The Last Temptation of Christ

A whiner, hanging out in the desert with some Brooklynites and Harvey Keitel (yeah, Harvey is playing Harvey) turns into a smartass after chatting to some snakes.  After that, and even before it, he talks a lot.  So does everyone else.  They don’t do much, but they do talk.  They also pause a lot while they talk.  If you like talking and pausing, you’re going to be thrilled.  An eternity later, when even blind and deaf school girls will have picked up Scorsese’s none-to-subtle message, we finally get to the crucifixion and the point of the whole story: the last temptation of Christ.  But by then you’ve gone out for popcorn.

So Jesus is God and human.  That’s one of those little Bible riddles that is left meaningless, but it had been bothering Martin Scorsese for years (as it really ought to bother most Christians), so he decided to make a film that examined that dichotomy, with an emphasis on the human, and Christians around the world went even more nuts than usual.  That’s rather odd since the Scriptures are cool with the God/man bit, but zealots everywhere had convulsions and started screaming about dogs and cats living together in sin.  Maybe it’s because there’s a shot of Jesus’ naked butt.  While the Bible stays silent on the issue of whether or not Jesus had an ass, I don’t think it’s blasphemous to suggest that he did.  Ah, but I’ve never gotten into a deep theological argument with learned religious folks on the nature of Christ’s bum.  Perhaps he had some kind of magic sphincter.  Who’s to say?

Whatever the cause, fundies and their ilk shouted and turned themselves about, and that was even before the Son of God’s derriere hit the screen.  (And this is a spiritual, Christian film.  How would they have behaved if it had actually been anti-Christian?  You know, like I’m being.)  The fuming caused the studio to pull out of Scorsese’s first attempt to make the movie, and left his second severely under-funded.  And it shows.  For the first hour, cheapness dominates.  It looks like a student project.  Apparently The Holy Land had about ten Jews and four Romans.   It’s also low on buildings.  And furniture.  And…well, anything.  There’s plenty of sand, since Morocco (where The Last Temptation of Christ was shot) has that in abundance, so the film is filled with people walking in empty deserts.   To fill in what should have been explained by clever, and more expensive scenes, we’re given a Jesus voice-over (if you can’t tell the story of Jesus without pulling a noir narration, give it up), excessive speeches, and Willem Dafoe writhing about on the floor (you see, that’s how you show inner torment…).  Perhaps a few million more might have made this into a good picture, but probably not since the characters and editing are bigger problems.

Scorsese really wanted a divine Jesus who was also human, but he overshot his mark.  This Jesus is unpleasant, petulant, wimpy, and a traitor to his people.  I’ve got no spiritual problem with that (it’s quite refreshing), but it makes it hard to cuddle up with the guy, and at 164 minutes, there’s a lot of time to cuddle.  He’s also an overacting Jesus.  No gesture is too broad.  All of this improves late in the film, but too late to inspire sympathy for the dude.

Jesus’ best bud is Harvey Keitel, or at least Harvey Keitel if he was a gangland hit man.  He goes by the name Judas, but don’t let that make you think he’s playing anyone that couldn’t have fit into Reservoir Dogs.  I’m reasonably sure you’re not supposed to giggle whenever he comes on screen, but it’s really hard not to.

There are a few interesting pre-crucifixion moments, such as Jesus waiting in the long line of Johns for a chance to talk to the very busy Mary Magdalene (Jerusalem has a serious drought of prostitutes) and the ’60s-era cultish revival meeting of The Baptist, but mostly there is just tedium broken by embarrassment.  The latter is most fully on display with the Sermon on the Mount.  Here, Jesus, with less charisma than Woody Allen and less clarity of vision than a youth minister on crack, mumbles some poorly modernized lines about love to the ten or twelve extras that happened to show up that day.   It would have worked nicely in a parody, but unfortunately, no one is supposed to laugh.

It doesn’t help that almost nothing in the first ninety minutes should  have been in the film, even if they had been artfully constructed.  The film is The Last Temptation of Christ, not The Last Temptation of Christ After a Whole Lot of Hammering Home, Over and Over and Over, That This Guy is Human.  The “Oh, he has fears and desires” routine isn’t all that difficult to fathom.  It doesn’t need an hour and a half.

Finally, the movie rattles to where it should have started, with Jesus on the cross, and being tempted a final time with a vision of living out a life as a normal man: marrying, having children, and growing old.  This is where the picture takes off and offers something interesting.  The acting even improves, with Juliette Caton as the film’s standout, playing a child archangel (of a kind).  This is also where fundies really lose it, because the vision includes Jesus getting hitched to Mary and having sex with her.  However, don’t get too excited.  Besides it being a dream sequence, it is about the most reserved coupling you’ll find in a film not made by Disney.  Ignoring the fanatics, the temptation is the high point of the film, but fails in the end.  Scorsese cheats, putting people and event into the scenario that shouldn’t be there, and making Jesus’ decision far too easy.

Scorsese’s passion for the project as well as his own religious struggles are up on the screen, but that doesn’t make for a good film.  More thought would have helped.  It is a requirement for Christian fundamentalists to hate this film, normally without having seen it.  And it is in vogue for more liberal minded Christians and film critics to heap praise upon it.  Both reactions are inappropriate.  It just isn’t that blasphemous or that good.

The music is something special.  It is the best of Peter Gabriel’s world phase.  Skip the film and pick up the CD.