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McGregor acts as both Jesus and the Devil in Last Days in the Desert. But the movie, which is a quiet contemplative drama, meanders too much while trying to make art out of faith and religion.

McGregor's dual roles a masterclass in acting

Jun 24, 2016 5:50 AM

CALL it the Third Coming, if you will - after Risen and The Young Messiah just months ago, the Son of God is resurrected for the big screen once again at the multiplex in Last Days in the Desert.

Like Martin Scorsese's controversial The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), director-writer Rodrigo Garcia (Albert Nobbs, 2011) exercises artistic liberty with the New Testament parable about Jesus Christ fasting and praying for 40 days in the wilderness.

There is nothing as blasphemous here as the King of the Jews coming down from the cross and starting his own family like in Scorsese's film; Garcia's work is a bit more conservative and introspective even if it doesn't treat the Bible as the, erm, gospel truth.

The result is a quiet, contemplative drama - hardly surprising since the script is only 62 pages.

Like Jesus in the film, Last Days in the Desert seems happy to meditate on itself without going anywhere fast.

Non-believers, however, should be converted by Emmanuel Lubezki's (Birdman, 2014; The Revenant, 2015) stunning cinematography which brings out the majestic beauty of the otherwise rugged and dry landscape of California's Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (standing in for the Middle East).

The film opens with Scottish actor Ewan McGregor playing the soon-to-be Messiah - with plenty of grunge chic - as he approaches Jerusalem at the tail-end of his 40-day trek through the wilderness.

Fighting exhaustion and hunger, Yeshua, as he is called here, is offered water and a place to rest by a carpenter (Ciaran Hinds from HBO's Game of Thrones), his ailing wife (Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer from Netflix's Daredevil) and their rebellious young son (Tye Sheridan who played Cyclops in the recent X-Men: Apocalypse).

There are some domestic troubles on hand which the Devil (also played by McGregor) decides to exploit by posing a challenge to Jesus: make the three of them live happily ever after and he will leave everybody alone.

The family's woes parallel the father-son issues which Yeshua himself faces as he confronts his own existential questions - what are his duties as a child and what must he do to fulfil those expectations?

McGregor's understated portrayal of the original Special One as an ordinary human being with doubts and self-conflict is moving and a driving force for the film.

Not only that, he also plays the Devil with playful and wicked relish, turning his performance into an actor's masterclass.

But Garcia's skinny story has little to offer and Last Days in the Desert meanders too much while trying to make art out of faith and religion. One might say that is the film's biggest sin.

Rating: C+