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 soaked in 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 nearly 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 Dafoe’s 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. Though tamed, Dafoe’s nervousness and manic jabberishness are displacing; they’re part of Scorsese’s urban comportment and Christ gets usurped. Watching Christ dancing, drinking, contemplating fornication with Mary Magdalene are apparent blasphemy to the blankheaded religious but how could Christ resist temptation without encountering it? (In beard and longish wavy hair, Dafoe sort of projects twenty years too early Sebastián Rulli as a tanned sexualized Jesus.) But this brings on more trouble: If Christ has foreknowledge he’ll resist, what’s the lesson for imperfect man? How do Lucifer’s offers of sex and children make it as lures into the devil’s lair? Aren’t they integral to Christ’s father’s master plan? (St. Boniface: “Man’s road to God always begins with a sexual act.”) Some commendable features: Harvey Keitel’s reddish orange-haired Judas is already out to kill Jesus and after discovering the beauty of Jesus’s message, he’s torn apart by love and, standing in for all of us, understandably confused. David Bowie’s Pontius Pilate is understatement as eloquence. Peter Gabriel’s North African-Middle East hodgepodge score is potent at times, especially during the slow-motion walk Christ endures to his crucifixion with Jews smiling, laughing and mocking him and adding to its ugliness are women on either side of him with faces so exaggeratedly, repulsively compelling that we want to slap them out of sight. (This sequence might have been recognized later as the movie’s more controversial moment had Mel Gibson not made the grossly anti-Semitic Passion of the Christ.) Some lesser attributes: the crown of thorns begs for a designer’s label to be attached and Dafoe’s last words—“It is accomplished”—solicit ridicule over the intended solidification of faith. 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, he can’t be accused of being a blasphemer, or hypocrite to his masochistic pleasures. His tormented tango with jumbled myth, however, reasserts that realism hasn’t any function in religion.

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