It’s always going to be difficult to approach a film like The Last Temptation of Christ critically. Whatever response you have to the film will be tempered by your own opinions on the subject matter, and the pages of Filmwerk are not the place for a grand theological debate, so I’ll try to treat the situation as I would any other story or set of characters. However, I fear I’m guilty of an even greater heresy. Forgive me, father, but I must confess: I am no fan of Scorsese’s.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate his craftsmanship, or fail to understand why it is that he’s held in such regard. If you’ll permit me to be somewhat pretentious, I’ve often used a line from Coleridge’s Dejection – “I see, not feel, how beautiful they are” – to describe my relationship with his work. I’ve sat through Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas, admired the filmmaking and art of the films, and still felt came away feeling cold. So it was with a little reluctance that I approached his three-hour retelling of the story of Christ. In fact, the film is perfectly enjoyable, with some wonderful touches.
The chief joy of the film is Willem Dafoe. His performance as Jesus breathes a new life into the role and demonstrates a great understanding of it; it strips back the layers of authoritarianism that have gathered around Jesus over the years, leaving all associations with Songs of Praise behind. The Sermon on the Mount is delivered with an enthusiasm and vibrancy of something new and revolutionary, sorely lacking from most people’s perception of it. Of course, he’s helped by a script which takes the biblical texts and re-imagines it in a modern dialect. The tone strikes a difficult balance, by being informal enough to be engaging, while formal enough not to jar with the action.
This more human portrayal also helps to make the crucifixion scene all the more powerful. By now we are fully invested in the character, with reservations and doubts that make it easier to sympathise with his plight. Scorsese doesn’t emphasise the pain with buckets of blood or gruesome Saw-esque details like certain other representations of the Passion, but has enough focus to convey the indescribable agony. His Jesus isn’t so much suffering for us as with us, or at least we with him. We even follow the cross as it rises with Jesus attached, and this really makes the escape such a relief.
Of course, here is where we get to the real controversy. Watching Jesus make love to Mary Magdalene is an odd sight, and one that caused a furore. That the film declares before the credits that the story is not based on the Gospels but on the novel of the same name didn’t appease its critics. They do the film a great disservice. Ultimately, this figure of Jesus is a far more complex individual than the one in the Bible. He is wracked with human failings like doubt, fear and recklessness. Above all, he is tempted (the clue really is in the title) to lead a normal human life, but he must reject normalcy to fulfill his destiny. Again, Jesus represents us, and we are him: we may be frail, but we can ultimately be saved. It’s a surprisingly Christian message for a film that attracted so much flack for being apparently un-Christian.
To be saved, we must be saved from something, and in this film that something is Satan, who first appears during Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. Having a character converse with a snake, a lion and some flames always runs the risk of backfiring and looking ridiculous, but the sincerity with which the scene is played, coupled with the beautifully elegant and atmospheric cinematography, makes the scene feel like a sinister dream. Satan’s deceptively ordinary and calm voice is chilling and only adds to the sense of threat, particularly in a film in which God does remarkably little to make His presence obvious, give an unnerving sense of omnipresent evil. This is confirmed by the film’s climactic revelation that, all along, it Satan who was the ‘guardian angel’ tempting Jesus. .
Of course, the film isn’t perfect. Even though it charges through the New Testament with a vigour not normally associated with Bible stories, it does still drag in places, and David Bowie is an oddly detached Pilate. However, on the whole, the film breathes a new life into the well-known tale and, possibly thanks to the liberties taken with it, helps to bring the viewer closer to an understanding of Jesus the man. If you want a traditional take on the Crucifixion then there are plenty of those out there, but given my normal reaction to Scorsese’s work, I’m surprised to be saying that The Last Temptation of Christ may be the most engaging I’ve seen.