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The Last Tempation of Christ

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 mind?

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' own request.

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 Pontius Pilate.

San Francisco Chronicle August 12, 1988

 

 

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