“You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it on the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit, and you know it.”–the first lines of Mean Streets
I am a Christian, partly because of this film; the works of blasphemers have always been the things that drew me the closest to Jesus Christ and to God. These works, especially this film and the writings of the Yahwist, the earliest writing in the first five books of the Bible, show so little concern with handing down the Law; rather they are stories in their rawest form, concerned with the struggles of Jesus and Yahweh. (The Yahwist always refers to God as Yahweh, hence the name.) They are passionate, contradictory; The Last Temptation of Christ moves me to tears the way The Thin Red Line, The Royal Tenenbaums, and “The Streets of Laredo” do, with the feeling of landing not on an essential truth, but the truth of an essential mystery.
How crazy do you have to be to be the Son of God? That’s the essential mystery here, present from the first scene. What would be worse, the uncertainty that it was God who called you, or the certainty that it was? Could you stand the strain, psychically, physically? Willem Dafoe’s Jesus is plagued by headaches, voices, visions; he’s assailed on all sides, hated by Jews for making crosses for the Romans, who barely tolerate him. (These first scenes have a sense of the Jew as the eternal outsider.) Dafoe gives a brave, strong performance here; he doesn’t convey the madness through the traditional signifiers, but rather through constantly and unpredictably shifting. He can be beatifically calm in one scene and manic in the next, and it never seems to follow the context of the action. Jesus never knows when God will come, and that leaves him in a perpetual state of fear. When he says he opens his mouth and God starts talking, that’s exactly what he plays; he’s always trying to catch up to the words, and they’re not his words.
The Last Temptation of Christ journeys through several key moments of the Gospels: the Sermon on the Mount, the temptation in the desert, the resurrection of Lazarus, the moneychangers in the Temple, the Last Supper, and the crucifixion. In one of its most powerful scenes, it picks up on one of the earliest heresies: Jesus asks Judas to betray him, so he may fulfill the prophecies. (Judas asks if Jesus could betray him, and it’s one of the most overwhelming moments when Jesus says “No. That’s why God gave me the easier job.”) What the film and Nikos Kazantzakis’ source novel are most famous for is the final thirty minutes, where the Devil in the guise of a guardian angel allows Jesus to descend from the cross and live an ordinary life of sex and marriage and children and work. (Some great direction here: when he descends, the world changes from a desert to a Terrence Malick-level green world, and Scorsese almost always places the angel at the edge of the frame as a subtle, effective hint.) Ultimately, Jesus sees this, rejects it, and returns to the cross to die.
Martin Scorsese’s whole career made him suited for this job; there are few directors who work so well in the grammar of crazy and can convey the madness of Jesus at every moment. The editing, by his longtime collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker, keeps jumping people just a little farther than they should be between the cuts (this pattern comes back in Shutter Island); the sound mix subtly shifts Jesus’ words, so they sometimes come as conversation, sometimes as interior monologue, and sometimes as a voice from on high. Scorsese rarely dissolves; most of the edits are hard cuts and that quickly becomes jarring (there are sequences here that anticipate his next full-length film, GoodFellas, particularly the Henry Hill and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day section). There are many moments where the light changes for no apparent or earthly reason. Like Taxi Driver, the camera sometimes just wanders away from the characters, and at other times, it’s chasing Jesus (who says he’s always being followed).
Scorsese has always been such a physical, tactile director; every one of his films seems to have a surface you could feel. This is his most physical film of all, even beyond Raging Bull. There’s so much attention to bodies here–Magdalene’s sweat, Jesus’ blood, Lazarus’ decay, John the Baptist’s hair, the dirt on the clothes of the Apostles, the blood of animals, and I will never get tired of watching Harvey Keitel’s Judas scratching his beard. The settings have such a strong physical presence too, particularly the rough walls that form the background to most of the action; even the ground of stones where Jesus draws a circle is something Scorsese focuses on and make us feel.
This film, made over ten years before Ridley Scott began the CGI sword-and-sandal revival with Gladiator (and he’s apparently still at it with Exodus: Gods and Kings), is not an epic, and so much more effective for that. It’s a cramped, underpopulated film; only the return to the Temple has any kind of proper epic feel to it, and Peter Gabriel’s score gets at least half the credit there. (Passion, the first album Gabriel derived from this score, remains his best work and one of the defining albums of the 1980s.) The cramped feeling makes it seem almost an urban film, calling back to the apartments and bars of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. (In comparison, Gangs of New York was both urban and epic, from its very first scene.) It’s also something so powerful to set Jesus’ ordeal against; the walk with the cross turns the Via Dolorosa into a jammed alley, with absolutely no escape. The absence of huge crowds (even the crucifixion at Golgotha has only a few dozen people in attendance) reminds us that we’re seeing the humblest, simplest origins of something that would transform the world.
That humility comes into play with the language, too. Jesus speaks plainly, even clumsily, as does just about everyone else. (It’s only David Bowie’s Pilate who has any real poetry to him, and Bowie gives such a relaxed, confident performance. When he describes the three thousand skulls on Golgotha and says “you understand what has to happen,” he has the feeling of someone who’s been ordering Jews to their death for a long, long time.) Again, it contributes to the non-epic, intimate, rough-edged feeling of this work; somehow Scorsese has made a neorealist film out of something that happened two thousand years ago. I also enjoy thinking that this is pretty much what Jesus did sound like when he actually spoke, before it got written up in the Gospels decades or centuries later.
