The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) | Review by Owen Gleiberman

At its visionary best, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ has scenes of feverish intensity that hold one in thrall.
The Last Temptation of Christ

by Owen Gleiberman

Directed by Martin Scorsese. Written by Paul Schrader, from the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. Starring Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, and Barbara Hershey.

The mountain is studded with skulls and gnarled trees, and there at its center is the crucified Jesus, yet the day itself has a shimmering electric beauty: the sky as blue and clear as the brightest explosion of spring, the light sunshiny, ecstatic. For a few minutes, Golgotha might be the most spectacular movie set in history—a metaphysical soundstage. As streams of blood flow down his face and chest, Jesus of Nazareth soaks up the light, gazes Heavenward, and then does something you don’t expect: he smiles, broadly, releasing his fear, embracing pain and death. His smile seems to melt right into the gold-spangled day; at last, the job on earth is done.

At its visionary best, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ has scenes of feverish intensity that hold one in thrall. It’s a radiant and, I think, genuinely religious film—as impassioned a vision of the Gospels as we’re likely to see on screen. It’s also far from the master­piece many of us had hoped for from Scorsese, perhaps the most gifted American director of his generation, and certainly the most rhap­sodically Catholic. This two-hour-and-40-minute movie, an adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s celebrated (and equally controversial) 1955 novel, is the film Scorsese has wanted to make for 16 years, yet it doesn’t look or feel like other long-cherished labors of love. It’s loose and freewheeling and a little sloppy. Some of it falls flat, a few of the scenes are a hoot (this may be endemic to Biblical epics), and some of the movie’s philosophy seems slipshod, the casualty of a weak script and a rush-rush production schedule. The film is also relentlessly bloody, something that might be more effective if you didn’t feel the stuff was being ladled on for show—especially in a scene where Jesus reaches into his chest and pulls out his glimmering heart.

Still, for all its many (and obvious) flaws, The Last Temptation of Christ exerts a cumulative power. It’s the Jesus story as a mythic psychodrama; it’s about a Christ burdened with self-consciousness—a Messiah who stands back and watches himself save mankind. In Kazantzakis’s novel (which got him excommunicated from the Greek Orthodox Church), the author envisioned his hero as an almost neurotic figure, a projection of the way contemporary men and women at once crave and fear the totality of religious devoti on. The idea has extraordinary resonance, and there’s daring in the way Kazantzakis gives his Jesus a sense of Nietzschean destiny, portraying him as a weakling who must rise up and harness the superman in himself Yet as drama, I found the book stiffjointed and monotonous. Kazantzakis doesn’t take his conceit far enough. He himself seems torn between this revisionist, human view of Christ and a traditionally stoic, reverential treatment, and the book reads like the Bible with humanist footnotes.

Scorsese, too, doesn’t push the human-Christ idea that far. After all, this is Jesus we’re talking about. Had the character on screen strayed too much from the image of Christ as a figure of infinite compassion and strength, he would have seemed trivial—a case of innocent, liberal blasphemy. Yet the idea of a “human Jesus” does seem made for the big screen. Most Biblical epics are the purest camp, because we can never forget the distance between the famous, lacquered actors in their robes and sandals and the cosmic characters they’re supposedly portraying. Watching The Last Temptation of Christ, that distance is sometimes an issue (in the year 33 ad, Harry Dean Stanton requires much suspen­sion of disbelief), yet in the case of Jesus it disappears. This Christ isn’t “flawed” or complex so much as he is a soulful, three-dimensional presence. And watching Willem Dafoe’s beautiful performance, which is like a more tumultuous version of the usual beatific Christs, one feels closer to Jesus than one does in perhaps any other Biblical movie—closer to his righteousness and joy, to his anger, and (this is part of what’s raising hackles) to his fear.

Given the controversy it’s inspired, The Last Temptation of Christ seems startlingly conventional, an honest attempt to wipe away the hokey grandiosity of Biblical epics, and to bring the Gospels to the screen with a modern urgency and boldness.

One hesitates to point out the obvious: that the protest against this film, to the extent that it has advocated censorship, couldn’t be less American; that the wrath of the protesters and, especially, their organizers (principally the Methodist minister Donald Wildmon, but also that meek and humble servant of the Lord Jerry Falwell) seems the expression of a peculiarly nasty, scolding, and intolerant tempera­ment—a coarse cheapening of the Christian spirit; and that the scene at the heart of the controversy—a 10-second shot in which Jesus, imagin­ing what his life would be like had he lived as a mere mortal, is seen discreetly making love to his imagined wife, Mary Magdalene, in bed—admits only that Jesus was subject to temptation, and hardly constitutes a violation of his divinity. Were Jesus himself to see this film, he’d surely understand the sincerity behind it, the attempt (whether suc­cessful or not) to explore how Christianity lives in the contemporary consciousness.

