• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Wednesday, November 25, 2020

    Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

    N.B. My scene guide for this film is here.
    "This film is not based on the Gospels but upon this fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict". So begins the opening titles of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, a clarification that so many of its critics were seemingly unwilling to accept or understand. Hampered by the campaign against it, the finished film struggled to recoup its costs; meanwhile the American Family Association, the chief group leading the protests, saw an increase in their income for 1988 of around a million dollars (Lindlof, 284).

    Just as Pier Paolo Pasolini saw his film as an analogy of the challenges facing those fighting for equality, so Scorsese and his script writer Paul Schrader see theirs "as a metaphor for the human condition". Just as Jesus agonises over the question of what it is that God wants from him, so Scorsese and Schrader - both from strongly religious backgrounds - continue to wrestle with that central question. Almost thirty years later these questions still trouble them. 2016 saw Scorsese release Silence the story of an emotionally, and then physically, tortured priest in 17th century Japan. The following year, Schrader's First Reformed depicted a minister caught in the midst of a crisis of faith.

    Consequently, Last Temptation's opening image is of Willem Dafoe's Jesus writhing on the ground wracked in emotional agony, and as the film draws to a close almost 160 minutes later, the situation has only worsened. On the verge of an agonising death on the cross, Jesus' has drifted into the depths of his unconscious and become trapped by the lure of an ordinary, domesticated life. It's unclear whether this is a dream, an hallucination, or simply the last fantastical flickers of activity in his brain, but the entire 40 minute sequence occurs between Jesus' cry of "My God, why have you forsaken me", and the final victorious cry of "It is accomplished" just seconds later.

    It's the visual and aural aspects of the transition to this sequence which many seem to miss. As Jesus hangs on the cross, the camera twists through ninety degrees, almost as if Jesus is lying down, the natural sound of the scene is muted and the sun brightens to warm Jesus' face. "It's clichéd" Scorsese would later explain, "but after all, it's a scam, it's the Devil" (Thomson and Christie, 143). These scenes are difficult and uncomfortable precisely because for the first time we experience in ourselves Jesus' disorientation - the bizarre shared life with Mary and Martha, the illogicality of Saul's empty preaching. It's as if, on the verge of death Jesus' mind is flitting about trying to make sense of this his most testing trial.

    Only when he remembers his friends, the disciples, does he return to his senses. The bond of friendship has been a key theme in Scorsese's films, from Goodfellas (1990) to The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) often with a growing sense of fear and that the protagonists are getting in out of their depth. Additionally, much of the film employs Judas in a similar fashion to the "buddy" roles of Raging Bull (1980) and Casino (1995). The filmmakers even cast Mean Streets' Harvey Keitel as Judas. Yet whilst Jesus is emotionally dependent on Judas for much of the film, at various other points he takes on the mantle of the sexually-repressed loner, typified by Robert DeNiro's anti-hero in Taxi Driver. This occurs most notably in the scenes where Jesus faces the devil both in the desert, after his encounter with John the Baptist, and on the cross when he enters into the last temptation itself. Here Judas' role as friend and confidant is taken over by the young girl who is playing Satan. Many of Scorsese's films have been typified by the tension the lead character feels between the women in his life and his buddies. Here the devil removes Judas and the disciples from the temptation and encourages him to marry both Mary Magdalene, and then later Mary of Bethany. Only at the end of the 40 minute temptation do the disciples and Judas burst back onto the scene, make him see Satan's deception and inspire him do the right thing and see his sacrificial death through to the end. Jesus dies victorious and finally at peace. To quote the novel's closing words "He uttered a triumphant cry: It is accomplished! And it was as though he had said: Everything has begun" (Kazantzakis,575).

    At this point in the film the image gets "edge fog" which then gives way to a series of flashing bursts of coloured light and the sound of ululations and church bells. The visual distortion was the result of light accidentally leaking into the canister, but the filmmakers were able to use it to create a modern way of expressing the resurrection. Indeed one of the aspects of this film that makes it stand out from the biblical films that had gone before it was its contemporary use of the camera. The earlier scenes feature a constantly moving camera giving the idea of things being spontaneous, yet also unsettled. Yet as the film moves on we find the scenes with Pilate and the in front of the crowd utilise long panning shots suggesting events are moving unavoidably towards an inevitable conclusion. Elsewhere we see the camera rushing past Jesus as he is pulled into Lazarus's tomb, and towards his destiny and inevitable death.

    The dynamism of that shot is typical of the film's refreshing lack of reverence when people interact with Jesus. Whilst some of the ordinary people he preaches to accept his message, many are unmoved, and others resort to bristling insults. We're used to see Jesus charged with blasphemy, but are unfamiliar with him being accused of madness. When he disrupts a mob stoning Magdalene, someone throws a stone at him. When he preaches about love, people laugh at him. When he is brought to trial, Pontius Pilate (played aloofly by David Bowie) treats him with detached cynicism. Jesus is just another failed messiah that the governor has to dispatch.

    Much of this is carried over from the film's invented opening. Jesus feels God's call and it terrifies him. In an attempt to dispel the voices in his head he makes crosses for the Romans, visits Magdalene in a brothel and ends up in a monastery. God has become another of Scorsese's complex father figures. Even for those who may be uncomfortable with this initial sequence or. indeed, its radical final act, the episodes most reliant on the Gospels have an unprecedented energy about them. Willem Dafoe's Jesus is unpredictable, and possibly unstable, but the energy of his performance is breathtakingly compelling. The sense of spontaneity when Jesus launches into the Sermon on the Plain, his forceful exorcisms and his playfulness when turning the water into wine are all memorable scenes, as are that of his fasting in the desert which has been copied so often in subsequent productions. The scenes are given extra dynamism by the actor's use of thick contemporary American accents and the way by Schrader's fresh paraphrasing of the Gospels liberates them from centuries of church tradition.

    And of course, there's much more that could be discussed about Peter Gabriel's evocative soundtrack, Thelma Schoonmaker's editing, or simply the lighting, pacing, costuming that make Last Temptation such an original piece of work. What's disappointing is that more than thirty years later the film is known more for its controversy than its accomplishments. It's a strange reaction to a film that was made sincerely, and was born out of a desire "to get to know Jesus better" (Thomson and Christie, 120). Perhaps after thirty years it's time for the film to be appreciated for its attempt "to make the life of Jesus immediate and accessible to people who haven't really thought about God in a long time" (Thomson and Christie, 124).

    - Lindlof, Thomas R. Lindlof (2008) Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the Religious Right, and the Culture Wars. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky (July 1, 2008).

    - Thomson, David, and Ian Christie (1996) Scorsese on Scorsese. London: Faber and Faber.

    - Kazantzakis, Nikos (1961) The Last Temptation. Translated by Peter A. Bien, London: Faber and Faber. 

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