The Passion of Martin Scorsese
Why "The Last Temptation of Christ" falls just short of the director's grand ambitions
Watching The Last Temptation of Christ today, it’s hard to believe the film stirred as much controversy as it did on release way back in 1988. Despite its admirably open embrace of sexuality, the movie feels strangely tame by contemporary standards. Director Martin Scorsese’s deliberate thematic juxtaposition of carnal desire and spiritual duty no longer shocks or intellectually provokes anyone who happens to see it now, at least not in the same way it might have more than three decades ago – leaving the film itself in something of an artistic quandary when viewed in the present day.
The Last Temptation of Christ has a lot going for it: an all-time great director tackling difficult material, generally strong performances from its cast, and a wonderfully ethereal score by Peter Gabriel. For all its undeniable strengths, however, it never quite comes together as a movie. Scorsese certainly pulls on some intriguing intellectual and emotional threads over the film’s more than two-and-a-half-hour runtime, but his essential ambivalence toward his film’s themes leaves its characters unmoored from anything but minimal intrinsic motivations and tugged about by an overdetermined narrative. The end result undermines Scorsese’s laudable if vaulting cinematic ambition.
It's a problem best illustrated by the film’s treatment of its central character: Jesus, played in captivating fashion by a thirty-something Willem Dafoe. Throughout the movie, though, it’s hard for viewers to get a real sense for why Jesus does what he does and says what he says; as Judas (a miscast Harvey Keitel) notes, there’s little if any logic behind his actions or pronouncements. Early on, moreover, Scorsese cultivates an aura of ambiguity around Jesus: he builds crosses and collaborates with the Romans to escape from the voices he hears and writhes around the ground in apparent epileptic fits. We’re left to wonder whether Jesus actually communes with the divine or if he simply suffers from mental illness.
About a third of the way through the film, however, Scorsese jettisons this uncertainty in favor of full-blown supernaturalism: Jesus removes his own heart from his chest and displays it to his apostles before he embarks on the full catalogue of biblical miracles. He restores sight to a blind man, raises Lazarus from the dead, and, of course, turns water into wine. If there’s any equivocation in the way Scorsese portrays these supernatural events, it’s hard to detect. Scorsese tries to take it back – or at least have it both ways – in the film’s denouement, leaving it open whether or not the titular last temptation of Christ was actually the nefarious work of Satan or merely the delirious fantasy of a man bleeding out on the cross.
Scorsese’s vacillation on this front siphons away the movie’s ambiguity and works against his broader thematic concerns. His characters do not express any real motivations of their own or cogently explain their own actions. It’s hard to avoid the sense that the film’s events occur because they must, given the ultimate source material. Judas betrays Jesus because that’s what Judas does, and Jesus must wind up on the cross because that’s how this particular story ends. There’s no underlying logic or explanation here, at least not presented in or by the movie itself – it’s simply the way the narrative has to proceed, and so it does.
Take the last temptation sequence at the end of the movie: in a potentially interesting twist on the “choice of Hercules” thought experiment from Hellenistic philosophy, Scorsese presents it as a moment of sacrifice where Jesus must choose between the possibility of a long life with a family and the completion of the mission given him by God at the cost of his own life. But the unreality of this sacrifice cuts to the core of Scorsese’s broader ambivalence toward his own subject matter – whether this last temptation was the result of Satan’s machinations or his own mind, Jesus gets to have it both ways: he enjoys a long life and raises a family while still fulfilling his divine mandate. Throughout his life, moreover, Scorsese’s Jesus refuses to have or build anything worth sacrificing in the first place. He rejected a relationship with Mary Magdalene early in life, for instance, before rejecting the illusion of a tranquil domestic life he’s offered as he fades away on the cross. Jesus isn’t giving up much of anything – and the conflict between spiritual obligation and personal desire Scorsese wants his audience to wrestle with never really amounts to much in the end.
If The Last Temptation of Christ doesn’t entirely hang together as a film, however, it’s not for a lack of trying. Indeed, the movie contains a number of engrossing scenes and dramatic set-pieces. Two in particular stand out: first and foremost is the conversation between Jesus and David Bowie’s urbane, world-weary Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Bowie’s exquisite portrayal has next to nothing in common with the historical Pilate, but he nonetheless manages to steal the movie for the roughly three-and-a-half minutes he’s on screen. When Jesus claims that he will change the world with the power of love, Pilate responds that “killing or loving, it’s all the same. It simply doesn’t matter how you want to change things; we don’t want them changed.”
Pilate then reminds Jesus that there’s “a space up for you on Golgotha. Three thousand skulls there by now, probably more… I do wish you people would go out and count them some time; maybe you’d learn a lesson.” He then pauses and ruminates for a split second before resignedly concluding, “No, probably not.”
Then there’s the scene near the end of the final temptation fantasy sequence where an aged Jesus comes across Paul of Tarsus (played by Harry Dean Stanton) preaching the good news of the resurrection. Jesus confronts Paul, calling him a liar and threatening to tell everyone the truth. Paul responds that he doesn’t care whether his interlocutor is lying, and that if he has to crucify and resurrect Jesus he will – truth be damned. Ordinary people need the fantasy he’s offering, an unrepentant Paul asserts. It’s very much a The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance moment, with Paul arguing the truth is irrelevant to the message he hopes to convey.
These scenes make The Last Temptation of Christ very much worth watching, as unsatisfying as it ultimately proves to be as a film. In that respect, at least, the movie faithfully reflects both Scorsese’s skill as a director and his fundamental ambivalence toward his chosen material.