Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Review: The Last Temptation of Christ
Scorsese's 1988 Last Temptation of Christ (based on a book by greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis) caused quite a scandal when it came out. Well, to be more precise, the scandal started about 5 years before the movie came out. In 1983 Marty had his sets built and set up in Jeruselum, but Paramount pulled the plug when they started getting 500 letters a day protesting the film. By the time Temptation actually hit theaters, fundamentalist groups were rallying in the streets, Scorsese was getting death threats, and an antisemitic campaign was mounted against Lew Wasserman, the head of Universal Studios. A Parisian theater was attacked and burned to the ground, leaving 13 people injured. And Mother Angelica, famed nun/TV host famously predicted that if the film were released, "California gonna fall into the ocean."
So just how blasphemous is Scorcese's examination of Jesus? As far as theology goes, it strays from the ideas of the bible in that it shows Jesus as flawed. Scorsese was interested in Christ as being both "fully divine and fully human." How could he know what it was like to be a man if he didn't know temptation, have doubts about himself or fantasize about sex? Does his humanity not make his suffering that much more important? The counter argument states that there is absolutely no sense in having a Christ who sinned (and being tempted by another woman is indeed a sin according to Matthew). The whole point of the New Testament is that an innocent man sacrificed himself for all mankind; if Jesus was tempted by Mary Magdalene, then what makes his life different than the lives of thousands of others who have remained "pure" in the face of temptation?
Well, that's the debate over ideology--it's not exactly scandalous stuff. Scorcese almost became a priest before he turned to filmmaking, so this was a very personal project and not an attempt to take on the religious establishment. But ideas and images are two separate matters. The Last Temptation is still a shocking film. When we first find Mary Magdalene, she's not only practicing her profession, but she's writhing in ecstasy with a client as half a dozen other men look on sullenly. Jesus watches as well, and when he goes up to Mary afterwards she tries to get him to satisfy his own sexual urges. "You're just like the others. You just won't admit it" she says. It's certainly not the understated spiritual meditation I was expecting.
In fact, The Last Temptation seems almost determined to avoid solemn reflection. It's filled with stonings and torture, and everything seems violent; from John the Baptists baptisms, to Jesus's voice-over about pain, to his speeches about love. At its worst, it can be campy; the initial scenes of Jesus making crosses for the Romans and crying out for God are over the top. Peter Gabriel's score includes pounding drums and lots of ululating, but it becomes cheesy in a few scenes. And someone is going to have to explain to me what the hell Harvey Keitel's Judas is doing with a Brooklyn accent. But at its best, The Last Temptation succeeds in showing the world as Jesus found it as one of chaos and uncertainty. It made me see why the arrival of a Messiah was necessary, why people needed to believe in something.
Perhaps the greatest thing about the movie is Willem Dafoe, who makes Jesus seem more like Ken Kesey than Mother Theresa. He's a psychedelic warrior who tears his heart out of his chest and hallucinates about magically growing trees, talking lions, and sexy snakes. Many Christians have praised the movie saying it made them feel closer to Christ, but to me he was presented as bat-shit insane. I think Dafoe probably sounds like a madman while ordering breakfast, but he was especially frightening while declaring "I am God" with his menacing smile. He can be playful too, as shown in the scene where he turns water into wine. This time, his smile betrays mischievous pride. And if The Last Temptation affirmed my atheistic beliefs more than it made me into a believer, the final shot of Jesus suffering on the cross as he repeats the words "it is accomplished" is still chilling.
All in all, it's a fascinating movie. By forgoing reverence, Scorsese tries to make real what many people think of as distant or abstract. And Scorcese and Dafoe may struggle to get to the heart of the sacred and the divine in the story of Christ, but all of the wackiness makes it a lot more fun than it should have been.