The Passion of ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’

“You’re the same as all the others, only you can’t admit it,” says Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey) early in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. That she’s speaking to Jesus Christ (Willem Dafoe) forms the central objection raised against the film, and also its greatest strength: Jesus is treated as a real person, with doubts and hesitations, even potential weaknesses. More than once, he confesses these doubts: “I’m a liar, I’m a hypocrite, I’m afraid of everything.”

Scorsese, adapting the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, gives us a conflicted, unsure Christ, who gains some confidence and sense of purpose as his life work accumulates, gathering disciples and followers. As portrayed here, Christ’s sermons don’t have solemn grandeur or serenity: they’re recognizably human, usually shot with ground-level cameras, building intensity as they go. Throughout it all, he faces choices about whether to preach love or call for action, and how best to serve God. The movie is essentially about Jesus coming to an understanding of his place between humanity and divinity — which holds more conflict than the physical hardship stressed in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (and is embodied with beautiful resilience and anguish by Dafoe).

Scorsese spends a lot of time on this process, creating a stripped-down Biblical epic with a lightning rod affixed to the final act in the form of a vision Jesus has during his crucifixion. He sees a young girl, claiming to be a guardian angel, who takes him down from the cross and leads him into a normal human life where he is able to marry and have children. In the film’s most stunning, famous, and controversial sequence, we see glimpses of that life, following Christ to his old-age deathbed, when Judas (Harvey Kietel) tells him that the guardian angel was Satan. Throughout the film, Kazantzakis, Scorsese, and screenwriter Paul Schrader imagine Judas as a more conscious, conflicted betrayer of Jesus – almost a conscience or, in less reverent terms, faithful sidekick — which rankled some Christians.

But it’s the film’s final section that earned the most ire from religious activists, who found it blasphemous (at least in theory; naturally, most protestors refused to see it, despising its very idea, at least as they understood it). To this day, for many The Last Temptation of Christ is still identified as the movie where Jesus shacks up with Mary Magdalene, rather than a film about faith that ends with Jesus breaking free of his final temptation to live a normal life, and choosing to die on the cross. The film’s final words are Christ’s cry of “It is accomplished!” as he dies.

Yet the film’s supposition that Jesus could have ever had these doubts and overcome them was enough to set off a firestorm back in 1988, obscuring the film’s serious consideration of faith. The film is slower and more deliberate than many of Scorsese’s pictures, which often hum with energy. Last Temptation of Christ isn’t lethargic, but it is fraught and a little grueling, as a story about Christ’s sacrifice probably should be (yet without the punishing single-mindedness of Gibson’s more popular film). Scorsese’s discipline is all the more impressive given that he made this movie in between two of his most wildly entertaining films, the black comedy After Hours (which he made after an earlier iteration of The Last Temptation of Christ fell apart) and the masterpiece Goodfellas.

This film, for all of its power, is less accessible than Scorsese’s absolute best; as an exploration of Christian faith, it would almost have to be. The filmmaking craft, as always, is impeccable, though Schrader’s dialogue has an oddly colloquial ring; it may be more effective than stilted period language, but occasionally makes the film feel more experimental than was likely intended, halfway between passion project and what-if oddity. But it’s a powerful, rigorous work by director too often typified (as recently as an extended, musty Billy Crystal routine at the 2012 Oscars) as dealing primarily with thugs, crooks, and palookas.

The Criterion Collection issued a DVD of the film back in the year 2000, now reissued in Blu-Ray form. The 2000 release’s commentary track (originally from a 1997 laserdisc) includes passages from Scorsese, Schrader, uncredited co-screenwriter Jay Cocks, and Dafoe. The speakers were recorded separately, and their comments, especially Scorsese’s, are not always scene-specific. But perhaps owing to the movie’s troubled history, the insights — again, Scorsese’s in particular – are unusually fascinating.

Scorsese discusses the project’s origins, which hint at its experimental nature: in film school at NYU, he had wanted to make a Biblical epic, but shot on the cheap, in black and white with modern dress. Years later, he first conceived the Last Temptation adaptation as similarly small-scale, before various logistics swelled the budget. After his first attempt was scuttled, he scaled the project back down, resulting in the final version, filmed on location in Morocco, but relatively quickly and cheaply. By this point, Scorsese says, the film became “something I had to do.”

Schrader, for his part, takes a somewhat more detached, conceputalized approach to the material: he talks about his idea of portraying God, through the voices and paranoia that haunt and sometimes debilitate Christ, as the “ultimate headache”. Schrader also mentions that he anticipated arguments over the film, but realizes now that the visual argument of the medium makes it more powerful, and more divisive, perfectly illustrating the blend of his Calvinist intellectualism with Scorsese’s Catholic passion.

In addition to a gorgeous high-definition transfer of the film, the Blu-Ray adds a new liner-notes essay by critic David Ehrenstein. Unlike some more content-focused Criterion essays, this one describes the stories of the film: its own narrative, how it was made, and the controversy that accompanied it. Ehrenstein also closes with a few (not undeserved) shots at Gibson, but doesn’t go far into the craft of Scorsese’s film itself, perhaps because its power is so plain, and plainly different from the film pictured by its detractors.

The movie can certainly speak for itself. It’s a shame, though, that these detractors so dominate the conversation, even decades later. That Scorsese and Schrader used Christ to make a personal, off-Bible statement doesn’t indicate empty blasphemy or hubris; it’s a tribute to their serious considerations of human faith.

RATING 7 / 10
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