“What’s good for Man isn’t good for God!” protests an angry Judas (Harvey Keitel) in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Arousing controversy for daring to emphasize the humanity in Jesus Christ (the Son of Man and the Son of God), Scorsese makes a deep philosophical argument accessible. There is a God in the film, and it pursues Jesus throughout; the film begins with a mid-air shot that moves quickly above a cluster of trees, evoking a restless spirit moving through the wind. Dafoe’s Jesus awakens with a start, glancing around in paranoia. Scorsese’s ever-moving camera, so exhausting in Cape Fear and parts of Gangs of New York, has often conveyed the showboating of a movie brat. Here, it’s so beautifully aligned with the film’s central metaphor that you can’t imagine the movie without it.
The film was made on an absurdly low $7 million budget (at least for a Biblical tale filmed on location in Morocco with notable star power), but the production’s creative restraints only seemed to incite Scorsese’s passion that much more. There wasn’t even time to properly color-correct in post-production, though that rough hewn of the film’s color palette only adds to the texture of the film’s story. One gets the sense that Scorsese had to make this movie against all odds. (The studios had canceled a previous incarnation of the film a few years earlier.) Without proper financing, Scorsese only had the sheer power of his will to go on and the rigorous, well-written script by Calvinist scribe Paul Schrader. Like the neo-realist glean of Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew, the roughness of Last Temptation somehow keeps things honest.
Scorsese’s apostles speak like they’re from Brooklyn, and his Jesus (blue eyed, blond-haired Willem Dafoe) is tormented by the thought that his desire to be Christ-like is a false idea implanted by the devil. Both Scorsese and his Jesus seem to ask: How dare a mortal man think of himself as the one true Messiah? The Sermon on the Mount is staged with a small crowd, a tiny hill, the forcefulness of Schrader’s dialogue (“Those who are laughing now will be crying later!”), and the immediacy of the director’s hand-held camera. This is a far cry from The Greatest Story Ever Told because it’s the story of Jesus told intimately. By keeping it on a small scale, the religiosity and ever-shifting conflict between the body and the spirit stays where it should be: within ourselves. Dafoe plays the scene with a note of hesitation; it’s that oh-so-slight wavering that makes him more approachable than, say, a burning bush.
Last Temptation is told through Scorsese’s aggressive visuals (courtesy of the great Michael Ballhaus, who had previously pared down his cinematography to the barest essentials in a number of soulful, rough-and-tumble Rainer Werner Fassbinder films) and Peter Gabriel’s renowned score, which clings to the film like tangled thorns and holy blood. But the human quality of Last Temptation is found in its masterful casting. You think of all those bad TV movies about Jesus, or those grandstanding epics (where Charlton Heston was John the Baptist and John Wayne played the Centurian) and it makes you want to cringe. Scorsese employs the rugged, familiar faces of Dafoe and Keitel, Harry Dean Stanton as a shifty-eyed Apostle Paul, the ferocious André Gregory as John the Baptist, and a crazy/beautiful turn by Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdelene.
Scorsese previously examined the enticement and allure of inner-demons in his near-equally great Taxi Driver, where Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle tried to solve his own problems (perceived in the film by the man as the problems of the world as well) through violence. Dafoe’s Jesus is more complex than that, because he uses violence as well as love and his own martyrdom to confront his inner mystery. His fight, which is both for and against God, is obviously close to Scorsese’s heart. This is a more naked, personal film than any of the director’s other works, including the macho soul-search of Raging Bull. Scorsese lies down with the lamb and the lion but with a note of protest, and Jesus confesses during one of his greatest moments of weakness: “God loves me. I know he loves me. I want him to stop.”
For all the misappropriated hatred spewed about Last Temptation back in 1988, it follows the Gospels with diligence and faith. The climactic, titular final temptation, where Jesus is seen accepting the life of mankind (marriage, sex, children, domesticity), was clearly read wrong by Fundamentalists who hadn’t even seen the film. If they had, they might have witnessed the way Scorsese tempts Jesus with the ultimate blasphemy—and creates one of the most rewarding conclusions in screen history when Christ makes his final choice and final sacrifice. Right after he exclaims, “It is accomplished,” the film projection burns white and the ghost of movie sprockets flicker across the screen. Movies and mythology collide, and something in Last Temptation feels like it leaps off the screen.