Title: The Last Temptation of Christ
Country: USA, Canada
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Paul Schrader
based on the novel of Nikos Kazantzakis
Music: Peter Gabriel
Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus
Harry Dean Stanton
In anticipation of Martin Scorsese’s SILENCE (2016), it is tempting to visit the other religious passion project from his backlist, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, an adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ titular novel, a mini-scaled, semi-improvised, shoe-strung budgeted (a mere $7 million considering its epic 162 minutes length) mortal exposition of the divine sacrifice.
Shot in Morocco against a biblical but spartan context, it takes some time to acclimate ourselves with the cast’s American English accent, a sense of “they don’t belong to that land”, which doesn’t peter away as the story lumbers on. Willem Dafoe is the son of God, exerts an assiduous endeavor into this taxing challenge which forces his hand to feign wide-eyed gaze, conflicted frown and plangent oration in spite of his vampiric astuteness, he is too contemporary for the role, so is Harvey Keitel’s curly ginger-haired Judah, more often than not, it pulls audience out of the context unconsciously, whereas Barbara Hershey’s Magdalene, suffers less from this obstacle thanks to her exotic fripperies, a subdued position in the story (less wordy) and her mystical but heroic make-up, an unabashed prostitute has no racial bias of her clientele.
Encumbered by its monetary constraint, the film doesn’t endow audience with the imaginably breathtaking desert landscape, where Jesus goes alone to seek his true vocation from God and he has to ward off temptations from a talking cobra, an august lion and the flame embodied by Satan, those symbolic vignettes are slam-bang on the nose, but as re-enactments of transcendent design, they are ruefully pedestrian in its artistic form, so is the didactic sequences where he conducts miracles, as blasé as Jesus’ human foibles.
With regard to the last temptation, adheres to Kazantzakis’ urtext, the story posits an alternative for Jesus, what if he is not the chosen one and he is blessed to live as an ordinary human being, getting married, conducting promiscuity and procreating children until reaching his dotage when he realizes all is a sham (thanks to a forthright Judas), concocted by Satan in the disguise of his guardian angel, to lead him astray from his destiny, yet, it is never too late, because all is in God’s design, he will return to the cross and consummate his crucifixion. And that’s it, a digression into an non-existent life (The only thorny part is his confrontation with apostle Paul, played by a sprightly Harry Dean Stanton, who gives a truth-revealing address about the crux of religion: truth doesn’t matter, religion is created to appease the needy mass.) crops up to be just a coup d’oeil on the cross, a miracle conjured by the Almighty to harden J.C.’s dithering resolution and squash his doubts. No one can deny, that could be a very dialectical approach to prove God’s existence, only it is inconveniently buttressed by a far too earthly hypothesis borne out of fancifulness. If such an omnipotent being indeed exists, the only way to worship and follow God is the ever-consuming blind faith in lieu of any normal sense mankind possesses, because God is so transcendent and superior to humans, otherwise he cannot be the creator, however, that kind of devotion is not applicable to everyone, because we are a species of cynical and dubious nature, incorrigibly self-centred and restlessly combative.
Unimpressed by the film’s overtly orthodox and reductive tack to seize upon its contentious content, one might feel prone to luxuriate in a compensatory reward, Peter Gabriel’s enigmatic incidental music, wonderfully encapsulates the otherworldly rhythm and vibe clearly the film doesn’t fully manage to elicit. Religious epic is not a winning formula for Mr. Scorsese in spite of his own fondness, but it is his prerogative to materialise his dreams just because he is able to afford it, for viewers who hasn’t seen SILENCE, it is wiser to lower our expectation in exchange for a less bathetic experience, which is all but imminent.