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The Last Temptation of Christ

by John Bloner, Jr.

"My whole life has been movies and religion. That's it. Nothing else."  Martin Scorsese

When I think of film director Martin Scorsese, I think of New York, guns and fists, misfits and malcontents, mean streets and music--always, great music.  I've spent many hours soaking up the heat of the city by watching Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Good Fellas.

When Scorsese released The Last Temptation of Christ, based on Niko Kazantzakis' novel, I didn't see the connection between the picture--a fictional drama of Jesus' life --and the director's oeuvre to date. I'd already felt that Scorsese had lost his film-making mojo since Raging Bull was released in 1980, and only took an interest in Last Temptation  because it had elicited a storm of protest from TV televangelist Rev. Jerry Falwell, who called it "utter blasphemy of the worst degree."

Willem Dafoe as Jesus retreats to the desert to face his demons
"I said to the almond tree, 'Sister, speak to me of God.' And the almond tree blossomed." Nikos Kazantzakis

The film was based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, who's also author of Zorba The Greek and many other fiction and non-fiction publications. While revisiting Last Temptation, over twenty-five years after its release, I read the novel for the first time, captivated by the means that Kazantzakis uses in order to allow this reader to look at a character named Jesus, who is similar but also contrary to the figure in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John.  Kazantzakis' Jesus is conflicted between his earthly desires and his calling to become Christ.

In the book and in the film, Jesus is unable to accept the profundity of being divine. As screenwriter Paul Schrader says, "God is a vicious headache that won't go away." He's at war with his body's yearnings for a domestic life, including sexual relations, just as he battles God who knows his every step.

To drive away the desire for the flesh, he wraps a nail-studded belt around his bare waist. To drive away God, he constructs crosses for the Romans.

Willem Dafoe plays the role of Jesus. The filmmaker intentionally cast an actor who could resemble the man seen in paintings and in films such as King of Kings, in order to upend the viewer's assumptions. This depiction is contrary to Kazantzakis' description, who describes the son of Mary as having "a curly coal-black beard. His nose was hooked, his lips thick, and since they were slightly parted, his teeth gleamed brilliantly white in the light."  His eyes are "large and black, full of light, full of darkness, they stared at you from beneath the long lashes, and your head reeled."

He appears somewhat like the illustration at left, taken from a Popular Mechanics article of 2002, in which Richard Neave, a retired medical artist, deployed methods of forensic anthropology to create an image of a Galilean Semite of the early 1st century in order to posit what Jesus might have looked like.

In the Judaean Wilderness
The Last Temptation of Christ tells its story across wide vistas of desert. The landscape serves an important role in the story, as Jesus retreats to it to cleanse himself of his human desires and become the Christ as a leader of men, ready to overturn the common practices of the day, including the tables of the money changers in the temple.

In their book, The Negev: The Challenges of a Desert, authors Michael Evenari, Leslie Shanan and Naphtali Tadmor write, "It is no whim of history that the birth of the first monotheistic faith took place in a desert, or that it was followed there by the other two great religions, Christianity and Islam. The prophets of Israel repeatedly sought and found inspiration in the desert. Christian hermits fled to it to escape the pollution of the work and to commune with God."

The desert challenges Jesus. It makes him vulnerable, cut off from society, from sustenance, and forced to face real or imagined demons, conjured from his own troubled soul. A tree with rotten fruit grows up in front of him. A snake with the voice of Mary Magdalene beckons him.

Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene, Willem Dafoe as Jesus and Harvey Keitel as Judas
Barbara Hershey
In 1972, Scorsese directed the film, Boxcar Bertha, featuring Barbara Hershey. During the shooting of that picture, she gave the a copy of Kazantzakis' novel to the director and told him that if he should ever make a feature film from it, she would like to play the role of Mary Magdalene.

Over a decade later, Scorsese offered her this role of the enigmatic, elusive figure of the woman from Magdala.

In Last Temptation, men wait in her chamber, watching as she fornicates with each customer. Jesus joins them, not to press his flesh against hers--although the tension between them suggests the desire--but to ask her for forgiveness. As a hired hand of the Romans, he has betrayed his own people and himself. He has fallen farther than anyone, even farther than Mary Magdalene has fallen.

Kazantzakis' novel provides a backstory to Jesus and Mary's relationship. As cousins, they had grown up together. At an age when he is able to choose a bride, he rejected her. Without the love of one man, she gave herself to the lust of all men.

Judas (Harvey Keitel) and Saul/Paul (Harry Dean Stanton)
The novel often refers to him only as "redbeard". He is Judas Iscariot, whose name is synonymous with "betrayal." Kazantzakis and Scorsese present a different Judas. He is a rough man, a villain tempted to kill Jesus for his acts against his people, yet he follows him, reluctantly at first, and becomes his most loyal disciple. His loyalty is so strong, he obeys Jesus' request to betray him by turning him over to the Romans and thereby aid him in meeting his destiny: death as a means to spread salvation to all people.