Unable to finance the film for years, Scorsese, coming off his 1986 hit The Color of Money, finally received backing from Universal, and also from Cineplex Odeon (the company whose theaters are currently the only place you can see the film). Even then, he was able to scrape together only $6.5 million—less than the budget of your average John Candy flick. Supported by a crew of actors willing to work for scale, he went to Morocco and, armed with this paltry budget, proceeded to shoot… a big, wide-screen, Biblical spectacular.

A part of me wishes he’d stayed truer to that budget, that he’d shot | the whole thing with snaky, hand-held camerawork and improvised dialogue. The Last ‘Temptation of Christ is a bit impersonal. Like most Biblical movies, it’s heavy-spirited and episodic, galumphing from one famous story to the next. Yet Scorsese, even working on this broader- than-usual canvas, knows how to draw you in. Using a calmer, more sweeping version of his usual white-hot visual style, he creates a majestically primitive Palestine, and Peter Gabriel has written one of his percussion-based scores, which works magnificently here; it lends the action a dark, volcanic power.

The first pan of the film presents Jesus as a reluctant Messiah who only gradually recognizes (and accepts) his divinity. At first, he regards it as a burden and a far-off mystery—a spiritual disease that torments him with self-doubt. It’s as though he were feeling the eight warning signs of Messiah-hood. Dafoe’s Christ speaks of how he longs to sin (to kill, to have a woman), yet doesn’t out of fear. We may recognize this sentiment from other Scorsese heroes, and certainly we recognize it in ourselves, For the moment, Jesus’s passion has turned inward. This young carpenter actually makes crosses used to crucify Zealots and then assists in the crucifixions, spattering himself with blood. He seems pathetic and kowtowing; he’s the scourge of Nazareth—and of his strong, righteous boyhood friend, the red-haired Judas Iscariot (Harvey Keitel)—for aiding in the murder of his brothers.

What Jesus is really doing by building crosses himself is indulging in the lowest activity he can, so as not to confront his sanctity. In voice­over, he speaks of God appearing to him as a bird, of the talons digging into his back. And as we listen, Scorsese gives us hallucinatory shots of Willem Dafoe lying on a beach, as though Jesus were trying to block out the murmurings of his soul. The character seems lost, depressive, yet this hardly diminishes him. In a sense, the movie merges Jesus’s super­earthly burdens with our earthly ones. The psychological effect of this couldn’t be further from blasphemy. Staring down at this tormented Jesus, we see him as an organic figure who demands our fullest awe and empathy—someone whose triumph, for once, seems less than given.

Some of the scenes, such as Jesus’s first big encounter with Mary Magdalene, are dramatically off-center. Still, what an image Barbara Hershey’s Mary is! Her hair long and dark, her body covered in intricate tattoos, she seems to meld pride and shame into one. The script, adapted by Paul Schrader (and with an uncredited assist by Scorsese and former Time magazine critic Jay Cocks), substitutes mod­em, colloquial language for well-known Biblical dialogue, and the scene in which Jesus accepts his destiny by halting the stoning of Mary features one of the least successful examples of it. Standing before the crowd, with two stones in his hand, he says, “Who has never sinned? Whoever that is, come up here, and throw one of these!” (It sounds like a translation from Esperanto.) Sometimes, there’s so little going on in the script besides empty, contemporary language that it’s a little embar­rassing. The scenes with the apostles are especially bad—I kept looking at this crew and thinking it was bowling night.

By and large, though, the updating works, not because the language is especially imaginative, but because the decision to jettison anything resembling the King’s English frees Willem Dafoe as an actor. The wonderful thing about the Sermon on the Mount scene, which opens with Jesus mumbling that he’s “sorry” for telling a story, is that it plays spontaneously, with Christ literally having no idea what he’s going to say next. In a sense, he’s discovering his skill as an actor, letting God’s magic flow through him. Jesus has to become Christ-like, to grow into the role. If he sounds surprised by some of his own thoughts, you may be too, because seeing this Jesus through the eyes of the locals, he sounds just a little extreme. (What would you do if a fellow came along preaching love, and then mentioned, incidentally, that you should abandon your family to follow him?) The movie restores the challenge of Jesus’s teachings, the radicalism of his demands.

