The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988)

I guess it took me as long as it did to get around to this, probably Scorsese’s most personal film, because as a Jew I guess I felt I wasn’t prepared for, or didn’t have a right to, watch a film about Jesus? And after watching it, I feel like a lot of it went over my head simply because of my lack of knowledge of the story of Jesus – I still don’t really know who John the Baptist or Saul/Paul are, know Judas only as ‘the guy who betrayed Jesus’ (which is why I was so surprised to see Harvey Keitel’s Judas portrayed in such an arguably sympathetic light), don’t really know exactly who Mary Magdalene was or what exactly she had to do with Jesus according to scriptures, and pretty much just know that Jesus was a Jewish carpenter who allegedly performed miracles, thought he was and/or was thought to be the messiah, and was executed for sedition. With all the controversy that Scorsese’s film garnered upon its release due to its alleged departures from scripture, I’m pretty sure my knowledge of the subject in its most widely-accepted form wasn’t helped much, but despite that lack of knowledge, this was still a powerful, deep study of a man who just happened to be handed the role of messiah and son of God. Willem Dafoe’s Jesus clearly struggles to understand, and even tries to reject, his destiny, as he assists in the crucifixion of a fellow Jew seemingly to draw the ire of God so that he doesn’t have to be the messiah, and his miracles of resurrection and stigmata seemingly come out of nowhere, and are presented by Scorsese as sudden, jarring events that seem to frighten and startle Jesus, the performer of the miracles, more than anything. Even when not performing the miraculous, as he becomes more and more aware of his destiny as the son of God and that he must suffer and die, Jesus tries to use logic and common sense to make sense of and come to terms with his unusual situation, made apparent and helped along by the theologically/philosophically thought-provoking dialogue by Paul Schrader and the performance by Willem Dafoe, forceful and exuberant at times as he preaches to the leery masses, but that forceful exuberance seeming to barely conceal that self-doubt and vulnerability that wracks the man when he is alone, facing the temptations of Satan in the desert (in a scene that begs to be unintentionally funny and over-the-top but ends up being incredibly strange and absorbing), or confiding in his tough-talking friend, confidant and eventual betrayer Judas. True, there are times where Dafoe’s Jesus seems to relish his role as messiah as he riles crowds and literally makes a mess of the capitalism-infested Temple, but that vulnerability bleeds through nonetheless. As he engages in monologues or quiet dialogues trying to talk out his predicament and make sense of and begrudgingly accept this miraculous role that’s been hoisted upon him, and as he finds himself tempted by a quiet family life that you and I would take for granted at his most vulnerable and frightening moment, we see a man who quite simply finds himself inexplicably able to perform feats impossible for other humans to perform, knows of his eventual fate, which other humans are unable to know, does what any other human would try to do by using logic to make sense of it all, and as his mind (or supernatural intervention) give him a temporary escape from the cross, he’s just a man who does not want to die. Quite simply, he is afraid. Fear being arguably the most recognizable and understanding of human emotions, this iteration of Jesus, the supposed son of God and a God himself within the body of man, despite performing godly miracles, is more of a frightened, self-doubting man than the martyred superhero scripture makes him out to be.  That, combined with an overall believable period piece with Peter Gabriel’s music giving it an undeniably modern edge, makes this unreligious Jew watching Scorsese’s film more easily identify with a man who can perform miracles, but is still a man through and through.


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