Wednesday, April 23, 2014

#501: The Last Temptation of Christ

1988, TSPDT Rank #764

Lo and behold, it has been about three weeks since my last post. If you're following my progress at all, it is probably becoming clear that I tend to go in spurts with this project. For example, I'll watch a bucket load of films from the list in a week's time and then go close to a month without seeing a single one. This doesn't really have anything to do with my film viewing habits - even with a busy college schedule, I watch films at a fairly steady pace all of the time - but whether the films I watch are on the TSPDT list or not is somewhat unpredictable. I've actually watched a lot of films since Histoire(s) du cinéma, but they've tended to be genre movies, cult obscurities, or lesser-known Altman films rather than selections from the 1,000 Greatest Films. I like it this way - it keeps me from falling into a rut, or watching movies solely for the purpose of adding a new post to the blog, which is not my idea of how this should go.

But anyway, with it being Easter time this past weekend, I decided to finally watch Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ - one of many films I have been meaning to watch for a long time. Given what I'd heard about it, along with my knowledge of Scorsese's deep Catholic background, I was expecting something both provocative and reverent - and I was not disappointed. This is a very interesting film, and one which is nearly impossible to watch passively - especially for someone who was brought up in a Catholic family and spent a lot of time around the Gospels throughout childhood. Taking their cues from Nikos Kazantzakis' 1953 novel of the same name, Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader seem devoted to reimagining the story of Jesus Christ from a modern, humanist perspective. An intertitle at the beginning makes it explicit that the film is not meant to be an adaptation of any of the Gospels, and although there are numerous scenes in the film which correspond to certain sections of the Gospels (particularly the Sermon on the Mount and a number of Jesus' miracles), the dialogue is modified enough so that no passages are exactly replicated, and these scenes are presented in such a way that they feel like part of the whole rather than separate episodes. However, despite the measures taken to distinguish the film as a separate entity from the Gospels, the film still ended up evoking a huge amount of controversy - which is understandable, given the long-standing emotional and cultural connections to the subject matter for a lot of people. Of course, controversy is never bad for the box-office, but it seems to me that the outrage which the film provoked probably overshadowed its merits - causing it to go down in history as a sensational work of blasphemy, rather than the serious, artistic accomplishment that it is. Many people simply refused to see Jesus portrayed as a tortured, sinful human instead of an infallibly divine deity - but this portrayal serves to put a fresh spin on the story and unearth the complex spiritual conflict which lies at its roots.

The fact that Jesus and his disciples are played by recognizable actors and speak in language and tones which are less removed from our own lives makes the difficult struggle at hand something we can readily relate to as human beings. If I had my guess, I'd say that was basically what Scorsese was going for with this film - to get the modern viewer to imagine what it would have really been like to be in Jesus' shoes. Not just the physical carnage leading up to the crucifixion - but the doubt, the temptation, the anguish that someone in Jesus' position might reasonably experience. In this respect, The Last Temptation of Christ is a highly original and ambitious film, although it is not without its flaws - and most would be forgiven for suggesting that Scorsese is guilty of turning Jesus into not much more than a crazy neurotic. I guess in the end it's hard to know what to think of this film - although no film which has the potential to engage the viewer this intently and actively for close to three hours should be underestimated. This is a genuinely powerful film which is guaranteed to elicit a different mix of reactions depending on the viewer. In any case, it's a crucial entry in Martin Scorsese's filmography, and definitely something that everyone should see at least once, especially if you're only familiar with Scorsese's more popular films.