Martin Scorsese takes on a perennial cinematic challenge – bringing the Bible to the big screen – and fumbles like so many before him. It’s not for a lack of earnestness, however. There is a genuine urge here to understand at least one facet of Jesus Christ, but the inherent stodginess of Biblical adaptations (to say nothing of Harvey Keitel’s Brooklyn accent and red dye job) ultimately manages to prevail.
To be fair, onscreen text at the start clarifies that the film is not based on the Gospels, but on the Nikos Kazantzakis book with which it shares a title. Paul Schrader did the adapting for the screenplay, which would seem to be a good fit given the Christian resonance of his previous collaborations with Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Bringing Out the Dead). Yet The Last Temptation of Christ suggests that the Gospel is best captured in oblique ways such as those, rather than direct ones like this.
Thanks to another bit of text quoting from Kazantzakis’ book, the movie is very clear about its aims: to capture the “battle between the spirit and the flesh,” as represented in the life of Christ. And so this is a Jesus (Willem Dafoe) who is mostly in turmoil, torn between his calling (which he doesn’t always seem to understand) and the world (which is largely represented by Barbara Hershey’s tattooed Mary Magdalene). For this strategy to work, however, we need to get into Jesus’ head, and that’s not something the movie ever quite achieves. Partly this is due to Willem Dafoe’s dazed performance, which always keeps us at a remove. Mostly, though, it’s due to the fact that this Jesus wavers on the subject of his own divinity. This is theologically suspect, yes, but it’s mostly a problem because it muddies the movie’s point of view. Are we seeing this story through Jesus’ eyes? If so, what does he believe about himself? If he’s unsure about his divinity, what are we to make of the miracles onscreen? Exactly who is witnessing them?
All of this is in flux, giving The Last Temptation of Christ an incoherent sense of perspective, both in terms of narrative and the visuals. There are times when Scorsese presents the Sunday school version of Jesus – stolid recreations of Bible stories like the wedding at Cana that are so awkwardly rendered they stop the movie in its tracks. At other times he’s presented as a howling lunatic, just another self-proclaimed prophet making bug-eyed proclamations.
The Last Temptation of Christ is at its best when it embraces that madness, when it reminds us of how whacked out and mystical the claims of Scripture really are. The film’s most arresting figure is John the Baptist (Andre Gregory), a muttering preacher who presides over a gaggle of sketchy followers in a little desert ravine. Likewise, its most powerful images are the otherworldly ones: ghostly, robed camel riders who dismount from their beasts in a series of jump dissolves; lepers emerging from holes in the ground and approaching Jesus like zombies; a monk’s funeral in a blinding dust storm. And, of course, the horror of the crucifixion. When the camera, seemingly attached to the cross, swings upward as Jesus’ stake is positioned into place, an appropriate wooziness sets in.
I can’t say the same of the much-discussed hallucination sequence that concludes the film. While on the cross, Jesus imagines a visit from a supposed angel who tells him that he isn’t the Messiah, and that he can come down from the cross to enjoy a normal life with Mary Magdalene as his wife. The long stretch that follows – following Jesus into old age – is meant to be the climax to the movie’s spirit-flesh battle, but given that the dynamic has been poorly developed throughout, it feels more like a derailment than a culmination. It’s weird alright, but given the other places The Last Temptation of Christ has gone, it’s not weird enough.