If Martin Scorsese seems an odd choice to film Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ because he’s so explosively modern and contentious, when getting to know him through his movies, many tinged with Catholicism and alienation, or listen to or read about him (he was once a seminarian), we come to accept that he’s the kind of intense, anguished Catholic enveloped by his religion’s mysticism to attempt a fresh perspective on Christ as real man. A Catholic in apparently eternal recovery, I still love the physical majesty of the Roman Catholic Church—that is, its encasement in celebrated art, architecture and regal ceremony—and as a teenage moviegoer, I was overwhelmed by widescreen propaganda like The Greatest Story Ever Told. But reaching adulthood, trying to make sense of what I now see as legend, my view of Christ tarnished: He was no longer Max von Sydow. Scorsese succinctly puts it this way: “I didn’t want a Christ who glowed in the dark.” The “no glow” is what Scorsese strives for and he’d be defrauding his intent as well as his artistry to support any other kind of view. That he deviated little from established myth confirms he’s deeply respectful, far more than the dummy-headed protesters who haven’t seen the movie they fake distress over. Yet in weighing Scorsese’s sincerity with what’s on screen, the movie misfires. There’s naturalism to a degree: Judea has a realistic feel, the spikes hammered into Christ are terrifyingly huge, and Christ questions and is fearful of Big Daddy’s plans. But the construct is crippled by Willem Dafoe as Jesus. If an actor dares to play the most mythicized figure of western civilization as an emotional and mental maelstrom, it has to be a performance without burdensome distractions, in this case Dafoes’ meanie Cro-Magnom face and the gaps between between his teeth. They’re nearly impossible for the audience to overcome because they’re so fused to the actor’s persona. He’s also swerving off Kazantzakis’s track—detouring the novel’s Christ and speeding down Scorsese Way. The resemblance of Dafoe’s urban nervousness and manic jabberishness to Scorsese’s is very displacing; Christ gets usurped. Some commendable things: Harvey Keitel’s Judas is already out to kill Jesus and after discovering the beauty of Christ’s message, he’s torn between love and dutiful betrayal. Watching Christ dancing, drinking, contemplating fornication with Mary Magdalene will be blasphemy to the blankhead religious but how could Christ resist temptation without first experiencing it? If Christ has foreknowledge he’ll resist, what’s the lesson for imperfect man? But you can hardly wait till he rejects Lucifer’s offers, in that sex and children barely make it as lures into the devil’s lair. Aren’t they integral to a God’s master plan? (St. Boniface: “Man’s road to God always begins with a sexual act.”) Though Scorsese’s enticements are subdued, a De Mille-like orgy would have been a reprieve for most of us. Peter Gabriel’s African-Brazilian music sounds as if Sergio Mendes’ Primal Roots inspired it. Still, potent stuff, especially during the slow-motion walk Christ endures at the beginning of his crucifixion with Jews smiling, laughing and mocking him, and adding to its ugliness are two women on either side of Christ with faces so exaggeratedly, repulsively compelling that you want to slap them out of sight. This sequence is likely to be later recognized as the movie’s more controversial moment. Putting aside admiration for Scorsese’s courage, Temptation is an oddly indifferent movie made by a man committed to his religiosity: it has neither a mythological nor intellectual hold. He can’t unleash the power of the defiant implausibility because it acts as its own gainsayer. Inevitable: when dancing with religious myth, you end up with blisters filled with contradiction. The only remedy is avoiding disgrace, which Scorsese manages to do. The Last Temptation of Christ is the director being true to himself; tormented by his beliefs, he can’t be accused of being a blasphemer, or a hypocrite to his masochistic pleasures. His tango, however, is over: Realism has no function in religion.


Text COPYRIGHT © 2007 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.