Once you’ve played Obi-Wan Kenobi, what’s left to do? That’s the dilemma that has apparently stymied Ewan McGregor. In the decade-plus since he last donned Jedi robes in “Star Wars Episode III,” McGregor has popped up in a couple decent flicks (“Beginners,” “The Impossible”), but he’s also done a lot of work that fails to draw on the talent, charisma, and risk-taking he demonstrated in early movies like “Trainspotting,” “The Pillow Book,” and “Velvet Goldmine.”
Maybe he developed some sort of messiah complex. If so, “Last Days in the Desert” ought to get it out of his system. Yes, it’s Ewan McGregor as Jesus of Nazareth. Well, technically, it’s Ewan McGregor as Yeshua or “holy man,” which are the only things he’s ever called in this reverent, beautifully shot (by Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki), but dramatically inert Bible story.
I mean, I guess it’s a Bible story. Not being well-versed, so to speak, I couldn’t say for sure. I know that Jesus reputedly fasted for forty days in the desert, and director Rodrigo Garcia sets his tale during the end of that period. (Garcia’s a veteran indie-film and TV director, but somehow it had escaped my notice before now that he’s also the son of Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez.)
McGregor cuts a pretty good Christ figure, as long as you’re expecting His traditional Eurocentric depiction as a Caucasian with brown hair and a beard. If you’re not, his casting could be considered one more example of whitewashing, as could that of Irish actor Ciarán Hinds (you know him as Mance Rayder from “Game of Thrones”) as the paternal head of the family Jesus bumps into during his thirsty wanderings. He’s building a stone wall in the middle of desert, helped by his teenage son (American Tye Sheridan) while his ailing wife (Israeli Ayelet Zurer) wastes away in a nearby tent. Shouldn’t more than one of these four people look and sound Middle Eastern, or is it just me?
Anyway, the son just wants to run away to Jerusalem, and the dad doesn’t know how to talk to him, and the mother is really sick in some indefinable way. Jesus decides to hang around and act as a sort of family counselor, despite the continual sniping from Satan, who’s also played by McGregor and who only Jesus can see. The idea of the devil taking the form of our inner, self-doubting voice is a good one, and part of me wants to see the movie where McGregor just walks through stunning scenery arguing with himself for ninety minutes.
Ultimately, though, I didn’t quite get the point of the exercise. This territory was covered in a somewhat similar way in Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” but that’s a film some Christians may have wanted an alternative to. “Last Days in the Desert” shouldn’t offend any believers—for instance, Ewan’s frequently displayed manhood doesn’t make an appearance. But, despite being heartfelt and thoughtful, it won’t recruit any new ones either.
(98 minutes, rated PG-13, opens Friday, May 13, at Regal Fox Tower) GRADE: C+