NetFlix Review #3: The Last Temptation of Christ

I feel kind of bad, because I’ve led of all of my reviews thus far talking about things I don’t like. I talked about Jane Austen books in the Emma review, lazy uses of the Cad character in the La Dolce Vita review, and here I am, opening up the review for a movie I absolutely adore, The Last Temptation of Christ, and I’m going to start it off talking about a movie I kind of hate, The Passion of the Christ.

I remember when The Passion came out everyone was either going nuts for it or absolutely hating it. I really wanted to like it. I’m a big Jesus fan, and I dig Mel Gibson as a director. However, I should have known it was not meant to be, because the commercials themselves annoyed me. You remember the commercials? Where they’d pull people coming out of the movie and they’d be crying and saying things like “You know, it all suddenly seemed very real for me. I understood for the first time what Jesus’ suffering truly was.” And I thought, “Really? Honestly, this is just hitting you for the first time? All those Good Friday services you sat through where the minister would read about them beating and whipping Jesus, then forcing a crown of thorns on his head, then making him drag his own cross up a mountain, then nailing him to it, then forcing him to drink vinegar, then stabbing him with a spear, and finally, since he was TAKING SO LONG TO DIE, they broke his legs which caused his body to collapse and essentially had him suffocate on his own blood, you heard ALL THAT and thought, ‘Eh, it’s not THAT bad.’ But then it happened on screen to Jim Caviezal and you thought ‘Oh no, not Jimmy!’” Maybe I just have an exceptionally active imagination, but I never really had any trouble grasping the suffering of Christ. What I wanted to hear about was the meaning of the whole thing. I want the existential crisis. I want to see the conflicted nature of man and God sort itself out into a message of love and understanding. What I want, basically, is The Last Temptation of Christ.

What works about the movie, to my mind, is that it does what so many people seemed to feel like The Passion of the Christ did – it made it all real for me. The pain I get, the pain is easy, but it’s the other stuff, the theological stuff, the God-in-man, the love everybody stuff, that’s the stuff that really boggles my mind. What Scorsese’s movie does, with the help of a great Paul Schrader script from the Nikos Kazantzakis novel, is bring out the very real, very human Jesus. In the great God-man spectrum of Jesus it’s very easy and comfortable to put him firmly in the God side, because that way he’s not really struggling. When he gets tempted in the desert, he knows exactly what to say and it’s not a problem. When he hangs out with Mary Magdalene the prostitute he doesn’t see her as a prostitute, he just sees her as a lost soul. When he prays that this cup be taken from him, he’s not asking to go against the will of God because he is God. There is no doubt, there is no inner turmoil. But when you see him as a man these things become troublesome, AS THEY SHOULD. The true agony of Jesus should not be the physical agony, but the spiritual agony. The body will endure what the body will endure, but the spirit is a matter of choices and considerations much more complex.

Willem Dafoe’s Jesus, particularly at the beginning of the film, is played as a bit of a cowardly neurotic, but perhaps it should be considered what he’s up against. He’s plagued not only by fear and doubt and demons, but also by God. He wrestles with God, at times physically, writhing on the ground trying to tear himself free of his heavenly duties. Jesus’ possible weaknesses in these moments are countered brilliantly in the script through the character of Judas, played with brilliant ferocity by Harvey Keitel. If you start to feel upset at the weakness and insecurity of Jesus, just ask yourself, “Would I rather have Judas?” Judas, being a Zealot, makes a more stereotypical leader. He’s strong-willed, steadfast, a man of action and determination. A good man to lead a revolution, maybe, but not the best choice to usher in a regime of love, consideration, empathy and understanding.

What really got to me watching the movie this time was how relatable they make Jesus, especially to someone my age. I just turned 27, Jesus started his ministry when he was 30, so when we meet him at the beginning of the movie he is ostensibly 30, maybe a bit younger, which puts him right around my age. As he talked to Judas, the mystics, John the Baptist, as he worked out his path, I found beneath all of the talk of him being the son of God something strikingly familiar, a young man grappling with who he is and where his life is taking him. This is a Jesus who truly knows what it means to be human. Although I have not personally felt the true spiritual weight of Jesus' destiny, I've felt his confusion, his worry, his questioning over whether or not he is truly up to what he believes is his future, if he is doing what is is meant to do. The movie takes the contradictions and dissonances within the stories of Jesus and examines them through a realistic psychological model. It gets to heart of the contradictory lessons one hears in church that we should all be like Jesus, but that we can also never be like Jesus, as he was something so far beyond us. These messages used to confound and annoy me, "You cannot possibly know what it was like to be Jesus. But try to be like Jesus." This film gives me a Jesus that still feels Holy and God-like, but who also has a part of himself that I can sympathize with.

Within all these ruminations upon the essential nature of Jesus and spirituality, the movie is also beatiful and incredibly entertaining. The on-location shooting in Morocco is a beautifully stark and surreal landscape. I like how Scorsese keeps the whole movie visually fascinating while never making it too pristine or polished. It looks dirty, earthy and real. The performances are roundly excellent. So much so that you look past the strange mish-mash of accents and see them as being a collection of very disparate individuals uniting around a charismatic leader, which is precisely what they were. Outside of the brilliant central performances by Dafoe and Keitel there are a number of other stand-outs. First of all is Barbra Hershey doing some dynamic work as Mary Magdalene. Her first appearance in the movie, where Jesus waits while she finishes her day's business and then asks her to forgive him because he knows he has turned her from God, is one of the most uncomfortable and affecting scenes in the film. The film makes allusions to Mary having become a prostitute because Jesus denied himself her for God. She represents the ultimate temptation for Jesus, expanding the typical "temptation of the flesh" to mean not just lust, but the temptation for Jesus to deny his Godly side and indulge fully in his human, fleshly nature, i.e. raise a family, work a trade, live to old age, etc. This temptation is not rendered through some easily spotted devil or Scarlet Woman, it's brought out by the very real and very sympathetic Mary Magdalene.The temptation is not the woman, but the denial of your true self and your path.

Also great is the phenomenal David Bowie as the sadly disaffected Pontius Pilate, Harry Dean Stanton as the rabid Saul and Polly's good friend Andre Gregory as the divinely mad prophet John the Baptist. And one would be lax to discuss this movie without mentioning Peter Gabriel's brilliant score. The music throughout the film is pulsing, primal, celebratory and tinged with sadness. It's the kind of spiritual, affecting music that makes someone like Gabriel such a treasure. Who else would have thought to use the instruments and arrangements that he did for the story of Jesus, yet it works completely.

The film's ending is one that never fails to make me tear up. The smash cut from Jesus at the end of a long, seemingly happy life giving it all up to go back on the cross, that moment where you truly feel both the ultimate triumph and sadness of Christ on the cross, how much it underlines the choice, the sacrifice of Jesus. It's also one of my favorite "Hollywood Legends" that the final shot, where the film burns through, was unintentional. Rumor has it the camera was faulty and exposed the film to light just at the moment Dafoe's Jesus expires. Mistake or not, it's a moving ending to a film that, almost literally, burns through with passion.