Friday, October 25, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.11: Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the eternally enthusiastic Martin Scorsese.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 90/A-

More than any other film, Martin Scorsese wanted to make The Last Temptation of Christ. A devout Catholic who constantly wrestled with religion and guilt in life and in art, Scorsese read Nikos Kazantzakis’s controversial novel and made it priority number one for years. In 1983, he nearly got the go-ahead when Paramount greenlit the film to star Aidan Quinn as Jesus and Sting as Pontius Pilate. But when evangelical Christians started to pressure Paramount’s parent company Gulf + Western, the studio pulled the plug, and Scorsese was forced to move on.

But he never gave up, and when Universal gave Scorsese a shot to shoot the film for half of the original budget, he put his mob project Goodfellas on hold. The Last Temptation of Christ gave Scorsese his second Best Director nomination at the Oscars and was one of the most-talked about films of the year, but often for the wrong reason as fundamentalists picketed (and even rioted in France). While the film has unfortunately been overshadowed by the hubbub, it should not be remembered as Scorsese’s most controversial film, but rather as his most personal.

The film takes a look at Jesus (Willem Dafoe) not as a purely divine figure, but as a man with desire. A carpenter Judea, Jesus is plagued by knowledge that God has a plan for him, by guilt over his collaboration with the Romans (i.e., building crosses), and by his desire for the prostitute Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey).

 Jesus soon begins preaching, gathering followers who believe he will be a revolutionary against the Romans; but he’s unsure exactly of what’s expected of him, and his tendency to veer back and forth between messages of love and revolution frustrates his loyal follower Judas (Harvey Keitel). Soon, Jesus is crucified by the Romans, but a guardian angel offers him a chance for peace, for love, and for a normal life.

The first thing that separates Scorsese’s film from the bloated Biblical epics of yesteryear is the grit that comes with the director- Last Temptation doesn’t share their self-importance. Rather, Scorsese roots it in reality befitting to the Italian neorealists or the work of Pasolini (who made his own memorable Christ film with The Gospel According to St. Mark). That grounded nature- the handheld work for a man’s crucifixion, a low shot of a shy Jesus waiting for Mary Magdalene while she’s with another man- helps ground the more fantastical material (visions of bleeding apples, of nails pulled from Jesus’s feet), which mixes an otherworldly dreaminess befitting Cocteau with the harsh realism Scorsese is best known for.

Last Temptation is also notable for what’s perhaps the best sound design of Scorsese’s career- the use of Dafoe’s narration as a conversation with God, or of overwhelming noise that seems to crush Jesus. Perhaps most notable is a scene with John the Baptist (Andre Gregory of My Dinner with Andre), where the shouting and dancing of the Baptist’s followers cuts out for near-silence, with only the sound of the two men’s voices and the river remaining. It’s not always aided by Peter Gabriel’s score (a mix between effective Middle Eastern music and dated new age material), but Scorsese’s use of sound here helps sell the spirituality of the film.

That spirituality could be seen as the formal aspect, the humanity the realistic aspect of Scorsese’s film aesthetic, and Last Temptation brings the two personalities more closely together than any of Scorsese’s films outside of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver. It makes sense that the deeply religious director wanted to tell not only the tale of Christ, but this tale of Christ, which shows him as a more human, dare I say flawed character.

The film is filled with memorable performances particularly David Bowie’s sarcastic but rational Pontius Pilate and  Keitel’s exasperated Judas, handled here as a brave, loyal, and loving follower willing to go down as hated for his master’s wishes. Nevertheless, it belongs wholly to Dafoe, who takes a near-unplayable part and creates a man torn apart by guilt, by anguish, and by fear for what he has to do. He considers himself “a liar, a hypocrite”, one who helps the Romans kill other Jews and who can’t resolve his human desire for the love of Mary Magdalene with his knowledge of God’s plan for him. He punishes himself with self-flagellation, and with self-hatred just as Jake LaMotta or Travis Bickle did. That his mission is more noble than Bickle’s or LaMotta’s doesn’t change his self-loathing, nor is it helped by his not fully understanding what God’s plan for him is.

