Jesus Christ is brought down to earth in Martin Scorsese's passionate late '80s drama.
"The feeling begins. Very tender, very loving. Then the pain starts. Claws slip underneath the skin and tear their way up. Just before they reach my eyes, they dig in. And I remember. First I fasted for three months. I even whipped myself before I went to sleep. At first it worked. Then the pain came back. And the voices. They call me by the name: Jesus."
From its opening shot of Jesus (Willem Dafoe) lying in a sort of dazed contemplation with accompanying voiceover, Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel, 'The Last Temptation of Christ', deviates from depictions seen in the past. This isn’t Jesus meek or mild, or Pasolini’s proto-Marxist historical drama The Gospel According to St. Matthew. Scorsese gives us Christ as flawed human character. "I’m a liar. I’m a hypocrite. I’m scared of everything."
Scorsese’s film found a new way of telling Christ’s struggle as a near subjective experience. We get inside his head. Yet it would be foolhardy to think this was a somehow realist account – even on a psychological level. It is still speculation and faith.
If anything, Jesus here delivers fits neatly into line with the themes and preoccupations of other Scorsese works. Charlie in Mean Streets, Travis in Taxi Driver and Jake La Motta in Raging Bull: all are tortured souls looking for redemption. It is a quintessential Scorsese.
Kazantzakis' novel appealed to the director for its re-imaging of Jesus Christ as a deeply conflicted individual. Scorsese's aim in adapting the story for the screen lied in the belief that people should work for love and that the old Hollywood religious pictures were a lie. He wanted to make Jesus a relatable figure. Our struggle is his struggle after all.
God’s love and power is at turns questioned and unwanted by Jesus. He desires a woman and hates himself almost for note having the courage to be with her. It tortures him and it aggravates her. He’s a rebel very much with a cause but mulls over his options. It is at this juncture Satan can attempt to make an offer he can’t refuse – but refuse he does.
Clearly it is not Church doctrine on offer in Scorsese and Kazantzakis’ work. Paramount acted on this and put a disclaimer on the credits saying it was a wholly fictional work – as if the Gospels were a historical authority on the life of Christ beyond repute.
The book was given to Scorsese by Barbara Hershey on the set of Boxcar Bertha in 1972 and it became a passion and a dream to be fulfilled. The director almost succeeded in getting it into production in 1983 but Paramount got cold feet. There was still plenty of background support for Scorsese’s project, very much so, only there was no cold hard cash to get it into production.
Fortunately, after a mid '80s lull, Scorsese made The Color of Money, which went on to Oscar-winning glory and box office success. He was back in a position of power.
A vital scene in The Last Temptation of Christ occurs when Jesus is in the desert meditating. Before he ventures out John the Baptist warns him, "God isn’t alone out there."
Jesus has drawn a circle around him and tells God he’s not leaving 'until you speak to me'. The camera, perhaps the subjective viewpoint of Satan, tracks towards slowly. There’s a cut to a low angle shot of a slithering snake (the low angle clearly symbolic – we’re looking down on evil from a height of true authority and power). He has seen the snake before when he was praying at a monastery and it spoke, "Jesus, my sweet Jesus. I forgive you."
Jesus stares inquisitively at the black cobra. The way the scene is set suggests we could very much be experiencing something akin to a dream. Then it speaks in a female voice. "I feel sorry for you. You were lonely, you cried, so I came." Jesus is suspicious. "I didn’t cry for you. Who are you?" The snake replies: "Your spirit."
The conversation is an attempt at trickery. "You’re just like Adam. He called me and I took one of his ribs and made it into a woman." Scorsese cuts to a wide-angle shot that highlights the dreamlike reality of the scene. A man sits in conversation with a snake in the middle of nowhere at night. "Why are you trying to save the world? Aren’t your own sins enough?" it asks. "What arrogance to think you can save the world! Save yourself, find love."
Is Scorsese attempting to suggest some schizophrenic quality here? The snake is not anthropomorphised. We see no lips move; its input delivered in voiceover. When one line of question fails Satan brings out the big guns – sex and promise of desire. "Look at my eyes, look at my breasts. Do you recognise them? Just nod your head and we’ll be in my bed together." There’s a sudden change in the tone of the voice, almost demonic as it says 'Oh Jesus' before exploding into dust.
It is in this scene Scorsese pits Jesus the man – with his frailty and human weakness fully exposed – against the power of Satan. But the temptations are not over. This is round one of an ongoing battle which ends with the truly torturous last temptation: forgoing his mission and destiny to live the life of an ordinary man.