Days in the Desert” was featured at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and was not rated. But due to the aforementioned nudity, it would receive an R. The film also contains some mild violence and very brief profanity.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.