Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Movie Review: The Last Temptation of Christ

United States, 1988
Running Time: 2:44
Rated: R
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey, Harry Dean Stanton, Andre Gregory, Juliette Canton, David Bowie

Director: Martin Scorsese
Producer: Barbara De Fina
Screenplay: Paul Schrader (based on the novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis)
Music: Peter Gabriel
Studio: Universal Studios


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Once in a great while, a film is released that is doused in religion and spiked with controversy. And it’s true: whenever politics or religion is the main focus of a film, things can tend to get a little contentious. Just ask Mel Gibson.

Some believe that the amount of blood and brutality shown on screen in his The Passion of the Christ is abhorrent, while others simply soak in the spiritually-charging depiction of the Christian savior’s sacrifice for mankind. The highly controversial The Passion of the Christ definitely did for the new millennium what The Last Temptation of Christ did for the decade of the '80's; it got people talking. While some spent their time debating these pictures, others applauded them. Either way, both films received their publicity causing the biblical story of Jesus to be conversed worldwide. In the overall scope of things, both of these Christ-depicting films are excellent in their own right, yet each are admirable in their own distinctive way. The Passion is spiritual and earnest, while The Last Temptation is more inducing of critical thinking.

The Last Temptation chronicles the life of Jesus—the man. Jesus is shown saving Mary Magdalene from being stoned to death, gaining His Apostles and followers, and then traveling to the desert for His forty-days-and-forty-nights stay to speak with God. Also depicted is Jesus’ ability to heal the blind, turn water to wine, and resurrect Lazarus. Before the Christian Savior’s freely-accepted death, He is tempted by Satan many times. For example, throughout His mission from God, Jesus is enticed once by the flame in the desert, and again through one final effort while on the cross. In the end, it is all about the power of Christ’s love for man, His willingness to be crucified, and His capacity to overcome any and every temptation.

If there is anything that some may find offensive in The Last Temptation, it is either in one of Jesus’ hallucinations or it is merely an attempt to show the human tendencies of an initially troubled and almost burdened Jesus. With that being said, even with its “not based upon the Gospels but upon the fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict” disclaimer, it may come off as a little discomforting to Christian fundamentalists. The film illustrates Jesus making love to Mary Magdalene, having children, and growing old. Overall, The Last Temptation of Christ does not represent Christ in glory, but rather in confusion of love and violence. However, ultimately, all of the human – as opposed to divine – depictions of Jesus, serve a purpose. Considering this picture is not a biblically referenced reenactment, but rather an in-depth look at what Jesus may have gone through during His time on earth as a man, it is a captivating work that ponders how tempting a real human life could have been for Jesus. For those who don’t consider themselves austere on the subject matter at hand, this film will seriously provoke an inordinate amount of thought on the nature of Christ.

The Last Temptation of Christ, although beset in some very minor ways, is still a splendid picture spliced together by an equally excellent ensemble. Peter Gabriel’s original score blending the music of old with the rhythms of today is nothing less than astonishing. Michael Ballhaus’ cinematography of Morocco is both breathtaking and serene. Similarly, Schrader’s spectacular closing moments compliment Scorsese’s superb use of silence. The passion of all of the players involved easily shows through in The Passion of Jesus’ quest to become the sacrificial Lamb of God and to unite man with his Father.

Willem Dafoe plays his part of Jesus with such a high level of intensity and emotion that the strength of his characterization alone causes us to become captivated in the film. This makes it comforting to know that Scorsese did not go with his original casting selection of Robert De Niro over Dafoe. As for Harvey Keitel as Judas and David Bowie as Pontius Pilate, these two don’t fair quite as well. Keitel seems a little strained in his portrayal of the red-headed and betraying-out-of-love Judas; plus, Harvey is the kind of guy who best fits the part of a New York mobster, not the role of an Apostle. In addition, I don’t know what Bowie is doing in this picture, but at least he beat out Sting for the position of Pilate. In general, the cast gets the job done, and the Romans’ British accents and the Jews’ American accents – although slightly distracting and completely unrealistic – can be excused considering Hollywood’s expected influence.

The Last Temptation of Christ may cope with a tedious pace in its first few acts, but by the film’s final forty-five minutes, it runs away with a thought-provoking and deeply intriguing conclusion. The Last Temptation is indeed a daring depiction of Jesus’ psychological hardships, but when all is said and done, this basically fictional – yet still spiritual – Christian experience will surely stay with you. That is what makes this picture highly recommendable and one of Scorsese’s better begets. (***1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004