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I crossed a picket line to see The Last Temptation of Christ.
Right off the bat—I’m here to talk about the film, not the theology. Religion is a personal thing for everyone, and I’m not going to try and tell anyone what they should believe. And I do get why so many people got weird about this film in particular. Folks who are into Jesus Christ as the son of God often don’t want to think of him as the son of man, too. But even if you are hardcore into his divinity, his humanity should be acknowledged as well. That’s what The Last Temptation of Christ (and the book on which it was based) tries to do.
In both the film and the Nikos Kazantzakis novel, there’s even a great big disclaimer right at the top. It essentially says this movie is a big “what if,” and we are here to explore the human side of Christ, and these hypotheticals ought not to get in the way of your own Christ perception. It’s a problem for some people. Divine, human—I think he’s both. Born of woman and all the rest—if he weren’t properly human, at least in part, the whole sacrifice thing wouldn’t mean nearly as much. In order to save mankind, he had to go through some of the worst that it is possible for a human to go through, and he had to do it willingly. That’s got to suck to be told, and I don’t care who you are—the thought of eventual persecution and crucifixion from the people you spent your whole life trying to help can’t be a joy to live with.
This film has Martin Scorsese written all over it. Lots of people disliked the fact that Judas (Harvey Keitel) and all the apostles sounded like they were from Brooklyn. I love that…though, being from Brooklyn myself, I’m probably biased. Scorsese did it on purpose, because he saw the apostles as a bunch of street guys, so he brought in his New York droogs to play them. Their humanity gets played up, too. Several of them spend much of their time kvetching about this or that. It was a nice change seeing them played by actual Jews (or at least people who read that way). Normally, you get a Jesus movie, and everyone is played by terribly British Royal Shakespeare Company types. In this one, the Romans are played by Brits, but the Israelites are all Americans. It works, helping them read as a bit alien to each other. That said, it’s a little cringey that all the leads (in fact, pretty much anyone with lines) is white, surrounded by Moroccan locals.
Harvey Keitel is fantastic. Sorry, Razzie Awards, I wholeheartedly disagree with you. I think his Judas is perfect, and a perfect foil for Willem Dafoe’s Jesus, whom I’ll get to in a minute. Within Keitel’s first five minutes on screen, he’s established as Jesus’s no-nonsense best friend, who’s there for tough love and to keep his messiah honest. Judas smacking Jesus upside the head, asking, “Where is your mind?” establishes both their relationship and their humanity early on. Jesus has his head in the clouds with all his talk of love and otherworldly ideas, and while Judas never hesitates to argue when he thinks it’s appropriate, he is also Jesus’s biggest fan. Yes, he says, everyone should worship my best friend.
Judas is the opposite extreme to Jesus. Jesus talks about the need to feed the soul before anything else, and Judas says no, you must feed the body, because we live in the world. Me, I think it’s somewhere in the middle…but then, I’m a Libra, so I usually think that. Their relationship is this gorgeous bromance, and their scenes together are as intimate as any love scene. The idea of Judas the betrayer as something other than a villain is not a new one. If it’s a divine plan, that Jesus has to be sacrificed on the cross to save the world, and someone has to help get him there. And from the very beginning, Judas is the only one strong enough, who loves him enough, to play this part that he doesn’t want to play any more than Jesus wants to be crucified.
It’s arguable that if Jesus tried to do his thing today, he’d be locked up and diagnosed with schizophrenia and migraines. And you know what? That wouldn’t make him any less the son of God, if that’s how you see him. Robin Williams once made the observation that everyone who plays Jesus always looks like Ted Nugent. Despite the truth of that, I like the choice of Willem Dafoe for Jesus. He’s macho enough that you easily buy him as a carpenter, and when he’s tormented by his whole Son-of-God existence, you buy that the torment isn’t all in his head. He makes the messiah very human, which is the whole point. Half the time, he’s scared to death of his own miracles. Sure, it’s no big deal when he makes more wine. But bringing Lazarus back from the dead? You can see it on Jesus’ face how he is terrified that he wields that kind of power.
