Revisiting The Classics : Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Last Temptation Of Christ’ (1988)

The first time I screened this film was the second day of its run at the Carlton Cinemas, an Art house theatre in downtown Toronto. Sherri and I braved the protestors and picketers outside the theatre trying to get folks in the line to not go in. One of them approached us, eyeing Sherri, my redhead, looking smoking hot in a green mini skirt. He introduced himself as a member of the Catholic Church and announced to us this film was degrading to Christ, to women and an affront to the church. I asked him which scenes had so offended him and he shot back, “I have not seen it, my church told us about it.” I responded that it was that kind of blind faith and inability to think for themselves that had got his church into trouble in the first place. I told him to get his eyes off my girlfriend, look me in the eye and move on. He snorted and moved on.

Idiot.

Most of the protestors had not seen the film. 

Three hours later we emerged into the warm summer night galvanized in some way. It was not a religious experience, I cannot go that far, but both Sherri and I were deeply moved by the film, it was quite extraordinary. We went for dinner talking about nothing else and talked about the film for days. At the end of the year, I named it the years Best Film and was thrilled when director Martin Scorsese was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Director. In the years that have passed, the film, attacked upon release for being controversial, has grown in stature and joins Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’ (2004) as one of the great films made about Jesus Christ.

Scorsese drew his film from the book of fiction The Last Temptation of Christ, written by Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis. Actress Barbra Hershey gave Scorsese the book in the seventies, and the director worked for fifteen years to bring it to the screen. At various times, Robert De Niro and Aidan Quinn we’re slated to portray Christ, but after false starts, Scorsese cast Willem Dafoe, a recent Oscar nominee for ‘Platoon’ (1986). The film makes clear the prime source of the narrative was the book, not the Bible, though obviously, they drew on that book and the life of Christ. But this is not the serene, beautiful, enlightened Christ of previous films and paintings. Defoe’s Christ is terrified of the voices he hears, of what they ask of him, and where he is being told it will all lead. He confides in Judas (Harvey Keitel) who tells him he will follow, but that should he stray from the path, he will kill him.  Gathering his disciples, Christ moves about the land performing miracles, which includes raising Lazarus from the dead, bringing word to Pilate (David Bowie) that this might indeed be the Messiah. Brought into a stable with Pilate, Christ is told what will happen by an almost sympathetic, kind Pilate who just does not understand why the Hebrews continue to hope for salvation. 

The crucifixion scene is undeniably stunning in its raw, visceral power, the fear in the eyes of Jesus very clear. They pound nails into his feet and hands, strip him naked and raise the cross between two other condemned men writhing in agony. The sky is impossibly blue, not a cloud to be seen, his flesh bloody and torn, blood dripping down his body from head to toe. But then suddenly there is no sound, the wailing of the loyal has stopped, we can hear nothing. In front of Jesus is a beautiful child, about twelve, her features perfect, pristine. Believing her to be an angel sent by God, Jesus allows himself to come down off the cross, to live the remainder of his life as just a man. She removes the long nails from his flesh, finds a Rome to cover his nakedness, and together they walk away towards the rest of his life. He marries, has sex, fathers children, loses his wife so marries her sister and grows old as he continues to move towards his death of old age. He then realizes this beautiful, angelic girl is nothing of the kind, but Satan himself come to tempt him one last time to move from God. Reaching for the heavens he finds himself back on the cross, looking towards the heavens he whispers, “It is accomplished” and dies. 

The storm of controversy that erupted over the forty-minute sequence in which Christ comes off the cross to live was quite ridiculous. Church organizations, the Catholic Church, in particular, lost their minds, declaring the film heresy, ordering the followers of the Church to picket and protest, by NOT to see the picture. All it did was bring advertising to a film which was going to be, in August, a tough sell. The initial plan had been to premiere the film at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), then called The Festival of Festivals, but after a screening at the Vatican, word got out it was lightning in a bottle. The studio was more or less forced to release the film in the dying days of the summer, hardly a time to release such a film. 

