A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988)

I've known enough Christians in my lifetime -- in fact, I used to be one -- that I'm unhappy with the usurpation of the name "Christian" by those who denounce any deviation from their particular interpretation of what is a vast and confusing -- some would say contradictory -- body of texts, teachings, and traditions. Many of these hidebound true believers are charlatans and hucksters, whose proclamations of  "heresy" and "blasphemy" are inspired by the fact that they can milk attention, and therefore money, from those who regularly listen to them. Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ was an easy target for them: an R-rated film of the life of Jesus, with some nudity and much violence, made by a director whose other films are filled with shocking language, and featuring a scene in which Jesus (Willem Dafoe) has sex with Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey). So theaters were picketed and showings were shut down, and even after the film's run ended and it was released on videotape, the largest American video rental chain caved to pressure and refused to stock it. No matter that the offensive scene in context is part of the titular temptation, or that the point of the film is to affirm the entirely orthodox premise that Jesus had to be crucified in order to save the world. If anything, The Last Temptation of Christ should have strengthened Christians' faith, not shaken it. I'm not here, however, to endorse the film's doctrine -- or for that matter to attack it. Theology is not my forte. I'm here to say that as a film, The Last Temptation of Christ is a pretty impressive feat of storytelling by Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader. Some parts of the story, particularly those adapted from the Gospels, are told in a fresh and engaging manner, shaking off many (if not all) of the clichés of the biblical epic. The deviations or extrapolations from that source -- the long, close friendship of Jesus and Judas (Harvey Keitel), the suggestion that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had been childhood sweethearts -- are really no more shocking or irrelevant than those in Cecil B. DeMille's dutifully pious silent The King of Kings (1927), in which the Magdalene and Judas are lovers and Mark, the author of the eponymous Gospel, is shown to have been a beneficiary of one of Jesus's miracles. It's the concluding "temptation" section, adapted from the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, that tends to drag and become over-talky. Dafoe unfortunately reinforces the blue-eyed blond stereotype of movie Jesuses, and Keitel's Brooklyn accent might have been toned down more, but both actors perform with conviction. Most of the roles are played by American actors, including Verna Bloom as Mary, Jesus's mother, and Harry Dean Stanton as Saul/Paul, so it's something of a neat touch to hear a British accent from the occupying Romans, represented by Pontius Pilate, played very nicely and dryly by David Bowie. Satan, too, is a Brit, at least to judge by the accent of Juliette Caton, who plays his embodiment as the faux guardian angel in the temptation scenes. The Last Temptation received only one Oscar nomination -- for Scorsese, perhaps as a way of acknowledging his role at the eye of the controversy -- but it certainly deserved notice for Michael Ballhaus's cinematography and especially for Peter Gabriel's superb score, for which he brought together an impressive collection of musicians from around the world.

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