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‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 12, 1988

"The Last Temptation of Christ," Martin Scorsese's provocative, punishing, weirdly brilliant adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis' novel, has a feverish intensity. Watching it, you feel as if you're trapped inside a hallucination, the meaning of which is only partly comprehensible. Yet you can sense Scorsese's commitment to his message and his passion for his art in every frame. He is working out of the center of his talents -- and his obsessions -- as a filmmaker. And undeniably, there's a prodigious greatness on display here. But just as undeniably, it is failed work.

This is not an easy movie to categorize or build a relationship with. I saw it two days ago and I am still trying to puzzle out my reactions to it. It is a work of great seriousness by one of this country's most gifted filmmakers. There is also a substantial portion of hooey in it. And that it is a deeply personal and therefore deeply fluky

and sometimes perverse presentation of its subject makes it all the more stimulating.

This is a life-of-Christ story unlike any other, though perhaps at this point that hardly needs to be said. In adapting this epic tale, Scorsese has stripped away the familiar epic trappings to concentrate on the human dimension, and except for the central character and the basic outline of the story, the film has nothing in common with the more conventional accounts.

The most radical departure is Jesus Himself. There is no plaster saintliness here. When we first see Him, Christ is a cross-maker, collaborating with the Romans in their persecution of the rebellious Israelites. His reason for this, He says, is to make God hate Him: "God loves Me and I can't stand the pain." And He goes as far in His efforts to alienate His Father as to hold the feet of the rebels as the nails are driven in and their blood spurts into His face.

Scorsese takes a huge risk in these early moments. He succeeds in conveying Christ's pain, but at the same time he alienates us from his hero. Scorsese's specialty is souls in torment. In "Mean Streets," his protagonist stuck his finger in an open flame and speculated on the pain of Hell. In "Taxi Driver," Travis Bickle's Hell was the streets of New York, and for Jake La Motta in "Raging Bull," it was a boxing ring.

The Savior here is on a direct line with these characters. But these men were outside God's circle. Being chosen by God and having His divinity within Him are the cause of Christ's suffering. This Christ is wracked with doubt over his destiny. He can't be certain if the voices He hears are those of God or the Devil. Hating His own weakness and cowardice and susceptibility to temptation, Jesus excoriates His flesh, wearing a nail-studded belt around His waist.

It is this conflict -- the struggle between the spirit and the flesh -- that Scorsese and his screen writer, Paul Schrader (who wrote "Taxi Driver" and cowrote "Raging Bull"), take as their subject. In this they attempt to strike a universal chord -- to place Christ not above us, and above our weaknesses, but on a level with us, and prone to the same doubts and temptations.

In Willem Dafoe, Scorsese shows us a Christ who is more an anguished modern neurotic than a biblical figure, a sort of Hamlet, and seemingly unfit for the role of Messiah. And he invites us to think of Him as mad.

Fear, Christ says, rules Him, not holiness. He would rebel against God and give in to temptation if He weren't such a coward. His transformation comes in the desert, where He purifies Himself, becoming first the God of Love, then the God of the Sword, waging war on the Devil in all his wordly guises. His enemy, though, is as much the Jewish hierarchy and the strictures of Jewish law as it is the Romans. When He arrives in Jerusalem to pray, He is offended by the money-changers in the temple and in a fit of rage disrupts their operations, overturning their scales and tossing their money into the air.

The Christ in this part of the film is a sort of charismatic revolutionary leader, and as He travels He gathers his converts into a small army. Moving from village to village to pray and spread the message, He reaches out not in modulated, soft-spoken tones, but with a rabble-rousing fervor, like a flame-throwing tent revivalist. And we can't help but feel a questioning twinge when, after a wedding, He boasts with wild eyes to a small gathering that He is the one they have been waiting for, that He is God.

Some of these encounters have an inadvertent camp element, and Scorsese is only partly successful in offsetting it. Try as you might, you can't help but register, on one level, that what we have here are Method-influenced actors wandering around the desert in sandals and dusty rags. And some scenes, like the one in which Christ raises Lazarus from the dead, are downright comical. (Blinking into the sunlight, Lazarus looks as if he were having a very bad day.)