Is there anyone else who could play the role of John The Baptist other than Andre Gregory?  Only a few years removed from his participation in the film, My Dinner with Andre, Gregory brings the same wide-eyed, tent-revival intensity, to the man crying out in the wilderness. I revisited the screenplay to the Louis Malle film just to wrap myself in Gregory's visions once more.

"I remember being in the woods," he tells his friend, Wallace Shawn, "and I would look at a leaf, and I would actually see that thing that was alive in that leaf, and then I remember not just running through the woods as fast as I could, with this incredible laugh coming out of me, and really being in that state, you know, where laughter and tears seem to merge."

Scorsese could have set his cameras on that river for two hours, allowing Andre Gregory to revel even further in his role as the holy man on the east bank of the Jordan. 

Perhaps Peter Gabriel's greatest achievement, the recording, "Passion", released  in 1989
Movie soundtracks may precede the release of a film, giving the picture a boost at the box office. Former lead singer of the progressive rock band Genesis and a solo star ("Solsbury Hill", "Biko") on the charts, Peter Gabriel created the music to The Last Temptation, but it took him two years after the film was in theaters to share it with the public.  It was worth the long wait.

Peter Gabriel brings haunting sounds to "Passion", the film's soundtrack
Titled, "Passion", the soundtrack is more like a soundscape, weaving a tapestry of tablas, tambourine and Tibetan finger cymbals through chants, the bowing of a double violin, and a drone like desert wind.

Jason Ankeny of Allmusic.com writes of the record, "Remarkably dramatic, even visual, it is not only Gabriel's best film work but deserving of serious consideration as his finest music of any kind." 

Please give your ears the opportunity to be caressed by the haunting vibrations of "Passion", as performed by the Francesco Albano Open Ensemble, in this video.

"I am a weak, ephemeral creature made of mud and dream. But I feel all the powers of the universe whirling within me."  Nikos Kazantzakis

The Last Temptation does not deliver an alternate story of Jesus to rankle believers. It is a personal statement by its author and director, reflecting their own struggles. Carol Iannone, in her article, "The Last Temptation Reconsidered", indicates that Scorsese learned that the novel has been used in seminaries "not as a substitute for the Gospels, but as a parable that is fresh and alive." The director had considered the priesthood as a young man, but his religious meditations delivered images of women's ankles. 

Juliet Caton as an angel walks with Jesus away from the Crucifixion to his wedding
The Last Temptation provides a Jesus whose joys and anxieties are ageless. He laughs and dances, shares conversation with friends, and is a member of the working class, moving among the poor who earn their living through physical labor. He is often unsure of himself, speaks in a mild voice, and when the time arrives that he is able to perform a miracle of raising a man from the dead, the result astonishes him as much as it astounds the man's family.

Jesus (Willem Dafoe) as an old man
In his novel, Fifth Business, Robertson Davies considers a Jesus who was able to live out his life. "Am I at fault for wanting a Christ who will show me how to be an old man," he writes. "All Christ's teaching is put forward with the dogmatism, the certainty, and the strength of youth: I need something that takes account of the accretion of experience, the sense of paradox and ambiguity that comes with years!"

The latter part of The Last Temptation gives the audience a look into the life of a aged, domestic Jesus, who has loved and felt pain like any mortal being. In the novel, an old woman has told Jesus that "God is not found in monasteries but in the homes of men!" She adds, "Wherever you find husband and wife, that's where you find God . . . Leave the other to those lazy, sterile idiots in the desert!"  

From Scorsese's film, "Mean Streets": Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is torn between his devotion and  mob ties
"You don't make up for your sins in church; you do it on the streets."  from Mean Streets directed by Martin Scorsese

In 1987, I couldn't see how an alternative story on the life of Christ could have come from the same man who had brought the fictional tale of Travis Bickle and real-life drama of Jake LaMotta to the screen. Over twenty-five years later, I can see in hindsight that Scorsese's work leading up to The Last Temptation were rehearsals to this film.

Emmanuel Levy calls it a "typical Scorsese film, dealing with sin, guilt and redemption. " David Frank, writing for "Rope of Silicon", speaks of the "themes of derangement, contrition and redemption of broken human beings" in Scorsese pictures that feature the screenwriting talents of Paul Schrader.  He calls The Last Temptation, "the best Jesus movie ever made. In fact, it's the best religious movie ever made."

Learn more about The Last Temptation of Christ at imdb.com.  Click HERE to visit this website.