Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman was on in cinemas in the UK and US in November and is now on Netflix internationally. So Tripwire set its editor-in-chief Joel Meadows and senior editor Andrew Colman the mammoth task of watching and reviewing all of his films. Appropriately for today, Christmas Eve, next up is 1988’s groundbreaking Last Temptation Of Christ reviewed by Andrew Colman…
The Last Temptation Of Christ
Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hersey, Harry Dean Stanton, Verna Bloom
Scorsese had been meaning to make this film before he had even thought of becoming a filmmaker. One would imagine the conflicted relationship that he had with his faith after viewing the film – his need to both idealize and humanize Jesus immediately creating problems, both with the storyline and the inevitable controversy that would follow. With the project stalling throughout most of the 1980s, Scorsese was finally given the green light to produce the film by Universal, but there were constraints, especially in terms of budget and time. What is remarkable, despite the litany of obstacles, was how well the film turned out, and how its profile has diminished since. Which is a shame – regardless of the contentious and inaccessible subject matter, not to mention the lack of investment in it, it is an impressive, and at times beguiling work.
The film traces a more or less by-the-bible narrative regarding Jesus of Nazareth, although it is thematically underscored by writer Nikos Kazantzakis’s source material. Kazantzakis’s book asserted that despite his efforts to remain free of sin, Jesus was like other men, possessed by both good and evil urges, as well as needs. At the beginning of the film Jesus (Willem Dafoe) is a carpenter, immersed in uncertainty, confusion and fear. After would be assassin Judas Iscariot (Harvey Keitel) beseeches him to take up ministry due to his belief that he is the messiah, Jesus capitulates. From there, we witness the would be saviour’s progress, as he saves Mary Magdalene from a vengeful mob, is baptized by John (Andre Gregory), turns water into wine and gradually accrues a following. The key scene in this early stage is his venture into the desert, wherein, during this period of supreme self-denial, he is tempted by Satan to forgo his connection with God. After his rejection of this entreaty, he gains the conviction to complete his journey, knowing he has been divinely instructed. After cleansing the temple of money-lenders, he realizes that in order to fulfil God’s trust in him he must be crucified. After instructing a reluctant Judas to betray him (Scorsese going against the grain here) to the Romans at the Last Supper, he is then condemned to death by Pontius Pilate (David Bowie).
Scorsese’s film rarely avoids the gritty reality of Jesus’s fate at the hands of the Romans, but the humiliation and violence are not overstated as they were in Mel Gibson’s take, nor is his story idealized in the manner of Franco Zeffirelli’s valedictory, star-studded extravaganza. There are some graphically violent scenes, such as the intended stoning of Magdalene, the sacking of the temple, and of course the crucifixion, but generally Last Temptation is a subtle, more cerebral vision which is challenging without being iconoclastic. Without question, a great deal of the movie’s artistic success is predicated on Willem Dafoe’s amazing performance, which manages to define both the man and the deity with solid conviction. Kudos also to Barbara Hershey (Magdalene) and Harry Dean Stanton (Paul), who are also captivating.
There are issues, of course – at times the movie looks threadbare, with little in the way of artistic motifs or design, and the whole thing, despite its length, feels rushed. Keitel is slightly miscast in his role as Judas (it’s not a part that had much range) and Bowie’s Pontius Pilate is so understated that he barely registers (the polar opposite of Rod Steiger’s virtuoso effort). Yet despite being too slow, mainly prior to Jerusalem, it maintains interest.
Without question the film created the most furore when it opted to go off at a tangent in its final section – with Jesus on the cross, an angel convinces him that he is not the messiah and must serve God by living a normal life. He then proceeds to live a life of marital bliss with Magdalene and Lazarus’s sisters. Later on he confronts Paul (Harry Dean Stanton) who, in this timeline, does not recognize him, but states that even without a physical messiah, the idea of his existence trumps everything. On his deathbed surrounded by disciples, he is informed by Judas that the angel was Satan all along. Upon hearing this, the infirm Jesus forces his way out of his home. Amidst the carnage of the destroyed second temple, Jesus begs his lord to annul all that has happened and return to his crucifixion. He succeeds, and his death provides the redemptive and happy conclusion.
Such a diversion from the established scripture would only provide ammunition for would be opponents, but the addition of an alternative reality adds a layer to the canon while bewildering the audience, evoking a type of post-modernism as Jesus reacts to Paul’s rejection of him as an ordinary citizen. It is this “last temptation” that is the crux of the movie, as Jesus is nearly seduced by the promise of an easy, unfulfilled life, which, having learnt the truth, he of course repudiates.
Scorsese’s pet project drew general approval from critics and moderate opprobrium from various religious groups, although it was never his intent to foment that. What it failed to draw was a connection with audiences, with the film barely making its meagre outlay back. Perhaps the story was too familiar, and was perceived as unentertaining by cinemagoers who were looking for something more ironic, relatable and less harrowing – which was what they found in Scorsese’s hallowed follow-up, GoodFellas, a movie about thoroughly amoral souls that of course proved to be a compulsive, kinetic and cinematic triumph that had no truck whatsoever with piety, ascension or self-examination.
GoodFellas of course did rather better at the box office and umpteen critics polls, but I would recommend skipping watching it for the twentieth time and checking this film out just the once. Worthy it might be but it is never crass, its human message still transcendent, regardless of whether you are a card-carrying believer or not. Rewarding.
Here’s the film’s trailer
Here’s the other Month Of Marty reviews so far as well