The Last Temptation of Christ

March 20, 2013

lasttemptationFinally. After weeks of controversy, most of it generated by people who hadn’t seen the movie, The Last Temptation of Christ has opened. People who like to think for themselves can now make up their own minds.

The controversy surrounding this tale of Christ has sparked picket lines and shouting matches. Church leader Donald Wildmon and Last Temptation director Martin Scorsese debated on “Nightline.” A band of fundamentalists offered Universal Pictures $10 million to buy the movie and destroy it. And protests at the house of Universal president Lew Wasserman took on an ugly anti-Semitic tone.

All of which brings to mind the line from Hannah and Her Sisters: “If Jesus came to Earth today and saw what was being done in his name, he would never stop throwing up.” So much fuss and nonsense over such an entirely well-intentioned enterprise.

The Last Temptation of Christ is a long-cherished project for Scorsese who, along with screenwriter Paul Schrader, has adapted the speculative novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. It is a thoughtful, serious film about the struggle between flesh and spirit, and emphasizes the human anguish and dimensions of Jesus (it does not, contrary to rumor, deny the notion of Jesus’ divinity).

The opening and closing sections of the film are the most intriguing. In the first reel, we find Jesus as a carpenter who hears voices and is disturbed by his Chosen status. The middle, more familiar section of the film shows the Jesus of the Gospels, accepting his role as Messiah, enduring the temptations in the desert, gathering his disciples, and performing miracles.

The final portion of the film is a fantasia during the crucifixion, as Satan leads Jesus on a tour of what his life might be if he chooses to live only as a man—complete with marriage, children, and a sexual life. There is no explicit precedent for this in the Gospels, but it’s a legitimate extension of the idea of temptation, and it actually heightens the concept of the sacrifice of Jesus; if there weren’t any temptation, it wouldn’t be a sacrifice.

The Last Temptation runs on for two hours and 40 minutes. It’s a stark-looking movie (Scorsese made the film on the amazingly small budget of $6.5 million, in Morocco) and Scorsese aims for none of the grandiose effects that we know and love from Cecil B. DeMille biblical pictures. The actors speak in everyday American accents, the dialogue itself is without the usual King James poetry.

Much of it is engrossing. The theological debate within the film becomes a bit murky and inarticulate at times; the film never seems to find the specific argument it wants to put forward, but perhaps that was the intention.

A lot of the debate is between Jesus, played by Willem Dafoe (the Christlike sergeant in Platoon) and Judas (played by Scorsese favorite Harvey Keitel). In this version, Jesus virtually orders Judas to betray him, and noting Judas’s anguish, says that “God gave me the easier job.”

Mary Magdalene is played with considerable sensuality by a tattooed Barbara Hershey; Andre Gregory is arresting as John the Baptist; Harry Dean Stanton does a touching cameo as Saul, later Paul; and David Bowie is a patrician Pontius Pilate.

Scorsese says he has been wanting to film this story for the better part of two decades, but it seems to me in many ways he’s been making it all along. There is tortured Christian allegory in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull, and those films actually deal with faith and redemption in more alive, forceful terms than this new film. It isn’t Scorsese’s best movie, but The Last Temptation isn’t glib blasphemy, either.

First published in the Herald, August 1988

We certainly haven’t gotten any more enlightened since then; you can imagine what would happen to this movie is someone tried to make it now. I think I’d like it more today myself, but I haven’t watched it stem-to-stern in a while (saw the parts with Harry Dean Stanton a couple of years ago and was really stirred). The casting of Keitel is one of those strokes that at first seems puzzling, and eventually feels inspired.

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