- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 11, 2016

A solitary man walks through a harsh desert alone, is then taunted by a mysterious visitor who is identical to the wanderer in appearance but not in temperament. Gradually we realize that the desert walker is none other than Jesus himself, and his identical tormenter is indeed the figure of Lucifer.

This is the setup for the new film “Last Days in the Desert,” which fashions a non-Gospel chapter from Christ’s 40-day sojourn through the desert, during which he is tempted by the Devil. Jesus and Lucifer are both played by Ewan McGregor, the Scottish actor known the world over for his work in the “Star Wars” prequels as well as “Trainspotting,” “Moulin Rogue” and dozens of other works.

As he paces the dryness, Mr. McGregor’s Jesus comes upon a man known only as Father (Ciaran Hinds) and his son (Tye Sheridan), setting the stage for dramatic tension as Lucifer fights with Jesus to make difficult decisions for the duo.

“The idea came to me, what if Jesus were caught up in the family drama of a father and son living in the desert,” said writer-director Rodrigo Garcia, the Colombian filmmaker behind “Last Days in the Desert.” “That’s when I thought, he would try to intervene, and there would be scenes of him not figuring out everything about his future” and struggling.

Mr. Garcia was raised Catholic in the very religious Latin America. While he says his parents were not especially pious, his father was a voracious reader and impressed the same upon his son.

“Reading the Bible or reading the Gospel, it was just part of reading,” Mr. Garcia said. “As a child I was really versed [in] the story of Jesus. It’s not something I had to ‘research’ for this movie.”

Mr. Garcia said that even while writing the screenplay, he knew that the same actor should portray both Jesus and the Devil in the same guise — as a way to externalize the temptations that Christ faces during his walk through the deserts of Judea.

While Mr. McGregor, now 45, ostensibly is too old to play Jesus — whom most theologians and historians believe to have died at age 33 — Mr. Garcia said that after meeting the Scotsmen socially, he realized the actor could project an empathy and interest in the human condition that would be key to portraying the central figure of Christianity.

“I got to know him personally first before I thought he could do it,” Mr. Garcia said of his star. “And I think he’s great in it.”

Mr. Garcia scouted for locations around the globe to stand in for the Middle East of Jesus‘ day, before finally settling on the otherworldly Anza-Borrego Desert in Southern California, located about 100 miles to the east of San Diego. The filmmaker didn’t want audiences to recognize an iconic desert landscape, such as Utah’s Monument Valley, which was why he settled on his eventual location.

“I think [Anza-Borrego] has its own distinct look,” Mr. Garcia said of the Golden State locale captured so magnificently on film by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.

Because his screenplay does not use Gospel passages directly for its storyline, Mr. Garcia said that allowed him some artistic freedom to meditate on the story of Jesus‘ humanity and divinity but without relying on canon — which he said has also kept evangelical protestations at bay.

Mr. Garcia says that “Last Days in the Desert,” which opens Friday in the District, has been embraced wherever it has played by Christians, people of other religious traditions as well as by those of no faith at all.

“What’s particularly positive and rewarding for me is that audiences remark again and again that the Jesus in the movie feels like a real person, like a regular person you can connect to,” Mr. Garcia said, adding that the film’s Jesus is “not portrayed as just some inaccessible, starry-eyed saint or angle.”

Mr. Garcia expresses an admiration for Pope Francis for espousing a more embracing viewpoint for the Church to follow in the 21st century that includes being welcoming of the divorced and gays.

“Whether all of this will translate into Church dogma changing, and whether it goes on after he’s no longer there, remains to be seen,” Mr. Garcia said of the pontiff, whose views have chaffed more conservative elements of the Catholic faithful.

Change, Mr. Garcia believes, takes time for an institution as gargantuan and as old as the Catholic Church.

“The Church is conservative … and change comes about painfully slowly,” he said.

Mr. Garcia, who has previously directed episodes of “The Sopranos,” “In Treatment” and “Six Feet Under,” says he would like to at some point direct a genre film or a horror movie. The themes of “Last Days in the Desert,” he believes, even with their religious nature, also spring from his own familial relationships and history — particularly in the way that the characters Father and Son interact.

“I did try to draw from my feelings of what it’s like to grow up and what it is to be a parent,” he said. “The impact of parents on their children and children on their parents is of huge interest to me.

Mr. Garcia hopes that District audiences will warm to his movie that is about far more than just a walk through the desert.

“I have put a lot of myself into [the film],” he said.

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