Monday, May 11, 2009

The Films of Martin Scorsese Part XVIII: The Last Temptation of Christ

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) ****
Directed By:
Martin Scorsese.
Written By: Paul Schrader based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis.
Starring: Willem Dafoe (Jesus), Harvey Keitel (Judas), Barbara Hershey (Mary Magdalene), Verna Bloom (Mary, Mother of Jesus), Harry Dean Stanton (Saul / Paul), David Bowie (Pontius Pilate), Barry Miller (Jerobeam), Gary Basaraba (Andrew, Apostle), Irvin Kershner (Zebedee), Victor Argo (Peter, Apostle), Michael Been (John, Apostle), Paul Herman (Phillip, Apostle), John Lurie (James, Apostle), Leo Burmester (Nathaniel, Apostle), Andre Gregory (John The Baptist), Tomas Arana (Lazarus).

Out of all the movies made about the life of Jesus, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ is most complex portrait of the Son of God. It takes what the Bible says seriously, about Jesus not being half-man and half-God, but All-Man and All-God. If Jesus was all man, then he must have had moments or doubt, moments where he hated God, feelings of lust and jealously and confusion. If he didn’t, he could not possibly be All-Man, because these things are in our fundamental make-up.

When the film opens, Jesus (Willem Dafoe) is angry with God, and tries to make God angry with him. He is the only Jewish carpenter in the area that will build crosses for the Romans. Not only does he build these crosses, he also helps with the crucifixion. We see him bending down to tie the feet of a condemned man, and then a Roman guard hammering a nail in, splattering Jesus’ face with blood. Jesus knows he is committing a sin in the eyes of God – that’s why he does it. He knows he is the Son of God, the supposed Messiah, but he does not want to be. He thinks if he angers God enough that perhaps God will let him off the hook.

But there are certain things Jesus refuses to do. Although he is in love with Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey), he will not marry her, and will not have sex with her. It pains him to see her work as a prostitute, and spends an entire day watching her with one man after another, before going in to ask her for forgiveness. She refuses to grant it. She knows that Jesus is not asking forgiveness of her because he feels guilt over what he has done to her, but rather to make himself feel better. She will not give him the satisfaction.

Soon though, Jesus accepts what he must do. God speaks to him while he’s out in the desert, and purifies his soul by casting the snakes in his body out. Jesus starts going town to town, gradually building up more and more followers that call him The Master. Few dare challenge Jesus on anything. Judas (Harvey Keitel) is different. Judas is a zealot, committing to bring revolution to Israel, and getting rid of the Romans. The other zealots view Jesus as a threat and order Judas to kill him. Judas refuses, and instead becomes Jesus’ follower. But Judas is still distrustful and questioning of Jesus. He tells him that if strays off the path of revolution, than he will kill Jesus. These words will come back to haunt him.

The movie follows the same basic path of the bible, even though it states from the beginning that the movie is not based on the Gospels, but rather is a work of fiction. The famous scenes – Jesus telling people to cast stones only if they have never sinned, the raising of Lazurus from the dead, the turning water into wine, the destruction and chaos in a temple used as a marketplace, the meeting with John the Baptist – are all here, but just slightly different from what we remember. The John the Baptist sequence is particularly striking for its almost hedonistic exuberance, as naked women dance around the river, and John (Andre Gregory) has a somewhat crazed look to him.

I also liked the sequence with Pontius Pilate (David Bowie), after Jesus is arrested. The movie skips the trip to Herod (really, it wouldn’t have added anything), and portrays Pilate as more of practical politician than anything else. Jesus tells him that he wants to change the ways things are using love, not violence. Pilate tells him that it doesn’t matter how he wants to change things “we don’t want them changed”. He sentences Jesus to crucifixion with little fanfare, and a note of regret. “There are 3,000 skulls, maybe more, on Golgotha. I wish you people would count them sometime,” he notes before leaving.

The movie was controversial (which I will get into more a little later) for two main reasons. The first was for its portrayal of Judas as Christ’s most devoted follower, who only betrayed him to the Romans because Christ asked him to. “If you were me, could you betray your master?” Judas asks Jesus. “No. That’s why God gave me the easier job – to die on the cross” Jesus responds. Throughout the movie, Judas will challenge Jesus to be better – starting in the opening sequences where Judas tries to get Jesus to stop making crosses for the Romans. “I struggle, you collaborate” he yells at him. The other main reason was for the temptation of the title itself. As Jesus lays dying on the cross, Satan in the guise of a beautiful young girl, comes to him and tells him to get down off the cross. God was only testing you, and you passed. Now, she tells Jesus, he can have a normal life. First, he marries Mary Magdalene, and the two are seen (briefly and not graphically) making love. When Magdalene dies shortly after their marriage, Jesus marries Lazarus’ sister Mary. “There is only one woman in the world, with different faces” Satan tells Jesus. Later, Satan will use this same argument to get Jesus to commit adultery with his wife’s sister. In this sequence, which is clearly a fantasy sequence, Jesus is portrayed as happy and peaceful. He has a family, he is normal. As he approaches the end of the life in the fantasy, some of his old followers come to see him. Most are still respectful and reverent. Not Judas. He calls him a traitor. “What is good for man is not good for God” he tells him. Jesus calls out into the street, to see Jerusalem burning because of the Jewish rebellion. It’s here when Jesus realizes that Judas is right – he has betrayed mankind. If he dies like a man, then mankind will never be free. He begs to be let go, and to die on the cross like he was supposed to. God lets him.

