Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ is the twin brother of the earlier Mean Streets in many ways. Mean Streets is contemporary and authentic to its Little Italy beginnings--and, oddly enough, so is The Last Temptation of Christ. Both films are pure Scorsese: analyses of faith through its practical application for real people.
Much has been made of Peter Gabriel's excellent score, Michael Ballhaus's incredible (as usual) cinematography, and Willem Dafoe's heartfelt performance, but overall, The Last Temptation of Christ has been dismissed by many critics and commentators as one of the weaker Scorsese efforts. Supposedly, the choice to have the actors use their own accents makes the film silly. The mix of revisionist theology and strict, almost superstitious Catholicism make a muddle of Christ's story. The Temptation sequence is out of place and unclear. All of these criticisms have a shred of validity. But I find The Last Temptation of Christ endlessly provocative intellectually, dramatically, emotionally, and theologically. The film makes me think, and it reaffirms my idea of myself as a Christian (or "Christist," as I like to say).
The idea of a movie about Jesus Christ has been done so many times that it's a cliché. Some of the greatest directors--Rossellini, Zeffirelli, Scorsese--have tackled the job, along with many, many others. And generally it's a pretty boring affair. Christ as a character is just not very interesting. The concept of "God-in-man" is forgotten as the story of a perfect person who sacrifices himself unfolds, complete with halos and lambs and "suffer the little children to come to me." That's fine, if what is wanted is a videotape just the right length for a Sunday School lesson and appropriate for general audiences. But it misses the larger questions of who exactly Christ was, and what it means to be his follower, to want to be like him, if that's even possible or desirable. These are Scorsese's concerns.
That's one reason why it's very interesting to me that this film is superstitious, or metaphysical. Scorsese would not be a director one would think of for a ghost story right off. Most of his films are rather strictly realistic, at least in terms of plot content. Aside from, arguably, the Cybill Shepherd epilogue to Taxi Driver, everything in his films is actually happening in reality. The audience learns what is going on by seeing things from the actual physical perspective of the main character, who usually also narrates. It might be expected that we would see, then, Christ's ministry, and hear about the miracles and supernatural occurrences subjectively from different characters. And yet The Last Temptation of Christ presents a ghost (the leader of the monastery to which Christ first retreats), miracles, visions, the raising of the dead, all within the context of the plot. The implication within Scorsese's body of work is that these things are real. It's part of Christ's dilemma. He really is divine and he really is a man, and he must decide what the seemingly unreal things mean in his real life. The audience at least has the benefit of knowing Christ is not hallucinating, but Christ has no such helpful perspective. He must confront these metaphysical occurrences head-on and integrate them into his life.
Christ's perspective is unique and yet universal. Just like Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, he has his own set of hang-ups and difficulties which are unique to his life on the planet. For Christ, not the least of these is that God is talking to him. Scorsese's attempt to make Christ a man holds within it the implication that God is talking to all of us. Even Christ's conversation with the ascetic at the monastery reinforces this. The ascetic says that he wishes God would talk to him, while Christ says that God is actually talking to him. The question for the viewer is always, though, how to be like Christ. Rather than letting the audience off the hook here, then, Scorsese is actually raising the stakes. The viewer can't think, "I must not be able to be like Christ--I'm more like the ascetic--because God does not talk to me and tell me what to do." Instead, he must think, "What is God saying to me? Am I not listening hard enough? If I start hearing things, will I be insane or will I finally be paying attention?"
Some of the most moving scenes in the film are completely unexpected. They take place between the dramatic moments. They are the doctrine. And perhaps they are so moving because they take place within the context of a story about real people. The moments are really stock theological scenes. Everyone knows the story of Christ saving Mary Magdalene, the Sermon on the Mount, Christ's baptism ("This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased"--heavenly schizophrenia?), temptation in the desert, water into wine, confronting the moneychangers, the Last Supper. These moments are so stock that on the first viewing, one almost cringes waiting for them. But Scorsese, Cocks and Schrader have so fully integrated them into the script that instead of being trite or overwhelmingly didactic, they sneak up on you. They change words to emphasize the concepts, and they build the scenes out of such naturalistic drama that the preceding action is almost the parable to which they add only a few clarifying words to show us what Christ is thinking. It is masterful. They rescue these moments from "churchiness" and ground them in practicality. Christ makes theological pronouncements, and they are so genuine they can bring tears.
The key juxtaposition, though, the one which makes it all work, in my opinion, is the vivid, earthy recreation of iconographic Christ images from the Renaissance painters and other sources in contrast with, for example, Harvey Keitel's gruffness or Victor Argo's solid, earnest confusion. These are Scorsese gangsters meeting God. We know they love their mothers and are used to violence, and here they are wandering through they key historical moment of all time, the most meaningful and basic and florid time which will ever be, and they're reacting like street-smart hoods, not cheap plastic saints or two-dimensional flannel-board illustrations.
The intersection of the icons and the reality is heady and powerful. Scorsese says, "Christ lived. He lived among and loved real people. And he died for them in agony, maybe never knowing for sure whether that was the right thing to do. But he did it for love. That was the purpose of his life."
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