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‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 12, 1988

In "The Last Temptation of Christ," God, Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and other figures -- hallowed by billions in personal faith -- become putty in director Martin Scorsese's hands. And what does he do with the putty? This will shock you.

He makes a movie.

As in make-believe, what-if, "once upon a time." Before another indignant fist rises, you should know that "Temptation," based upon Nikos Kazantzakis' controversial interpretative fantasy, is a faith-affirming odyssey that attempts to animate "the incessant, merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh" -- a statement from the novel's foreword that Scorsese quotes onscreen. But you should also know that "Temptation" occasionally makes for a weary trudge to Calvary.

When Harvey Keitel and his modern-city accent take on the role of Judas, your belief is tested. And through some long-winded scenes and other sequences uncomfortably close to rock videos or Norman Jewison's "Jesus Christ Superstar," your belief is strained. But there are too many epic moments and impassioned performances to dismiss Scorsese's work.

"Temptation" is visually and aurally stupendous: Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus seems to create his own sun rays, and you can almost taste the dusty existence of ancient life. Peter Gabriel's sound track, a dream of synthesized themes and exotic percussion, is also stirring and propulsive. But the most obvious strength in this commendably bold (and needlessly denounced) project is Willem Dafoe's performance as Jesus. Born with striking features and grown into a compelling actor with a silky voice, the chiseled Dafoe keeps you transfixed.

Emotionally torn apart by -- and initially trying to resist -- his awesome responsibility, this Jesus whips himself, writhes in the dirt clutching his head, and even builds crosses for the Romans in a desperate bid to make God hate him and thus spare his son of his earthly destiny. Meanwhile, prostitute Mary Magdalene -- a role into which Barbara Hershey throws her full weight -- entertains long lines of paying customers as she is embittered by Jesus' celibacy and growing sense of mission.

Jesus is soon to acknowledge his role, assemble a band of disciples and head toward his ultimate sacrifice, fighting satanic temptation and self-doubt -- in himself and his disciples, particularly Judas, who seems more interested in overthrowing the Romans than adopting the Christian code of love. But in Scorsese's final segment, an extended fantasy in which Jesus undergoes his most excruciating temptation, that sympathetic redemption you're supposed to eventually feel never quite comes to pass.

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