Friday, April 2, 2010

The 25: Part 4: The Last Temptation Of Christ

(The twenty five is an examination of the twenty five films that made me a cinephile. These aren’t necessarily what I consider best movies, nor are they necessarily my favorite. Though in some cases they are both. Instead these are the films that made the biggest most indenialable impression on me. Films that if they hadn’t hit a certain way at a certain time I would not be the same film goer that I am today. They’re the twenty five.)

(I’m going a little out of order on this one. Most of this series is following a biographical straight line. I’m skipping ahead for this one for Good Friday)

“The other day you said turn the other cheek… I didn’t like that.”

Unlike virtually every other religious film ever made, which cannot help but reduce their subjects to simplified holy card versions of themselves, The Last Tempatation Of Christ wades fearlessly into the intellectual and theological challenges and contradictions inherent in Christianity and all the Abrahamic religions.

Scorsese’s film is an intimate and impressionistic epic, the exact opposite of the self satisfied pious garbage that usually constitutes a religious film.

It is ironic that the film that sums up so well what I find so moving about my personal faith is the one that also happens to have pissed off nearly everyone else belonging to that faith. The Last Temptation Of Christ is a ground level retelling of Jesus’s life directed by Martin Scorsese. It’s both more realistic and more metaphysical then most biblical films, impressively impressionistic during the miracles and encounters with the holy and completely unsentimental in its portrayal of ancient times.

The film’s score by Peter Gabriel is the perfect compliment to the film’s singular style, discordant and recorded on instruments native to the region Gabriel’s haunting score is about as far from the over orchestrated piety of most Hollywood films as it’s possible to get. Dafoe brings everything he has to his roll as Christ, Harry Dean Stanton expertly plays Paul as derelict street preacher and Harvey Keitel matches both fully as a Judas seemingly always on the verge of calling Christ a mook.

Scorsese brings the full weight of his considerable skill and knowledge to bear in the telling of the story. Visually its probably his greatest film outside the underrated Bringing Out The Dead. Its radical in its methodology, from the unabashed horror movie that is the raising of Lazurus, shot like an outtake from Night Of The Living Dead (“Lazurus Come Forth!... And munch on the brains of the living!”) to the astounding, incredibly moving avant garde abstraction that ends the film, which finds God and heaven in film itself.

The film’s methody tendencies are usually refreshing, though they do become distracting every now and then, particularly when dealing with the translation of rather well known biblical feats. I’m all for taking the poetry out of The New Testament in order to make it more down beat and relatable, but when the “He Who Is Without Sin Shall Cast the first stone.” Scene sounds like a couple of guys from Brooklyn arguing over the point spread, well a misjudgment in tone has been made. Still the highwire that Scorsese walks is so daring, its hard not to give him a couple of mulligans. And often such awkward scenes like this are counterweighted within themselves, such as the haunting moment with that scene, where Jesus confronts the bastard with balls big enough to actually want to cast the first stone.

Still it wasn’t the film’s radical theology, or metaphoric blasphemy that pissed people off, it was a five second shot of Jesus having sex in a vision in which he witnesses the life he will never have. I’ve always found the fixation on this scene ironic, not least of all, because there’s so much more stuff to piss people off at the beginning of the film. The fact that you can’t bring up the film without the sex scene, but hardly anyone remarks on the Jesus was a Crossmaker or Jesus hangs out voyeuristically in a whore house stuff just goes to show how few of the film’s detractors have actually seen it.

While most films about Jesus emphasize the divine, showing Christ rotely going through preordained motions, The Last Tempatation goes the opposite route, emphasizing the human, portraying Jesus sometimes scared, sometimes baffled by the will of God and his part in it. The problem with emphasizing the divine in Christ over the human, is it turns his life an ideal to aspire to, rather then an example to follow. By empathizing Christ’s humanity over his divinity, The Last Temptation Of Christ almost plays like the anti-Passion. While the latter focused on the bone crunching pain of Christ’s sacrifice, the latter focuses on the existential difficulty in choosing to make that sacrifice.

I credit this film for making me an active participant in my faith rather then a blind adherenent. Christianity is tough. That’s the reason we have all this prosperity doctrine bullshit, because what Jesus wants is freaking hard. I’ll admit that I certainly don’t follow Jesus to the letter. But at least I can admit that and attempt to bring myself closer to that truth, rather then going TD Jakes style and finding some convoluted theological reason that Jesus wants me to have fifteen Cadillacs. Doesn’t matter if you can fit it into one of those Caddies TD, that camel still isn't going to make it through the eye of the needle.

The Christ in the film knows where he must end up, but does not desire it, as a man he wants a family, a normal life, and a chance at happiness, as a God he knows he must give it all up. By turning Christ’s sacrifice from an abstract matter of prophecy into a concrete act of love, this film made me appreciate that sacrifice in a way I never had before.


AK said...

Very cool, very well-written! Why are us "normal" Christians the ones who never seem to be portrayed in the media?

Bryce Wilson said...

Thanks for the complement Rob. Hope you stick around.

I guess the answer to your question is "the freaks" are always more fun to shoot and extremism on both sides of the coin are easier to potray.

It is frustrating. If I had a nickel for every time I had to explain to both more fundamentalist Christians and Atheists, that just because I believe in God doesn't mean that I think Evolution is one of Satan's better tricks, I'd have a whole lot of nickels.