Apparently Scorsese’s original plan was to do the movie starring a bunch of rock musicians, with Aidan Quinn in the lead. I’m so grateful it didn’t work out that way. Which is funny, when I think about it, because as someone who was brought up on Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar, my initial reaction to a Jesus movie is, “If they’re not singing, why do I care?” Lord knows I’m happy to look at Sting any time you like, but as Pontius Pilate? He would have gotten the job done, sure. But David Bowie, even when not singing, had the acting chops and the gravitas to make the role truly memorable. It’s just one tiny little scene (with a very pretty horse in it, for whatever reason), but his performance is gorgeous.
Speaking of gorgeous, can we talk about Barbara Hershey? The whole shoot turned out to be this low-budget rush job, not that you’d know to look at it. Barbara learned to reapply her own henna tattoos…good to know she’s got a skill to fall back on, in case that whole acting thing doesn’t pan out (that’s a joke; she’s amazing). I also love seeing Barry Miller in this as Jeroboam. I’ve loved him since Fame, and he’s one of those character actors who can make a career out of being both talented and ethnically ambiguous. In Fame, he’s Puerto Rican. He reads just fine as Jewish in this…and since he won a Tony Award in 1985 for his portrayal of Arnold Epstein in Biloxi Blues, others must have thought so, too.
The big thing in this film, the thing that got me stopped and searched at Heathrow Airport just because I was carrying a copy of the novel, is the third act. It’s your usual Jesus movie up till then. Unlike Mel Gibson’s take on it, this blows through the crucifixion torture porn fairly quickly and matter-of-factly. It’s not like we don’t know that part, and watching him suffer is not the point. Not that it isn’t hard to watch him being beaten and whipped (and this movie got a lot of flak for male frontal nudity while they were at it), and Dafoe’s crown of thorns is this extra-large affair, more of a beanie of thorns. Ouch.
But anyway, there he is, up on the cross, when there appears to him a being claiming to be his guardian angel. In the book, the “angel” takes the form of a young black boy. In the film, it’s a blond tween girl, who is English like the Romans (and Satan), in case you were paying attention to that similarity. She tells him that no, he doesn’t have to die this way—after all, that God, his father, has changed his mind and says he’s suffered enough. She helps him down from the cross and brings him straight to Mary Magdalene (Hershey) and their wedding day.
Over the next half-hour or so, we see Jesus living the life of a normal, human man. He makes a baby with Magdalene, and when that doesn’t work out, he takes the advice of his angel and goes to Mary, Lazarus’s sister. “There’s only one woman in the world,” says the angel. “One woman, with many faces.” This is enough to also get Jesus into the bed of Lazarus’s other sister, Martha. Over the years, the family grows (apparently, the sisters don’t mind sharing), and Jesus is content with his life. He’s shaken up when he encounters the artist formerly known as Saul (Harry Dean Stanton), who has had enough of an epiphany that he has quit the zealots, has changed his name to Paul, and is going around preaching about the resurrected Jesus.
When Jesus challenges these words with his normal, earthly life, Paul lays it down for him. The resurrected Jesus, the idea of him, is bringing hope to the world, and Paul couldn’t care less whether it’s fact or not…which, if you ask me, is a healthy attitude about religion in general. If it’s helping you get through your day and isn’t hurting anybody else, who really cares if it can be proved as fact?
I can’t leave without giving mad props to Peter Gabriel for the music in this film. The album that he made from it, Passion, was the soundtrack to much of my late teenage years. When you think about it, he kind of introduced the average white person to what we know as “world music” (at least, he did so for my generation).
I’ll close with a personal anecdote, along with an open letter to a certain couple. Dear couple who happened to be sitting next to me at the 10th-anniversary screening of The Last Temptation of Christ. A couple of the actors were there, I forget who else, but there was a talkback, it was really nifty. Yes, we were sitting in the back row of the sold-out theater in Manhattan. Yes, it was dark. But kids—we all have our kinks, I know. But during a Jesus movie? Really? I paid admission to watch Jesus, not pay-per-view—my dude, could you not wait till you got home to give your girlfriend an orgasm?
I chewed the skin off my knuckle as she writhed in the seat next to me because I didn’t want to make more of a scene. When the lights went up, I politely suggested that next time they wanted to grope, maybe they should have stayed home…and the guy YELLED at me. “Oh, who are you to speak?” She, at least, had the good grace to turn red when my then-boyfriend complimented her orgasm. I originally crossed a picket line to see this movie, was told I was going to hell…I wonder what the protesters would have said to these two. To that couple, to whom I wish all the best, including many orgasms in places a tad more private, I say two words: Blu-ray.