At first, Dafoe looks horsey and weak, but as the movie goes on he begins to resemble the classic image of Jesus—long, golden-brown ringlets, beautiful, caressing eyes. The change is so subliminal it seems magical, because it’s more than a matter of make-up; Dafoe lets a kind of virility seep into his performance. He shows us the existential dimension of Jesus’s quest: that each encounter brings forth a new risk, a new compassion, and that with each one Jesus’s power—his belief in his own love of humanity—becomes richer. At the same time, he comes to accept that what he’s really after is a revolution—a complete disrup­tion of the world, an overturning of man’s law so as to follow God’s. The scenes with Jesus healing the sick or casting out demons aren’t sancti­monious. They’re a little scary—raw, urgent flashes that go by violently, like something out of a fever dream. The crowd scenes are a bit too costume-epic stodgy, yet when Jesus leads his followers into the Temple to disrupt the money-changers, Dafoe shows us a Christ brimming with divine wrath. He knows how little time there is, and you understand why Jesus was doomed to fail. He was preaching to mere men. How could they begin to grasp the vastness of what he was saying?

In resuming the Biblical parables, the movie scores about half the time The raising-Lazarus scene is powerful—a miracle presented in all its ghoulish eccentricity. Hidden under long, matted hair, Andre Greg­ory makes a startlingly good John the Baptist. He’s ravaged, deranged, burning—as possessed with finding the Messiah as he was with finding the meaning of life in My Dinner with Andre. And David Bowie brings a convincing quietude to his one-scene role as Pontius Pilate. Shrewd, friendly, eminently practical, he looks at Jesus and sees nothing but another rebellious ragamuffin, and Bowie’s presence is so strong that, for a moment, that’s all we see too.

But some of this stuff, like the Last Supper, is simply too iconically familiar to work; you notice things like an apostle pouring the wine on the bread, like strawberry jam on toast And the relationship between Jesus and Judas is weak. Kazantzakis, who went through a Marxist period, created a noble Judas who argues against Jesus’s impulse to love everyone, including the Roman oppressors, but who agrees to “betray” him when Jesus explains that it’s part of God’s plan. Harvey Keitel, with his Little Italy whine, sounds crucially out of period here (the word “rabbi” does not fall trippingly off his tongue), and he seems not so much frustrated by Jesus’s teachings as testy, annoyed. Then too, mak­ing Judas a simple good guy neuters the dramatic tension in the relationship. Had he been a complex, divided character with real doubts about Jesus, the betrayal could have provided more of a climax.

And I’m afraid the big sequence at the end is something of a disaster. Jesus, on the Cross, is greeted by a young “angel” (actually a messenger of Satan) who tries to tempt him into renouncing his divinity for a happy, earthly existence. In his fantasy, Jesus makes love to Mary Magdalene; when she’s killed, he becomes husband to both Mary and Martha (Lazarus’s sisters), and father to a number of children. The sequence, which lasts close to half an hour, is the film’s centerpiece, yet the movie goes thud. The staging is tepid and meandering, but more than that, the essential enticement of the fantasy doesn’t come across. Jesus’s struggle is with the fear he feels in accepting his role as God’s son; in the film at least, it’s had virtually nothing to do with his dreams of an earthly life. So the whole choice seems arbitrary and hollow, something imposed on the movie.

Where The Last Temptation of Christ finds its dramatic power—and where it reveals itself as a personal film, linked with Scorsese’s other work—is in Jesus’s confrontation of the physical feet of crucifixion: his consuming apprehension of the pain. In one scene, he speaks to God about it, his head bathed in darkness, and Dafoe’s voice is so frightened it can give you shudders. Jesus experiences a kind of galvanic dread. This is his unique neurosis— the feeling that his divinity is alienated from his humanity, from his body. He knows he has to die, and in this precise, grisly way, yet it’s the man—not the God—who must accept the death. And that requires all the courage of any man accepting death. Dafoe makes this live for us. He never lets the struggle to embrace crucifixion seem easier than it is; it creeps up on him slowly, like the greatest of terrors, the greatest of sorrows. And Scorsese gives us the most brilliant crucifixion scene ever filmed, culminating in an over­powering close-up of Jesus’s face. The extended shot is at once shocking and sublime, a nightmare that seems to melt into golden-surreal ecstasy—and, like the rest of this flawed, spellbinding movie, it haunts you for days.

Boston Phoenix, August 19,1988


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