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Peter T Chattaway

Last Days in the Desert

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Ewan McGregor to Play Dual Roles of Holy Man and Demon in 'Last Days in the Desert'; Lubezki Set as DP

Ewan McGregor has signed on to star in "Last Days in the Desert," written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia ("Albert Nobbs"). He'll actually be doing double duty: McGregor will play both a holy man and a demon, who together are journeying through a desert when they discover a family in dire circumstances. Also (!), recent ASC winner Emmanuel Lubezki is set to shoot the film. Yup, we're on board. . . .

Beth Hanna, Thompson on Hollywood, February 5

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New interview with (and photos of) Ewan McGregor. Also: if you subscribe to the film's e-mail list via its website, you'll discover that it's being handled by Different Drummer (a company that promoted e.g. Tree of Life and Exodus: Gods and Kings to faith-based audiences).

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Justin Chang @ Variety:

 

A filmmaker known primarily for his perceptive melodramas about women, from “Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her ” to “Mother and Child,” now turns his attention to a primal tale of fathers and sons — including the Son of Man himself — in “Last Days in the Desert,” a quietly captivating and remarkably beautiful account of Jesus’ time in the wilderness before the beginning of his ministry. Deliberately paced, sparely imagined and suffused with mystery, writer-director Rodrigo Garcia’s seventh feature is nonetheless quite lucid and accessible in its themes of empathy, compassion and sacrifice, and grounded by a Christ/Satan dual performance by Ewan McGregor that plays vastly better onscreen than it sounds on paper. While many will find the drama as arid as its parched surroundings, with a thoughtful and concerted marketing approach the picture might well appeal to art-minded nonbelievers and Christians open-minded enough to accept an off-Scripture narrative.

 

Certain to elicit the full range of reactions from the faithful and the skeptical alike, “Last Days in the Desert” approaches the figure of Christ — or Yeshua, as he’s referred to here — with tremendous care and tact, yet also with a scrupulous focus on his humanity rather than his divinity. Some may well discern a connection with “The Last Temptation of Christ,” though there’s nothing here that even remotely approaches that film’s controversy-stirring elements. This is a hushed, austere and surpassingly gentle treatment of a brief chapter of Jesus’ life — probably too subdued and speculative for those inclined to find profundity in the self-glorifying “realism” of “The Passion of the Christ,” but a vastly more considered and spiritually probing picture in every respect. . . .

 

There's also a potentially spoilerish bit in Chang's review that leads me to think that this film might *not* be quite what I thought it would be... but we'll see.

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This was good in spots, though I get really sullen at movies that don't know when to end. 

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I liked it, but I don't think Nate Bell was quite as happy with it as I. I think it has a minor Last Temptation vibe. I get another chance to see it before my review goes in. I wrote the review after seeing it at AFI, but held it until it has an opening. This will give me a chance to tweak it if I want (and I probably will).

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It certainly is an intriguing trailer.  

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Special screenings on May 12 will combine the film with music by Gungor and a post-screening discussion between McGregor, Garcia, and A&F's own Alissa Wilkinson.

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Good for Alissa. I probably won't be seeing this one again, but I'm still thinking about the meditative final shot.

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Here's my review:

Quote

McGregor’s portrayal of Christ might be my new favorite on-screen Jesus. He’s approachable, caring, contemplative, authentic. He feels wholly human, yet with a hint of the mysterious and divine about him. The characteristic I noticed most about this portrayal of Christ: this is a Jesus who listens. In most Jesus films, Christ is pontificating and teaching people the ways of the kingdom of God–he always has something to say, and usually says it with an enigmatic dow-eyed stare, or with impassioned spiritual fervor. McGregor’s Jesus is a listener. He’s quiet, allowing others to share their stories and feelings, sometimes not even responding in words, only with an understanding nod and a brief smile. At one point, in a self-motivating conversation, Yeshua mutters, “Actions over words, always. Otherwise, silence.”

This Jesus also doubts and questions; he gets angry and frustrated; he feels limited and…well…human. This is a kenotic portrayal of Christ. Kenosis stems from the phrase in Philippians 2:7 where Christ “emptied himself” or “made himself nothing” in the incarnation. The Western church and most of the Jesus films portray Christ with an emphasis on the divine, making him wholly Other and saintly. Last Days in the Desert gives us a human Jesus and an earthy spirituality. This is a Jesus film featuring a fart joke. It doesn’t get much more human or earthy than that.

 

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The actors who play Jesus onscreen have generally been in their 30s, and very occasionally in their 20s. But this year, they're all in their 40s.

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FWIW, my review, in which I respect a lot of what the film does without entirely agreeing with / signing on to what it does. A part of me wishes I had been able to see the film early on before So Much Writing had been done about it (all the reviews and interviews since Sundance 16 months ago, etc.); the film is so minimalistic that there were very few things in it that I hadn't heard about already, though the few things that *were* new to me jumped out at me somewhat.

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Thanks for another meticulous analysis, Peter. I was waiting for this one.

The final series of images can be interpreted several different ways, but I believe it corresponds directly to a line in the movie, spoken by the Devil: "These things he expects of you? Do you think anyone will care? Men of a thousand years from now?" The final shot answers that question in the affirmative.

Another question you raise, about whether the film encourages us to look inward or outward, is slightly more difficult to answer. I have a theory I've been playing with lately that supposes the most vital films about Christ are more illuminative of the auteur behind the camera than of the subject they are undertaking. Hence, Pasolini gives us a portrait of a lonely intellectual surrounded by idiots, Ray an attractive celebrity working within and against a system, Scorsese a troubled sinner working out his salvation with fear and trembling, etc.