To be honest, I do not understand the controversy here. I have always felt that Judas gets a bad rap – as do the Jewish people as a whole, who are blamed for Christ’s death. In order for Jesus to redeem mankind, he had to die on the cross. Someone had to betray him. Does it not make sense, or at least seem plausible, than perhaps Jesus needed Judas to do what he did? As for the temptation itself, does that not also make complete sense? What else could Jesus possibly want other than the one thing he was always denied – a normal life? Because Jesus is All-Man, would he not want what most men want?

I realize now that I have yet to mention any of the typical things one mentions in a review – the filmmaking, the acting, the score, etc? That’s because the ideas raised by the movie are so interesting to me. But I will say that all of those elements are top notch. Scorsese always envisioned The Last Temptation of Christ as a large scale biblical epic, but because he had an a small budget, he had to scale it down a bit. Having said that, the filmmaking is still excellent – from Michael Ballhaus’s expert cinematographer, to the attention to detail in the production design and all the rest, Scorsese have crafted an amazingly looking film, and captures the tone of the movie perfectly (Peter Gabriel’s expert score, which someone seems classical, and contemporary, helps a great deal). The performances in the movie are also all wonderful. Harvey Keitel took a lot of flak for his performance at the time (mainly because he didn’t try and hide his New York accent), but I thought it worked brilliantly. It is telling that Scorsese cast Keitel - his old surrogate – as Judas, and not as Jesus. Scorsese, I think, may relate more to Judas – questioning, angry, thoughtful, but through it all loyal. Dafoe’s performance is the best of anyone I have ever seen playing Jesus. He alternates between angry energy, and almost blissful acceptance of his fate. He takes Jesus seriously as a character, and plays him like a real person – not just some deity to be worshipped, but as a man who needs to be understood. The rest of the cast matches these two. I particularly loved the crazed Andre Gregory as John the Baptist, and Harry Dean Stanton as Saul/Paul, a onetime Zealot, who turns to worship Jesus after his death on the cross (although, at the time, it is during the temptation, which means Jesus didn’t die on the cross. “I’m glad I met you” he tells Jesus when he complains that he didn’t really die on the cross “because now I can forget all about you. The Jesus who died on the cross is so much more powerful than you. You underestimate how much mankind NEEDS God”).

The Last Temptation of Christ is, in my mind anyway, the best movie made about Jesus Christ, because it is the most respectful of him and his message. What made Jesus great, what made him God, was not that he didn’t have the same feelings of doubt that all of us do. It wasn’t that he didn’t feel lust or guilt or shame or pride. Or that he didn’t want the life that all of us take for granted It’s that he feel and want those things, but was willing to sacrifice himself for us, and because of God’s will. Compare this movie to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ for example, and tell me which one takes Jesus and his message more seriously? The Passion of Christ concentrates almost exclusively on the physical pain endured by Jesus during the torture before the crucifixion, as well as the crucifixion itself. It’s as if, to Gibson, the only thing that matters about Jesus is HOW he died, not what he died for, and what he taught before that. After a while in that movie, you simply want it to end – not because it’s too painful to see Jesus suffer like that, but because it is too painful to see ANYONE suffer like that. It has more in common with torture porn, then with a movie like The Last Temptation of Christ.

It may sound odd to many people who know me, and know that on my best days I am an agnostic, and on my worst an atheist (or heathen as my fiancĂ©e lovingly refers to me) would find a movie about Jesus as fascinating as I do. But regardless of whether or not I believe it to be true, the story of Jesus Christ is one of the most influential, and important, stories ever written. I feel one of the major problems in our society – that The Last Temptation of Christ exposed – was that people are overly sensitive when it comes to religion. Here if a thoughtful film about the life of Jesus Christ – one that takes him seriously, and examines him as more than simply a deity to be worshipped – which to me is simple, and rather uninteresting. Whether you agree with the movie or not, it raises interesting question, in an intelligent thought provoking way. It is, simply put, a masterpiece.

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