Short Takes: Last Days in the Desert

(Rodrigo García, U.S., 2016)

The temptation of Christ in the Judaean Desert has never been an overwhelming favorite with the painters of religious scenes, but filmmakers have proven rather more receptive. Most recently, two films have transposed the image of the spiritual quest in the desert into a contemporary setting, William Monahan’s Mojave and Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups—with which Last Days in the Desert shares a cinematographer (Emmanuel Lubezki), Southern California locations, and nothing else.

Ewan McGregor stars in the double role of Christ and the Great Deceiver, who appears as his exact doppelgänger. (The distinction is made through very minor points of inflection, a nice piece of work by McGregor.) Given the chance to photograph the crucifixion, Lubezki produces a not-unexpectedly magisterial, solemn coda, but the better part of the movie never varies its monotonous trudge, alternating between evenly sized scenes of a dirt-seamed McGregor staring pensively into the vast arid wastes or into the campfire of the desert-dwellers who take him in (Ciarán Hinds and an awkward-age Tye Sheridan, a baffling father-son combo).

Writer-director Rodrigo García has juiced up the gospels with a fart gag and some business concerning a Madagascar hissing cockroach, but replacing the kitschy pieties of Son of God with art-house arthritis and a fretful string section doesn’t go far toward revivifying the Greatest Story Every Retold.