Saturday, March 2, 2013

A Gruesome Build-Up To An Imaginative Last Act: The Last Temptation Of Christ!

The Good: Direction, Acting, Final act
The Bad: Alternatively boring and gory, A LONG way to go before it gets original and interesting.
The Basics: The Last Temptation Of Christ works its way up to being a theological recasting of Jacob’s Ladder.

My relationship with the film The Last Temptation Of Christ is an interesting one. Until tonight, I had not seen the movie, but it had a profound effect on my development as a liberal and as a rational human being. When I was in middle school, The Last Temptation Of Christ was released theatrically and one of the people in my class, a Ukrainian immigrant, was part of the local protests against the film. His mother and him were out picketing against the showing of The Last Temptation Of Christ in the local art theater and I remember asking him, “What is so bad about the movie?” And he told me that the movie was blasphemous and I asked him what about it was blasphemous. He dodged the question with pat answers and I distinctly recall asking him what he saw in the film that was so disturbing as to be worth protesting, a question I asked with my usual youthful, earnest curiosity. His response was that he had not seen the movie and that caused me to ask instantly, “How can you criticize and protest something you have not even seen?” Yup, that was the moment I credit as being the moment I became a fully rational being.

So, tonight, my wife and I sat down to watch The Last Temptation Of Christ. I had been told – in the intervening years – that it was something of a death dream, like Jacob’s Ladder (reviewed here!). Having finished it, my disappointment comes more from the fact that the hype was once again far greater than the film that it surrounded. The Last Temptation Of Christ is hardly an audacious film. It is not as creative as Dogma (reviewed here!) and I cannot really understand why the film garnered so much controversy. It is not as gory or pointless as The Passion Of The Christ (reviewed here!) and most of the film is a surprisingly straightforward retelling of the story of Jesus Christ. It takes a very long time to get around to being anything truly original. It is also worth noting that I have never read the novel upon which The Last Temptation Of Christ is based; this is a pure review of the film only.

Jesus Christ is a crossmaker for the Romans who has no particular agenda. Judas, working for the Zealots, killing Romans and working against the Empire, is given orders to kill Jesus. Judas does not carry out the directive and journeys out into the desert. There, he is tempted by the devil for forty days and forty nights and is then baptized by John The Baptist. After that, he begins preaching love and the philosophy of the ax (cutting away the old ways), which makes him a target for the Israelites.

Eventually, Pontius Pilate sentences Jesus to death on the cross, where the devil appears before him. Then, he has a vision of his life as an ordinary man who is able to marry, have children and live under the radar while his disciples are persecuted.

The Last Temptation Of Christ features a ridiculous disclaimer at the outset announcing to the viewer that it is a work of fiction and given how it resolves itself, it is hard for me to imagine why the Religious Right actually had an issue with the film. The Last Temptation Of Christ is much more the story of Jesus Christ than it is not. The final resolution puts Jesus on the familiar path after a remarkably brief interlude where Jesus experiences temptation. It’s a lot of boring and familiar story until the last act.

The characters of Jesus and Judas in The Last Temptation Of Christ are interesting characters. Jesus is filled with self-doubt and the desire to get the voices out of his head. Willem Dafoe plays Jesus with uncertainty and in a way that makes it almost seem like he is schizophrenic in the beginning. Harvey Keitel’s Judas is mercenaric and angry and he and Dafoe play off one another exceptionally well. The Last Temptation Of Christ is a good character study of an uncertain character finding his way and a righteous, angry character.

But we see that in innumerable movies. The fact that it is set in biblical times and/or that the characters are recognizable religious icons is unimportant. This is, for the most part, just another retelling of the story of Christ and its original aspects hardly justify the first two hours of the film. Martin Scorsese directs the film well, but the story is hardly as audacious as it originally promised.

On the Criterion Collection DVD, The Last Temptation Of Christ has an engrossing commentary track and featurettes. For those who find the source material engaging, the bonus features are impressive enough to make one want to buy the DVD.

For other films with a theological bent to them, check out my reviews of:
Left Behind


For other film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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