If I applied the same theory to this one, I would say that it tells us less about the subjective experience of the Son of God (a distinction Garcia takes all too literally) and more about what it feels like to be the son of a famous author.

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Brian Godawa goes there. He plays the G-card.

-

Nathaniel wrote:
: The final series of images can be interpreted several different ways, but I believe it corresponds directly to a line in the movie, spoken by the Devil: "These things he expects of you? Do you think anyone will care? Men of a thousand years from now?" The final shot answers that question in the affirmative.

Does it, though? We're given no indication that those sightseers have any interest in Jesus or Christianity. They're just there in the desert.

Me, I'm kind of wondering what was up with the hummingbird. Someone in the lobby suggested it was a sign of grace. I wondered if it was Satan in another guise, taunting Jesus with the fact that he, the hummingbird, had absolute freedom of movement while Jesus, nailed to the cross, did not.

: I have a theory I've been playing with lately that supposes the most vital films about Christ are more illuminative of the auteur behind the camera than of the subject they are undertaking.

Heh. Was it Schweitzer who said that every historian who had written about Jesus prior to his time had essentially been looking at his own reflection?

: If I applied the same theory to this one, I would say that it tells us less about the subjective experience of the Son of God (a distinction Garcia takes all too literally) and more about what it feels like to be the son of a famous author.

I'm pretty sure a few critics -- and possibly even Garcia himself -- have suggested a parallel of that sort, sure. (Garcia joked -- in the LA Times, I think -- that after making all these movies about women and seeing how reporters gradually stopped asking him questions about his dad, he might have made Last Days in the Desert -- a movie about fathers and sons -- to get people asking him about his dad again.)

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"Heh. Was it Schweitzer who said that every historian who had written about Jesus prior to his time had essentially been looking at his own reflection?"

He talks about this quite a bit, as his primary criticism of first-wave Jesus studies is the way it recasts Jesus as an ethical hero of modern rationalism. But this is pretty much the criticism of Historical Jesus studies as a discipline which precedes any conversation therein.

And as has been argued in many ways, Jesus cinema may provide a clear pathway of negotiation between primary Jesus texts and our specific contexts. In some cases, this auteur contextualization works (Gospel of Mary), and other times it doesn't (Ultrachrist). If we are to critique a Jesus film, this is one of the three primary criteria for evaluation, right? (Successful/meaningful contextualization, accurate awareness/interaction with historical issues, formal excellence.)

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Peter T Chattaway wrote:
: Does it, though? We're given no indication that those sightseers have any interest in Jesus or Christianity. They're just there in the desert.

True, but you must also admit that there's no indication that the sightseers aren't interested in Jesus or Christianity, either. Which is what makes it a good, thoughtful ending. I made my inference based on Satan's line, Christ's universal relevancy, and the popularity of Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land.

: Me, I'm kind of wondering what was up with the hummingbird. Someone in the lobby suggested it was a sign of grace. I wondered if it was Satan in another guise, taunting Jesus with the fact that he, the hummingbird, had absolute freedom of movement while Jesus, nailed to the cross, did not.

Now I'm wondering if we saw the same cut. In the version I watched at AFI Fest last year, before Jesus leaves the desert, Satan tells him that if he ever changes his mind about his mission, he'll offer him a way out, or something like that. The hummingbird is Christ's "last temptation" moment. 

M. Leary wrote:
: In some cases, this auteur contextualization works (
Gospel of Mary), and other times it doesn't (Ultrachrist).

Are you referring to Ferrara's Mary? I agree. One of the main problems with this auteurist approach is that it depends on biographical knowledge coupled with facile, pop-psychological conjecture.

: If we are to critique a Jesus film, this is one of the three primary criteria for evaluation, right? (Successful/meaningful contextualization, accurate awareness/interaction with historical issues, formal excellence.)

Those work pretty well, yeah. Of course I'd rate "formal excellence" highest since it channels, informs, and reveals the other two. Even so, the biblical-scholarly approach predominates. Personally, a light turned on for me when I watched King of Kings and The Gospel According to St. Matthew closely together. I was touched by Ray's frequent use of 'Scope to unite action and reaction within the same shot, whereas Pasolini likes to juxtapose isolating closeups of Jesus with reaction shots of slack-jawed, uncomprehending disciples. I had always wondered why I preferred one to the other, and now I think I know.

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Nathanael wrote:
: True, but you must also admit that there's no indication that the sightseers aren't interested in Jesus or Christianity, either.

Well, yeah, there's no indication one way or the other. They're nothing but ciphers.

: . . . the popularity of Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land.

With no churches to mark the place of pilgrimage?

: Now I'm wondering if we saw the same cut. In the version I watched at AFI Fest last year . . .

We almost certainly did not see the same cut. The version now playing in theatres removes one or two shots of a certain character's naked penis, and it apparently adds some hair to another scene to obscure a woman's breast -- all to ensure that the film would get a PG-13 rating. But that's beside the point you're making here. :)

: . . . before Jesus leaves the desert, Satan tells him that if he ever changes his mind about his mission, he'll offer him a way out, or something like that. The hummingbird is Christ's "last temptation" moment. 

Yes! That line of dialogue is in the film that I saw, and that was my thought too. But the scene with the hummingbird is just cryptic enough that apparently some people think it might be a sign of grace.

: Are you referring to Ferrara's Mary?

Oh, how I wish that there was some way I could see this movie.

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