My alternative canon #5: The Last Temptation of Christ
Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. Over the next week and a half, I’ll be looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different. You can read the previous installments here.
With the passage of time, most of the great scandals of film history start to feel positively quaint, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that if The Last Temptation of Christ were released again today, it would be the most controversial movie of its year. Even if you were to subtract its most obviously inflammatory scenes—the early sequence of Jesus as a crossmaker, the fantasy of his marriage to Mary Magdalene—you’d be left with a work of art that commits the ultimate sin of religious cinema: it engages the message of Jesus on its own terms, rather than as a series of sedate picture postcards. As studies like The Five Gospels and The Acts of Jesus make clear, one of the few things we can say for sure about Jesus of Nazareth is that many of those around him believed that he was insane, and when we watch Willem Dafoe in the title role, we can begin to remember why. This isn’t to say that I necessarily regard Scorsese’s, or Kazantzakis’s, vision as historically accurate: the idea of Jesus as a failed revolutionary who finally came to terms with his divinity makes for a nice three-act structure, but I’m not sure if it’s sustained by a close reading of the gospels. But the movie’s agonized effort to reimagine the most familiar story in the western tradition is unbelievably important. It’s the only Biblical movie I’ve ever seen that tries to stage these events as if they were happening for the first time, and the experience of watching it forces us, at every turn, to confront the strangeness of what it might mean to be both fully human and fully divine. The movie never doubts the divinity of Jesus: it’s Jesus himself who does.
And the fact that this film exists at all is something of a miracle. It was Scorsese’s second attempt to adapt Kazantzakis’s novel, and you can tell that it was shot on a shoestring. If it succeeds far more often than we’d have any right to expect, it’s thanks largely to the script by Paul Schrader, which is the best he ever wrote. (Among other things, it’s often genuinely funny, which is incredible in itself.) It’s full of fine performances, including a nice little cameo by Irvin Kershner, but my favorite is Harvey Keitel as Judas Iscariot, a role that is inevitably charged by our knowledge of the actor’s history with his director: in the scene in which the aging Judas accuses Jesus of having abandoned his mission, Keitel asked to deliver the speech to Scorsese, who is lying just out of the frame. It may not be my favorite Scorsese movie—these days, it’s a tossup between Taxi Driver, Casino, and The Departed—but it’s the one that continues to mean the most to me. I’ve watched it many times, and it rarely fails to move me to tears, although never in the same place twice. These days, the moment that haunts me the most comes after a beautiful young angel has taken Jesus down from the cross, inviting him to look at the world with fresh eyes: “Maybe you’ll find this hard to believe, but sometimes we angels look down on men and envy you. Really envy you.” The angel, of course, turns out to be Satan. And the movie’s central accomplishment is that it makes the last temptation, with its vision of an ordinary life, seem very tempting indeed, which only reminds us of the courage required for any man to reject it for something more.