In his mid-late novel Galapagos, Kurt Vonnegut posited that, after millions of years of evolution, all that our simple, seal-like descendants will have in common with us is the habit of cracking up at each other's farts. Rodrigo García’s sober parable Last Days in the Desert makes a similar claim, but at the other end of our cultural history. Here, a young man (Tye Sheridan) trudges through the Judean wastes with Jesus (Ewan McGregor) and then, in the silence, breaks ancient wind. This Jesus, blessedly, is human enough to bark out an appreciative laugh — but sufficiently divine that he forgoes the chance to issue, from beneath his robes, some holy riposte of his own.
That Rabelaisian laugh cuts against the grain of the film's welcome seriousness. Last Days is weighty and somber, familiar and strange, in the way of Bible stories but not of contemporary faith-based filmmaking, which eschews mystery and paradox for homily. The story, a consistent surprise, becomes domestic apocrypha, after opening with Jesus — known here as “Holy Man,” “rabbi” and “Yeshua” — wandering sun-blasted vistas en route to Jerusalem.
He's dogged by a vengeful demon who also is him, and he can't resist attempting to solve the problems of the people he meets while simultaneously attempting to hold back the secret of who he is — in outline, it suggests the old Incredible Hulk TV show. After a cracking montage-tour of cliffs and crevasses, our wanderer encounters a troubled family: A mother (Ayelet Zurer) lies dying in a tent, a stone-cutter father (Ciarán Hinds) toils at building a structure and their son (Sheridan) crafts riddles and dreams of lighting out for Jerusalem. In hushed consultations they each divulge secrets to their guest, who sticks around, helping out in the way that seems best to him: his carpentry skills.
Can this Jesus perform miracles? For much of the film García isn't clear on this. Instead he offers a puzzle and challenge, both for his Christ and for audiences who care enough to engage: Why does Jesus set himself the task of unknotting this family's tangled relations? Why does he insist on doing so only through his human faculties? And is the double that shadows and tempts him — an amused demon-self also played by McGregor — all in his head, or is it straight up the Devil?
García leaves you to suss out the particulars — and to fill in the blanks about where Jesus's head is. Behind this holy man are 40 days of wilderness fasting; ahead is betrayal and crucifixion, a fate he knows is coming and fears he's not up to. McGregor is actor enough to make all the open-to-interpretation interior drama compelling. As Jesus labors and listens, the suspense becomes not what he'll do next but what he's thinking and feeling.
And for all its contemplative quiet, the film builds to a no-joke cliffhanger set piece and a final shot of enigmatic beauty. Employing only natural lighting, Emmanuel Lubezki, the director of photography, makes the Southern California desert a stark marvel, a pitiless danger and an unsettling purgatorial headspace. It's always gorgeous and mysterious — and always waiting for you to make it flower with meaning.