Cover stories in Newsweek and Time, Scorsese was interviewed on Nightline and Sixty Minutes, where he told them, again and again, the forty-minute sequence was a dream and drawn from a novel. Displaying the same sort of open mind as Pilate and the leaders on Ancient Rome, Scorsese was all but crucified in some journals, and torn to shreds by the leaders of the Catholic Church OF WHICH HE IS A MEMBER!!!! Before he attended film school, Scorsese gave serious thought to a career, a life as a priest. Ever wonder why religion is so present in his films?  As a film, I think ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ is a soaring work of art, made under budget restrictions in brutal heat. That Scorsese made a Biblical film at all for a measly six million dollars is extraordinary, that he made such a brilliant film is, well, miraculous. 

Willem Dafoe is superb as Jesus, initially a frightened carpenter who evolves into a true leader of men. Son of God? I will never be convinced of that, but Christ was a very unique man for his name and story to exist two thousand years later. Dafoe brings to the role the charisma and intelligence previous portrayals never hinted at. This is not an angelic, peaceful, serene Christ who speaks in a whisper but an angry man who is trying to bring his people together against Rome, and the voices he hears terrify him. It remains the boldest work of the actor’s career. Fine work too is seen in the performances of Harvey Keitel as Judas, Barbra Hershey as Magdalene and especially David Bowie’s matter of fact Pilate. 

Scorsese brilliantly directs the picture with spiky, subtle anger, remaining furious at what was done to this man. Beautifully shot, this was by far the most authentic study of Christ we had ever seen at the time, surpassed, perhaps, by Mel Gibson’s searing ‘The Passion of the Christ’ (2004) which came along sixteen years later. For his efforts, Scorsese received the films only Academy Award nomination, Best Director. ‘Rain Man’ (1988) won the Oscar as Best Picture, and I understand why the Academy would fear a film like this, however, I did not see a single film better than the Scorsese film. Having screened ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ many times since it possesses strengths that should be celebrated and flaws which are up for discussion.

Rarely has the land in which Christ wandered looked so bleak and punishing which by capturing that sense of desolation Scorsese gave the film an austere look. The raising of Lazarus is shot like a scene John Ford might have shot, from inside the tomb looking out towards Jesus. From the blackness of the tomb, and death, Lazarus emerges, bewildered, frightened but very much alive. Beautiful too is Christ arriving in Jerusalem, crowds gathered, riding a donkey as they welcome home. A short time later is brutally beaten by Roman guards and put to death. Scorsese shot this all with a crisp, clean image, never shying away from the darker elements of the story. If you take the time to research paintings of Christ and the crucifixion you can clearly see the effort Scorsese took to recreate what the masters had painted, putting the soul on the canvas onto the silver screen. 

At a time when ‘Die Hard’ (1988), ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ (1988), ‘Big’ (1988) and ‘Rain Man’ (1988) we’re dominating the North American box office, here was a bold, daring film created by a master filmmaker about Jesus Christ. For years Scorsese had fought to bring the film to the screen and as it unspooled in the cinema on the screen before me, I was in some way galvanized. Perhaps for the first time, I began to understand Christ, to gain an insight I did not previously have into his courage. 

To be clear I do not believe Jesus Christ was the son of God, I just do not. Nor do I believe in one almighty God watching over us. But this man, Jesus did walk the earth and must have been quite extraordinary to be still discussed every single day more than two thousand years later. Scorsese explores that the teachings of Christ are what matters, more so than the violent death that took him out of this world. And today, more than two thousand years later, those teachings are still what matters most. With little money, and nearly everyone but his cast and crew opposed to the film, Scorsese persevered and created a work of art. Like the masters painted in oils, Scorsese painted with light. 

A brilliant film, edgy, tough, spiritual, in every way a masterpiece. 

 

 

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