The anger and frustration of his followers is more understandable as well, not to mention the trepidation of nonbelievers. The film gets a bit ungainly and episodic in the sections where Jesus performs his miracles, but it serves to show both how he could attract followers and put-off others with his borderline bipolar swings from love to rage. He also gets carried away with his own divine nature, rejecting his own humanity by pretending to not recognize his own mother (when Jesus later lamets on the cross for being a bad son, for the first time perhaps in all fictional portrayals, it feels earned). And as he goes from a man who promises the destruction of the temple to, seemingly on a whim, a man who predicts and argues for the necessity of his own death, it’s hard not to relate to Judas’s exclamation “Every day you have a different plan!”

 It’s because the film is so rooted in the psychology of its characters that familiar Gospel scenes have power not seen in other Biblical adaptations- Jesus’s terrified pleas to his father in the Garden of Gethsemane don’t feel like posturing, and Judas’s kiss of betrayal is more painful with the knowledge that he and Jesus have accepted this. And while Scorsese doesn’t linger on the flaying, the crown of thorns, or the crucifixion as long (or as pornographically) as Mel Gibson did with his execrable The Passion of the Christ, the impact is far stronger when we understand him as a man as much as we do as a religious figure. That the crucifixion is as much about his spiritual anguish as his physical pain and embarrassment makes it all the more powerful- for once, we understand the meaning of the words, “Father, why have you forsaken me?”

Then the controversial material starts- in a dreamlike, beautifully fluid hallucination sequence, Jesus is taken down from the cross, his wounds cleaned, his relationship with Mary Magdalene consummated. The exteriors, which looked barren before, are now lush and green. There is peace, and even as Mary Magdalene dies, Jesus is provided two wives (the angel assures them he can have whomever he wants).

Scorsese seems to be wrestling with not only his faith in these passages, but with his own demons. The Jesus of Last Temptation is plagued with doubt, with feelings of unworthiness, and with a question of whether his grand mission is all for naught. Scorsese, throughout most of his filmmaking career (and especially in the 1980s), was plagued with doubt, with feelings of unworthiness, and with a question of whether or not any of his films would matter to anyone. As a devout catholic, he worried over his sins of having divorced multiple times, of the ways he wronged others. Perhaps, if he gave it all up, he could lead a normal life.

There’s a key scene in the fantasy where an aging Jesus, now with a family in tow, encounters Paul (Harry Dean Stanton), who preaches of Jesus, who died on the cross for humanity’s sins. It echoes an earlier scene where Jesus’s followers debate whether he said the things people claim he did, and one says that “Even if he didn’t, the words are still important because people believed them.” As Jesus confronts Paul and calls him a liar, Paul sys something to similar affect- that we create truth out of what people need to believe, and that it gives the people hope- happiness, even- to believe that a man has died for their sins. Whether or not it was true, they choose to believe because of its power, and that makes it worthwhile. That’s a powerful sentiment, one that even the nonreligious could likely understand, and it could be seen as Scorsese’s message to the nonreligious viewers. “You might not believe this, but it gives me a reason to go on,” it seems to say.

At the same time, the “whether or not it’s true” isn’t Scorsese’s full perspective. He’s a believer, and he likely agrees with Jesus that it does matter whether or not it really happened. At the end of the film, as Jesus lies on his deathbed as the Romans fight a rebelling Jerusalem, his followers appear, as Judas asks if his betrayal was “for nothing”. There has been no sacrifice, no salvation, and all because he was tempted by an angel (actually Satan) to abandon his purpose for an easier life.

There’s a key quote by Frank Capra that said that Christianity was about second chances. That was the case with Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, a film embraced by most religious moviegoers as a decent but flawed man, out of desperation, wishes for an easy way out, only to realize how much the world would change and see the value of his life. Perhaps those same viewers who rejected Last Temptation could view the film through that lens- as an affirmation of Jesus’s importance, of what his sacrifice meant.

For much of the film, Jesus asks for forgiveness for his sins, an acknowledgement of the human side to a human/divine divide. With his return to the cross (in rather striking zoom backwards), he gets the chance.. A loud, dissonant scream of instruments on the soundtrack and a flash on the screen (accidental, but remarkable enough that it had to be left in) brings the character all the way to the divine. He’s in pain, but there’s relief in death, and in what it was all for. No matter how difficult it all was, it’s all for something. That’s the case with the film’s Jesus, and that was the case with Scorsese’s many hardships. Believer or nonbeliever, it’s hard not to be moved.

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