A number of the performances are far from stellar too. When they go wrong, it's as if the actors weren't quite sure what style they were meant to adopt, and so there's a tentativeness in their characterizations. Only Harvey Keitel, who brings a virile urgency to his portrayal of Judas, and David Bowie, in a resonant cameo as Pontius Pilate, stand out. This is Christ's story and, therefore, Dafoe's movie. Dafoe's beautiful, masklike face is a combination of fragility and cruelty; it's a great face for dementia or, alternatively, divine possession. Nothing looks unnatural on it, and, as Christ, he enters his character -- and his character's pain -- to a degree that is scarily convincing.

Barbara Hershey's Mary Magdalene is less believable; watching her, you find it hard to get past the tattoos etched into her skin or her mascara-blacked eyes. The character, as Scorsese and Schrader have conceived her, symbolizes Christ's baser human side and His longings to be free of His heavenly burdens (a tough gig for any actress).

Though her meatiest moments come early in the film, Hershey's most controversial scenes are in the movie's final segment, in which Christ, with the guidance of a luminously placid guardian angel, is taken down from the Cross and relieved of His suffering. In this long passage, Christ's last temptation is acted out. Still wearing the crown of thorns and covered with blood, He is told that He is not the Messiah after all, that the future awaiting Him is one of happy domesticity. Out of a green valley, Mary Magdalene approaches Him, dressed in white for their wedding, and afterward they make love.

Their lovemaking is explicit and sensual, but not pornographic or in any way prurient. It is the coupling of husband and wife, muzzily shot as a romantic interlude, and what this fantasy represents is the culmination of Christ's dreams of normality, His deliverance from the pain of being God's Son. It is also His greatest cowardice, and it comes at the moment of His greatest trial, as He is about to die. And ultimately, His triumph over it and His reconciliation with his mission on earth is His salvation and final victory. Returning to the Cross, he cries out, "It is accomplished."

Scorsese builds magnificently to this moment, and it has a revelatory power. Working with cinematographer Michael Balhaus, the director has given the film a phantasmagorical palette. His Middle Eastern compositions (most of which were shot in Morocco) are rocky and desert-dry and bleached of color, and they seem almost to vibrate from the intensity of the sun. In the scenes set in the marketplaces and villages, the colors are jarringly sensous; they burn into you and help Scorsese to evoke the barbarism of the age.

The film is awash with blood; it is the ruling visual motif. (Even the opening credits are cast against a blood-red backing, and under them we hear Peter Gabriel's pulsing music.) But then again, blood is its subject -- blood and fire and the frailties of the flesh.

"The Last Temptation of Christ" is a probing, unflinching film. And Scorsese's motive here is to stimulate and provoke, not to sensationalize. The director's failure, though, comes at the most basic level. In spite of all he accomplishes, he is unable to bring Jesus close to us, to realize his stated goal of creating a universal figure who symbolizes the spiritual anguish of all men. Somehow Christ's suffering seems to have been fetishized, and there's an almost creepy kind of glee in the filmmakers' presentation of the corruptions here. The result is an inescapable sadomasochistic tone. Too often, you can feel them, perhaps in spite of themselves, taking pride in their own outrageousness.

In this regard the director's own virtuosity is something of an impediment. Scorsese directs here as if his whole soul hangs in the balance, as if the film is his own redemption. As a result, in some places the images have an overwrought, almost drunken hyperbolism. In others, he seems not to have noticed how flatly the material is played out. Perhaps after 15 years of planning and waiting to make this film, he was unable to see it objectively.

Scorsese's obsessiveness is part of the movie's strength, but its downfall as well. Not that he is a stranger to obsessiveness. But though we could all put ourselves inside Travis Bickle's febrile brain, Christ remains a kind of ghostly emanation -- a vivid but elusive shadow. We identify with His pain, but we can't find our own in it, or ourselves in Him.

"The Last Temptation of Christ" is rated R and contains adult material, nudity and violence.

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