Monday, March 29, 2010

The Last Temptation of Christ

Jean-Luc Godard's comment from 1996 (recently quoted by Jonathan Rosenbaum on his website), that Jane Campion is a perfect example of a talented filmmaker "completely destroyed by money," is one that could be applied to the careers of a lot of directors. I don't know if I'd go so far as to say that Martin Scorsese has been "destroyed" by money, but it's effect on his work has been largely negative. The Last Temptation of Christ (1998)--his adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis' novel, which I haven't read--was one of the last films he made before his budgets started to balloon out of control, and it's sobering to try to imagine what the film would look like if Scorsese made it today with a hundred million dollars at his disposal and Leonardo DiCapprio in the role of Jesus Christ.

Admittedly, even this movie is a bit too polished for my liking. While it's still a long way off from the slick artiness of Mel Gibson's hard-sell passion play (to borrow a term from Manny Farber), in the sequence where Jesus (Willem Dafoe) has the crown of thorns placed on his head, Michael Ballhaus just can't resist lighting the scene as if he were Caravaggio (see above). The least pretentious movie I've seen about the life of Jesus is Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), which presents the story as simply and as matter-of-factly as possible. And the harsh beauty of the landscapes and Pasolini's non-professional cast (including his own mother as Mary, the mother of Christ) is often stunning.

Incidentally, Pasolini was an atheist (and a Marxist and a homosexual), while Gibson and Scorsese are both devout believers. That's not to say that Scorsese's personal beliefs are irrelevant to his films, but personal filmmaking doesn't necessarily equal good movies. Mean Streets (1973) is highly personal in its tortured Catholic outlook and Little Italy setting (which never feels less than authentic, even though, amusingly, most of the film was shot in Los Angeles). But speaking for myself, I can only watch so many scenes of guys in bars arguing about debts without being bored by the repetition. On the other hand, I learn from Roger Ebert's book on Scorsese that he only agreed to direct After Hours (1985) when studio funding for The Last Temptation of Christ fell through at the last minute. But I think it's one of his very best films--and it's certainly the most tightly scripted, the funniest, and the least pretentious of all his movies.

The Last Temptation of Christ begins with a cautious title card, explaining that the film isn't based on the gospels, which ironically mirrors the pretentious quotation from the bible that's attached to the end of Raging Bull (1980)--Scorsese's previous biopic written by Paul Schrader--where we're apparently supposed to take boxer Jake LaMotta (Robert DeNiro) as some kind of Christ figure, rather than just a run-of-the-mill wife beater. In The Last Temptation of Christ, the text positions the movie as a fictional exploration of the conflict between the spirit and the flesh. Basically what that means in terms of the story is that Jesus can either chose to live like a man, and have a family, or die on the cross and be the messiah. The two key supporting players are Judas (Harvey Keitel) and Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey), who represent his conscience and his penis, respectively. As the film opens, Jesus has turned his back on both by building crosses for the Romans. As he hauls one through town en route to a crucifixion, Mary emerges from a crowd of hecklers to spit in his face. Later, when Jesus goes to see Mary at her place of employment, we learn that she only became a prostitute after her relationship with Jesus fizzled out. That'll show him. (Convincing female psychology has never been one of Schrader and Scorsese's strong suits.)

The film has been criticized for its antiquated sexual politics, with Rosenbaum writing, "Scorsese's use of females throughout the film to signify only maternity and temptation (of the male) makes me wonder if women of all denominations should be objecting to this film rather than fundamentalists of both sexes." In the film's long, climatic sequence, Jesus is tempted by the devil--embodied by a little girl (Juliette Caton) claiming to be his guardian angel--with a vision of the life he could have if he renounced his divine mission. In the vision, he marries Mary Magdalene, but she dies giving birth. The devil/angel girl consoles Jesus by telling him that there's only one woman in the world with many faces, and suggests he marry another Mary, the sister of Lazarus (Randy Danson). This leads to a curious scene in which the second Mary steps out for a second, and the girl suggests that Jesus schtup his wife's sister, Martha (Peggy Gormley), repeating her earlier statement about there only being one woman in the world in order to convince him. This is the only point in the film where Jesus is seriously tempted to do something really sinful, but it's fully in keeping with the rest of the movie in which women are portrayed essentially as things to have sex with and make babies. The only female character who winds up making much of an impression is the guardian angel, who's neither a mother nor a sex object. (Significantly, that this character was a boy in the novel.)

One intriguing subtext of the film is the implied parallel between the Roman occupation of Israel, and the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. In the opening sequence, Jesus is visited by Judas, who's a member of the Zealots--a group not unlike the French Resistance--who want the Romans out of Israel. In the scene, Judas chews him out for collaborating with the Romans by making crosses, saying at one point, "You're a Jew killing Jews." Later, when Mary Magdalene is about to be stoned to death by an angry mob, her crime is servicing Roman soldiers on the sabbath, recalling how after the liberation of France, the girlfriends of German soldiers had their heads shaved in public. However, the parallel only goes so far, as Jesus poses a threat not only to the Romans but the Zealots as well, as his teachings offer an alternative to their (more direct) form of revolution.

Formally, the film benefits from being one of Scorsese's least stylized, most naturalistic films. Early on, when Jesus is delivering a sermon outdoors, and the handheld camera follows him in medium close-up as he moves through the crowd, the film comes within hailing distance of Pasolini's documentary approach--even if the blue-eyed Dafoe looks a little too clean for the role, his shining hippy hair always perfectly coiffed. Adding to the film's naturalism is that the characters aren't quoting the bible word for word (as in Pasolini's film), but speaking in a modern American idiom. The actors deliver their lines as if no one had ever said these things before, and they were just making it up on the spot. I learn from Rosenbaum that Kazantzakis' novel was written in the "demotic" dialect of the Greek peasantry, and in the film, the New York accents of Jesus and his disciples are effectively played against the British accents of the guardian angel and David Bowie, who gives a fine, understated performance as Pontius Pilate. Additionally, the film has an excellent score by Peter Gabriel, blending traditional Middle Eastern melodies with subtly employed electric guitars, which lacks any trace of pompousness--something The Passion of the Christ (2004) exudes from every orifice of its being, the awful score included.

In hindsight, Scorsese's subsequent feature, Goodfellas (1990), could be seen as the tipping point between his earlier, less commercial work, and the expensive blockbusters that followed. I'm sure Scorsese had artistic reasons for making Cape Fear (1991), The Age of Innocence (1993), Casino (1995), Gangs of New York (2002), The Aviator (2004), and--who knows?--The Departed (2006) and Shutter Island (2010), but because of the money involved, he's now in the position of having to make films that appeal to teenagers in the suburbs. (I haven't seen Kundun [1997], but Bringing Out the Dead [1999], a relatively low-budget character study with echoes of Taxi Driver [1976], is obviously an exception.) At this rate of decline, it won't be long until he's making 3D special effects films, and kool-aid sipping reviewers will be trying to pin the whole thing on Michael Powell in order to avoid facing up to the reality that Scorsese's been in a ten-year artistic recession.


  1. The movie was made in 1988. You said in your beginning paragraph that it was made in 1998.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I'm speaking about The Last Temptation of Christ.