Feb. 21, 2012

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Grade: 47/100

Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey

What it's about. How others will see it. Few movies were more controversial than this one. Here, Jesus has doubts and fears, chickens out on the cross, and bears a child with the prostitute Mary Magdalene. The Gospel According to Martin, as perhaps the film should have been called, enraged Christian activists, though many were opportunists who privately relished the chance to publicly promote their cause or name while bashing popular culture in general and Hollywood in particular.

Despite, or perhaps because, of the controversy, and certainly due to the fame and personable appeal of Martin Scorsese, the film fared well with critics. Scorsese was nominated for Best Director by the Oscars, and Hershey was curiously nominated by the Golden Globes.

Interestingly, Dafoe's bland to bewildered performance received little attention. It helped that he looked the part. Only the Razzie Awards got it right, however. They nominated Harvey Keitel as Worst Supporting Actor, an "honor" well deserved.

The movie was not a box office hit, but its budget was low and has certainly since returned its investment. At imdb.com, the movie has a moderate number of votes, currently 24K, for a Scorsese direction. The user ratings are high but decline significantly with advancing age, from 8.2 among those under 18, to 7.1 over 45. This suggests that older audiences are more conservative, even among cinephiles, or perhaps, that they can recognize the movie's flaws.

How I felt about it. The Last Temptation of Christ approaches three hours in length. For two of those hours, it is more or less a conventional filming of the final years of Christ. We see him gain followers, give sermons, perform miracles, appear before Pilate, and suffer on the cross. During these scenes, though, the disciples appear listless and malcontented, and the crowd scenes are unconvincing, with extras repeating motions with robotic indifference. The sole disciple that stands out is Judas, whose character is interpreted by Scorsese as a warrior instead of a betrayer.

Dafoe is a mopey and tired Jesus. He looks like he could use a good nap. He finally shows some energy when he ransacks the stands of the temple money changers, none of whom, oddly, have any bodyguards. Regularly throughout, Jesus is tempted by Magdalene, but keeps turning down her advances. This continues until he is taken down from the cross by Juliette Caton, a patient and mild-mannered angel who has the talent to talk Jesus into anything, including the abandonment of his mission.

This is where the film's problems are most apparent. Jesus is no longer the doubt-driven vessel of God. Instead, he is a somnolent family man, marrying and impregnating whomever Caton suggests. Judas doesn't hang himself, instead he fights the Romans in Jerusalem despite his dotage. Saul has apparently made up his story about his vision of God/Jesus. Pontius Pilate (David Bowie) addresses Jesus in the manner of a high school principal.

Ultimately, the movie's interpretation of Jesus is Sacrilege Light, refusing to frame him as a pious man-god but also eschewing any form of satire, which is where the movie needs to go to artistically succeed. Since humorless Christians will be outraged in any event, why not show Jesus howling in pain during his cruxifiction, begging for mercy from Pilate, drooling with lust over Magdalene, and arrogant with his power to perform miracles? The movie tweaks and teases Christians, but lacks the courage, like Jesus does here, to go all the way.

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