It says something about Martin Scorsese’s balls that after the relative commerical underperformance of The King of Comedy and After Hours that he was still willing to push both himself and the cinematic form in a way which almost treats the more business driven aspects of the business with almost complete disdain. While now regarded as firmly being one of the establishment, in the 1980′s Scorsese was a provocative outsider working within the studio system and making films which satisfied him though after The Color of Money, to-date his only sequel and an enteraining if light film, he could have taken a different path. Instead screenwriter Paul Schrader and he revisited the idea of an individual alone in a sea of people, a man tormented by personal demons, nearly losing his mind over doing so while deciding just how he wants to live his life. In the 1970′s their character was disturbed loner Travis Bickle, in the 1980′s their protagonist was the son of God.
Nikos Kasantzakis’ source novel had been floating around in Scorsese’s mind for years before he finally managed to adapt it. Given the book on the set of his feature debut Boxcar Bertha, by Barbara Hershey, his future Mary Magdalene, ideas formed quickly in his mind that he wanted to bring it to the big screen as Paul Schraeder in an interview with The Guardian states that when they met in 1972, he talked of wanting to adapt two book, Gangs of New York, another troubled production finally brought to the screen in 2002, and this.
Taking on this kind of project so early in his career would have likely been logistically impossible and given the subject matter of the book, would likely cause huge contreversy, a similar experience to what the Python’s experienced with Life of Brian, a film which doesn’t even contain Jesus in it let along posit such massive changes to his psychological make-up as this novel did. The story here is an “alternate history” as such which gives us a Jesus who isn’t entirely saintly, one who has to wrestle with more human impulses, essentially down to “to fight and to fuck”, something which would be contreversial today let alone nearly 30 years ago. Only a director with a formidable reputation, and at least a somewhat solid ability to make commerical fare, would do and one imagines few directors of the time would be able to fashion the film.
The tortured production life of The Last Temptation of Christ started years before the film was finally released in 1983 where an initial iteration nearly got production underway. A cast including Aidan Quinn as Jesus, Sting as Pontious Pilate and Vanity, a woman whose biggest role would eventually be as a drugged out bizarro love interest in the Carl Weathers vehicle Action Jackson, was cast as Mary Magdalene. Paramount initially OK’d a $14 million budget, a not insignificant amount of money, but when it looked like the budget was going to get larger and with parent company Gulf + Western getting cold feet from pressure by religious groups, the film was eventually put into turnaround.
Looking back on it now, despite the pressures Scorsese must have felt when this fell apart, the actual film was likely improved by the change of cast with Willem Dafoe stepping in as Jesus, Harvey Keitel taking on Judas and David Bowie becoming a terrififc Pontious Pilate in a one scene cameo where he regards Jesus with an ambivalence which belies the usual interpretation of the character and becomes more powerful for just how little regard he seems to have for Jesus on a personal level.
Under Universal, the film finally got going in 1986 under tough conditions with the budget being halved to $7 million and a tight 58 day shooting schedule which for a film with this kind of scope is insanely tight. Scorsese also had to promise Universal his directorial skills on a “commerical” film which turned out to be 1991′s stylish B-movie Cape Fear, an effort with a lot to praise about also.
The resulting film after all the pressure and pain is one which isn’t shown on television much and despite being a Criterion Collection effort is one which feels somewhat underserved by its reputation. The first major success is the person front and centre, Willem Dafoe. An actor who can embody both the good and the darkness in man, Scorsese and Schraeder ask a great deal physically and mentally from him and he pulls it off with aplomb. He’s not the most natural leader on-screen and the nature of his gathering of followers is essentially covered in a “Now That’s What I Call Jesus” compilation of scenes but this is not a performance which calls for natural charisma and it’s not a film neccesarily about Jesus’ leadership. Instead it’s an internal struggle and he fits this well.
Indeed this contreversial aspect is the film’s primary area of interest. The final act of the film is a daring bit of craft but doesn’t feel quite as shocking as the film’s reputation has it. Yes, Jesus has sex with Mary Magdalene, and a few other women as well, but this all fits into the idea of whether Jesus is really a man. These carnal pleasures are seen in the film not as something representing the devil but instead of a human being with human desires. It isn’t just all sex though, Jesus is shown as a loving family man who enjoys his life in peace, he isn’t seen gambling or indulging in excess, he just takes on a fairly “normal” persona and I wonder if this is the thing that bothered viewers so much, that the pendulum doesn’t wholly swing the other way, to the completely un-Godly, instead it’s pretty much in the middle, one could even call it “boring”, though on-screen it certainly isn’t.
Harvey Keitel also offers an intriguing interpretation of Judas as a man who at first is conflicted about Jesus but soon gets behind him fully, going to the ends of the Earth for him and in the film’s climax making Jesus realise just what has happened to him. It’s a complicated performance fuelled both by an ambivalence but also a quiet, desperate love, with Keitel’s physicality contrasting with his quieter moments very well, he not being what you’d imagine would be the most natural choice for the role but making more of an impression for it.
In terms of direction, this is one of Scorsese’s more straightforward pieces of work but the material in the screenplay makes the film standout more than enough already. This isn’t to say he doesn’t get his own flourishes though. The representations of Satan are thrillingly done, images of fire laden with high and low voices calling to Jesus crafted to chilling effect and the end of the film is also of great interest, Jesus’ moment of death leading to the film itself expiring, a mistake on set where there wasn’t enough film in the camera, but on-screen it feels oddly fitting, death being met with a variety of colours and film perforations filling the screen, as if Dafoe’s Jesus had made the film camera itself have some sort of viscreal reaction. Along with a fitting if at time anachronistic score by Peter Gabriel and goregous cinematography by Michael Ballhaus, the film is a technical success also.
The Last Temptation of Christ certainly isn’t for everyone and for devout religious viewers I can understand why the film could be unbearable. However, for those willing to accept the film on its own terms, it’s a hell of an achievement.