Speaking of which, the Gospel this film most resembles is Mark’s, the earliest of the four, with its lean storytelling and squabbling Disciples. They’re a fun, earthy group here, lining up behind Keitel’s Judas; Victor Argo as Peter is a favorite with a full Mosaic beard and patriarchal presence (and he’d play a crucial role in another great contemporary Christian film, King of New York), but #1 goes to Alan Rosenberg as Thomas, whining about how it hurts to be crucified. Like Mark, this is a story about frail, fallible humans who are in wayyyyyyyy over their heads, and know it, and still do the best they can.
Given these casting choices (and the way that no one even tries to change their accents), you can charge this film with whitewashing, but that doesn’t go remotely far enough. Despite the Mediterranean setting (and the use of a lot of period detail), this simply isn’t a film that holds historical truth as the highest virtue, or as a virtue at all. For that matter, Scorsese doesn’t hold fidelity to Kazantzakis as a virtue either. This is the culmination of his career up to this point, the story that so many of his other previous films have had as their not-so-secret story: the Passion According to Martin Scorsese.
Finally telling this story directly freed Scorsese from the need (and I suspect it was very much a need) to make it covertly. This film liberated Scorsese; his next films, the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories and GoodFellas, had an energy and more importantly a joy that had never been there before. (For me, The Last Temptation of Christ holds the same place in Scorsese’s work that AI has in Steven Spielberg’s: it’s my favorite work of his, and it launched his best series of films.) Telling the story of Christ’s redemption freed Scorsese from the need to find redemptive aspects for his protagonists. Part of what makes GoodFellas so great is its gleeful amorality; Henry Hill’s a bad guy from the first scene to the last, and that’s what makes it work. Compare the endings of GoodFellas and Raging Bull and you can see the watershed between the two.
It’s not just the fascination with suffering that makes The Last Temptation of Christ the true story of so many Scorsese films; it’s the nature of his protagonists. Jesus is constantly conflicted, even tormented by the distance between himself and God, by his fear, by his lack of certainty–by the limitations of being human. That distance, between ourselves and God, between the selves we are and the selves we can imagine, and the pain of that distance, defines so many Scorsese protagonists: Jake LaMotta, Harvey Keitel’s Charlie in Mean Streets, even Billy Costigan in The Departed have some of this feeling.
In Catholicism, it’s rendered as a conflict between the soul and the body, but it’s more fundamental than that. In the creation of the Yahwist, it’s there at the beginning: “Yahweh shaped an earthling from clay of this earth, blew into its nostrils the wind of life. Now look: man becomes a creature of flesh.” (This is David Rosenberg’s translation of the Yahwist in The Book of J; it corresponds to Genesis 2:7.) In that moment of making us, Yahweh infused us with his spirit (spiritus, ruah; in so many languages, the word for “spirit” has the same root as the word for “breath”) and in doing so infused us with His contradictions. That’s why Jesus’ vision on the cross isn’t so much of an ordinary life, but of an unconflicted life; but we can only become unconflicted by denying the God within us, and therefore our humanity.
Gloria Dei est vivens homo comes from St. Irenaeus, one of the earliest Christian theologians (2nd century CE): the glory of God is the living human. Not the reasoning human, not even the good human: the living human. To be living, for us and for Scorsese’s characters, is to live that conflict between what we are and what we could be, between the rough surfaces of the world and the purity of our ideals and to know that they are truly the same thing. That’s not something rational; that’s not something that can fit into any kind of law. That’s the function of religion, and story too: not to solve the mystery, but to make us feel and live the mystery, because it’s in living the mystery we are fully alive. (Trust religion to tell stories, and to create the community of listeners; do not trust religion to decree the law.)
That’s why The Last Temptation of Christ has such power: because it focuses so clearly on the necessary madness of Jesus. Yahweh’s breath is in all of us, so that madness, that conflict dwells within all of us. So many Scorsese characters live that, but Jesus most of all. There was no avoiding it, no priest he could appeal to, no one to comfort him; we see Jesus praying in Gethsemane and begging God to take his fate from him, but the one closest to God can’t feel the comfort of God. The story of The Last Temptation of Christ is how Jesus finds the way, through all the doubt and contradictions, to cry out “I want to be crucified!” You can’t accept this kind of fate. You have to want it. He makes that cry and finds himself back on the cross. (A careful edit shows us that exactly no time has passed.) As he dies, the sound ascends through ululating voices into the most joyful music Peter Gabriel ever wrote, and the screen turns into color and the clear image of the celluloid strip itself (with the sprocket holes) jumping like a Stan Brakhage film. Now, only now, “it is accomplished”; the most human, most Godlike, and most Scorsesean character of all ascends into the heaven of pure film.
He wages war with the Devil
With a pistol by his side
He’s always chasing him out a window
And he won’t give him a place to hide
He keeps his door open wide
Fighting him he lights a lamp inviting him
He’s a bandit and a heartbreaker
Jesus was a cross maker