The Last Tempation of
Now that the curtain has actually been raised on
Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ," it
is clear that this is a noble, if not totally successful
attempt to wrestle with profound questions about
the age-old conflict between personal satisfaction
and higher ethical values.
The film is a faithful and painfully sincere version
of Nikos Kazantzakis' passionate and unorthodox exploration
into the "struggle of man with 'God.'"
The same words that Kazantzakis used about the controversy
created by his 1955 novel can apply with equal force
to the film. When Kazantzakis learned that his novel
had been placed on the Papal Index of forbidden books,
he wrote to a friend: "I've always been amazed
at the narrow-mindedness and narrow-heartedness of
human beings. Here is a book that I wrote in a state
of deep religious exaltation with fervent love for
Christ; and now the representative of Christ, the
Pope has no understanding of it at all, he cannot
sense that Christian love with which it was written
and he condemns it! And yet it is in keeping with
the wretchedness and slavery of the contemporary
world that I should be condemned."
Today, the film reflects the spiritual struggle
of three men who have been obsessed with the question
of Christ's relevancy in our day and age: Kazantzakis
, who was Greek Orthodox; director Scorsese, a Roman
Catholic; and script writer Paul Schrader, who was
raised in a strict Dutch Calvinist atmosphere.
Their Christ (Willem Dafoe) is an all-too-human
person, tortured by doubts, confused by the voices
he hears, tormented by sexual desire and ambivalent
about asserting his divinity. He has no relationship
to the plaster saint of previous Hollywood Biblical
epics and his Holy Land is a harsh, dry landscape,
a world apart from C.B.de Mille extravaganizas. To
get to the nub of objections raised by people who
have not seen the film, I found nothing cinematically
salacious or exploitative in the way Scorsese presents
two scenes involving Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey).
She is naked, yes, but shadowed in darkness, while
Jesus sits outside her chamber, hearing sexual groans
and waiting for a procession of men to leave so that
he can ask forgiveness for having driven her down
this path by his inability to return her love.
Michael Ballhaus' camera is equally discreet in
the controversial dream sequence in which Jesus marries
Mary Magdalene and makes love to her. When she dies,
his fantasy carries him into old age with two sisters,
Mary and Martha and the children he sired with them.
This hallucination takes place when he has already
been lashed, crowned with thorns and nailed on the
cross in the film's most gripping scene. I don't
intend to get into any theological arguments, but
I prefer to view this dream, this "last temptation" of
human happiness, as God's blessing on a man wracked
with pain. Can anyone who has not been there dare
to guess what goes on in a tortured man's heart and
What I found objectionable in the 20-minute long
dream sequence is the precious presence of a winsome
little guardian angel (Juliette Caton), a devil in
disguise with a British accent. She leads Jesus into
his fantasy and when he hesitates at Martha's invitation,
she solemnly assures him that "all women are
one with innumerable faces." Now that the fundamentalists
have been heard from, the feminists may be next.
The angel/devil figure might have caused other problems
if Scorsese had cast the character , as Kazantzakis
did as a "small Negro boy."
Although it is the dream sequence that will create
the most controversy, Scorsese (following Kazantzakis)
clearly wanted to restore a sense of immediacy to
the Christ story, stripping it of sanctified stereotypes
and breathing fresh life into a bunch of disputatious
Jews waiting for a Messiah to help them throw off
the oppressive Roman yoke.
Although their rough colloquial speech and American
accents — some as Lower East Side as Scorsese's own
intense staccato — are disconcerting at first, for
the most part, they add a curious conviction to the
roles. Harvey Keitel is outstanding as Judas Iscariot,
the strongest revolutionary among them. It is Judas
who accuses Jesus of being a "Jew who kills
Jews" because he was building crosses for the
Romans, but it is also Judas who becomes his most
loyal follower, finally betraying him only at Jesus'
Dafoe's portrayal of Jesus is strongest when he
is most pained by his own split feelings, and the
scenes on the cross surrounded by other crucified
Jews are likely to affect even the most dispassionate
spectator. But when Dafoe glows with a beatific smile,
he is more likely to evoke discomfort in a viewer
than an image of "gentle Jesus, meek and mild."
As a Mary Magdalene decked out in tattoos forbidden
to respectable Jewish women, Hershey has an untouchable
dignity in the agony of her love for Jesus.
For the plain old movie buff, it becomes a kind
of game to identify some of the other actors: director
Irvin Kershner ("The Empire Strikes Back")
as the fierce landowner, Zebedee; director Andre
Gregory "My Dinner with Andre") as John
the Baptist; Harry Dean Stanton, out of his depth
as Saul/Paul; and David Bowie, excellent as the suave
San Francisco Chronicle August 12, 1988