NO GLOW IN THE DARK
Martin Scorsese seems an odd choice to film Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ because he’s explosively modern and contentious. Watching his movies, many tinged with Catholicism and alienation, or listen to or read about him—he was once a seminarian—we try to accept that, as an intense, anguished Catholic enveloped by his religion’s mysticism, he could attempt a fresh perspective on Christ as “real,” which is an insurmountable contradiction. Scorsese succinctly put it this way: “I didn’t want a Christ who glowed in the dark.” He’d be defrauding his intent as well as his artistry to support any other kind of view (mainly the The Greatest Story Ever Told view). Deviating little from established myth confirms his respect, far more than the dummy-headed protesters who hadn’t seen the movie they faked distress over. Yet in measuring his sincerity with what’s on screen, the movie misfires. The construct is stultified by Willem Dafoe as Jesus. If an actor portrays 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 his teeth. These features are handicaps difficult to overcome because they’re fused to the actor’s persona. Of course we don’t want the falsity and prejudice of a Michelangelo or Raphael portrait; we do want to connect to someone who looks to be from the period. (In beard and longish wavy hair, he sort of projects Sebastián Rulli who’d be much more preferable as a tanned sexualized Jesus.) Dafoe’s nervousness and manic jabberishness are displacing; they’re part of Scorsese’s urban comportment and Christ gets usurped. Some commendable things: Harvey Keitel’s red-haired Judas is already out to kill Jesus and after discovering the beauty of Jesus’s message, he’s torn between love and dutiful betrayal. Watching Christ dancing, drinking, contemplating fornication with Mary Magdalene are blasphemy to the blankheaded religious but how could Christ resist temptation without experiencing it? But here’s more trouble: If Christ has foreknowledge he’ll resist, what’s the lesson for imperfect man? Lucifer’s offers of 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.”) Peter Gabriel’s African-Brazilian music sounds inspired by some tracks from Sergio Mendes’s underivative Primal Roots, rather potently suggested 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 women on either side of Christ with faces so exaggeratedly, repulsively compelling that we want to slap them out of sight. (This sequence is still likely to be later recognized as the movie’s more controversial moment.) And the crown of thorns is begging for a designer’s label to be attached. Putting aside admiration for Scorsese’s courage, Last Temptation is a peculiarly indifferent movie made by a man committed to his faith: it has neither a mythological nor intellectual hold. He can’t unleash the power of the defiant implausibility; the material becomes its own gainsayer. The only remedy is avoiding disgrace: Last Temptation is the director being true to himself; trying to make sense of his beliefs, often tormented by them, he can’t be accused of being a blasphemer, or hypocrite to his masochistic pleasures. His tango, however, is over: Realism has no function in religion.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2007 RALPH BENNER All Rights Reserved.