(The Re-watch is a series of posts dedicated to revisiting previously viewed films and analyzing the ways they change, alter and sometimes grow upon repeated viewings and further reflection)
“The dual substance of Christ – the yearning, so human, so superhuman, of man to attain God… has always been a deep inscrutable mystery to me. My principle anguish and source of all my joys and sorrows from my youth onward has been the incessant, merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh… And my soul is the arena where these two armies have clashed and met.” – Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ
So reads the opening crawl of Martin Scorsese’s controversial film adaptation of Kazantzakis’ novel, a complex and challenging depiction of humanity’s relationship to the divine, and one that drew mass outrage, contempt, and ire upon its initial release. It’s a testament to the power and strength of cinema that we are able to experience it almost thirty years later, its bravery and daring untouched by the wrathful storm of those few who sought to literally erase it, calling loudly for its destruction without opening themselves to understanding its message and immense feeling. There’s a mirror to that, a reflection that echoes back through time, almost lending a greater weight to its story and subject, its history as telling of human nature as the film’s narrative itself.
THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST is first and foremost a story of the figure of Jesus as a human being, wracked by guilt and fear and cowardice, a man struggling to come to terms with the spirit within him and the daunting path set out for him. The Gospels and scholars may argue amongst themselves about the nature of the humanity and divinity within Christ, but Kazantzakis and Scorsese’s approach walks a different road, one that draws him as simply one of us, confused and terrified by divinity as a process, as susceptible to temptation as ourselves. As a companion piece to last year’s masterful SILENCE, it finds the director once again at his most vulnerable and personal, and shines a light on how we wrestle with our desire to be emblematic of Christ’s purity and the conflicts and contradictions raging within us.
This approach is apparent from the outset, introducing us to the adult Jesus (Willem Dafoe) as a man tortured by the spirits that haunt him, uncertain if from God or the Devil, his frame convulsing in the dirt and dust viewed from above as if from a distant higher power. The gashes on his back, accompanied by quiet voiceover, tell the story of his fights with his personal demons as he measures his arm length against a piece of wood. As a carpenter, he is forced to not only construct crucifixes for public executions, but to carry the cross and drive the nails through hands and feet of those who’ve been sentenced to death. His fearful submission and abetting in these death sentences draw the contempt of those who were once close to him, Judas (Harvey Keitel) and Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey), scorning him and spitting upon him. As an opening sequence, it is jarring, raw, disarming, but its altered viewpoint alternately connects and distances us, planting seeds of rich meaning, insight, and thought-provoking questions.
Shot on a shoestring budget over fifty-eight days as a result of controversy even prior to production, the sparseness and minimalistic nature elevates the material beyond simple storytelling to an abstract examination of the battleground of the soul. The late great Michael Ballhaus captures the landscapes of Morocco as arrestingly as the contours of the actors faces, stunning equally in the light of the sun or dancing flames. Scorsese pulls back on many stylistic flourishes, using them sparingly in Jesus’ time in the desert and eventual crucifixion. These moments find Ballhaus’ eye utterly captivating, particularly when it’s slowed as if stopping time or when a shift in movement completely upsets our understanding of reality. Again, quite often the action is viewed from directly above, observing, present, but not close, perhaps symbolic of the enigmatic spirit Jesus is attempting to communicate with.
Even today, one of the most notable aspects is its unorthodox casting that sets it apart from other Biblical tellings. Scorsese’s decision to have the disciples and Jews portrayed by actors better suited to playing contemporary New York street urbanites might seem a tad out of place initially, but it makes sense with his notion that the apostles were essentially “street guys”, and their mannerisms and expressions ultimately make them more relatable. Harvey Keitel might not be the actor that immediately jumps to mind when imagining Judas Iscariot, but his interactions with Dafoe’s Jesus crackle and spark in fascinating ways, providing the film with some of its most moving, wrenching scenes. Harry Dean Stanton is quite notable as well for his depiction of Saul/Paul, though the payoff comes much later in the film’s runtime with a surprising and challenging encounter between the eventual saint and the man who supposedly appeared to him. Barbara Hershey’s Mary Magdalene is an enormous presence, a core element of, and individual in, Jesus’ journey, and Hershey imbues their relationship with a conflicted and significant history. In fact, the women who became followers of Jesus are given more substance in this telling, even so far as to linger with Mary (Verna Bloom) after her son tells her he has no mother, allowing us to share in the pain that statement leave behind. And let’s not forget a fantastic but brief turn by David Bowie as Pontius Pilate.
Once more, Dafoe isn’t an actor that necessarily fits our understanding of Jesus, either in 1988 or 2017, though he does eventually take on the long blonde flowing locks to compliment his blue eyes. And while that draws parallels to some of those portrayals that came before, it seems a purposeful choice that offers us something initially familiar before completely disrupting or altering our preconceived associations with it. Jesus is not an immediately supernatural and divine figure, but rather an ordinary man coming to terms with his ability to perform the extraordinary. Coming off his Oscar-nomination as Sgt. Elias in 1986’s PLATOON, Dafoe somehow becomes the absolute perfect choice for this conflicted everyman. It’s a remarkable performance that I don’t remember being as layered, compelling, and complex upon my first viewing several years ago. I’m not sure what I must have missed or overlooked, because the work is captivating and ultimately what makes the film undeniably powerful. Over the course of two and a half hours, Dafoe creates an incredible arc from carpenter to cross, each step finding new depths. There’s confusion, fear, joy, pain, uncertainty, anger, love and much more that color his Jesus, an individual simultaneously in awe of and terrified by his growing divinity. Countless moments stand out for how haunting and moving they are, but perhaps it’s Jesus’ agony in the garden that hits the hardest, his desperate pleas colored by the trials we’ve watched him undergo, touching a place inside us of immense humanity and empathy . It’s a revelation of Dafoe’s talent, and surely one of his peak creations.
As maybe the original passion project for the directing great, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST feels like the scrappy precursor to the more mature reflections posed by SILENCE, but it’s no less formidable. Its hurried production and somewhat improvisational execution is occasionally apparent throughout, but its messiness and murkiness rightly compliments the heart of the film, making it an unsung masterpiece of Scorsese’s prolific 1980s (including RAGING BULL, KING OF COMEDY, AFTER HOURS, and THE COLOR OF MONEY). We feel the director’s own internal conflict here more than any of his films prior, as if the writhing figure we look down on is Scorsese himself. And that’s the important takeaway from the story itself. It does not desire to create a historic retelling based on our understanding of Jesus through the Gospels, but rather a portrayal of what one of us might have experienced in his place. When chosen to deliver the word of a higher being to the masses, how might we respond? When challenged by Satan, how might we be tempted? When performing miracles, how might we be terrified by the powers we possess? When spoken to by prophets, angels, and God himself, how do their messages clash against each other and our own understanding of love and hate, anger and compassion? When faced with laying down our life for all others, how might we shrink, weep, beg and plead to be spared that terrible fate? That’s what makes it the most challenging and difficult viewing of Jesus, because it isn’t a reflection of Christ but the reflection of ourselves gazing back at us, piercing through our souls.
Re-watch Rating: A
That’s the first post for The Re-watch! Be on the lookout for future revisits of previously viewed films, and feel free to check out other categories and blog posts. And, as always, thanks for reading!