Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words
By Roderick Heath
Whilst making Boxcar Bertha in 1972, Barbara Hershey gave Martin Scorsese a book, The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, the Greek author whose novel Alexis Zorba became the famous film with Anthony Quinn. The novel of the Christ led to Kazantzakis’ excommunication, and the work was often banned. Last Temptation remained lodged in Scorsese’s imagination until he began developing the project in the early 1980s. Nervousness pervaded all stages of bringing the film to realization. Paramount, which had agreed to bankroll the film, pulled out before shooting began. The production went ahead in Morocco on a $7 million budget provided by Universal and Cineplex/Odeon.
The early hand-wringing proved justified by the film’s reception. Christian organizations lobbied for its banning. Some offered to buy the negative for the production cost and destroy it. Picket lines attended screenings. French zealots threw Molotov cocktails at a Parisian showing. Wildfire controversy accompanied the work wherever it went. If it was a grindhouse film, its video cover might still boast “Banned by Bulgaria and Blockbuster!” All this from a guy who came close to enrolling in the seminary? You’d think Marty had portrayed Jesus as joining in a cocaine-fuelled threesome with Mary and Judas and voicing support for Michael Dukakis. Rather, The Last Temptation of Christ is merely a vivid, strident, intellectually curious work. It is also possibly Scorsese’s greatest film—not that it’s ever likely to win that consensus from a popular culture that has made a fetish of Taxi Driver or Goodfellas—and one of the most vigorous and original religious films ever made.
Kazantzakis’ written prologue establishes the spiritual territory; the disturbing, incomprehensible struggle of a man who is also divine to reconcile the struggles between the flesh and godliness. The Jesus thus conjured is not a beatifically smiling savior assured of his own rectitude and sublime purpose, but (as embodied by Willem Dafoe, dedicated to the role with hypnotic effort), instead chased by restless dread and unseen torments, filled with self-loathing and hate for the God he knows wants something great and terrible from him. He struggles through deadly stigmatic fits and phases of doubt, fear, anger, despair, and human longing.
Spurning the lamentable history of Jesus flicks, Last Temptation dedicates itself to a portrait of the beginnings of Christianity as it sprang from the brute soil of Roman-occupied Judea—this raw, dirty, poverty-stricken landscape on the edge of both the Empire and the realms of the human psyche; beyond here is only the bone-cracking desert, playground of Yahweh and Satan. Judea’s native culture has been reduced to ineffective theatre. It’s a multicultural crossroads, infused with Bedouins, Arabs, Persians, and Africans, tough and vital. The land has turned its attention to wandering preachers and soothsayers like John the Baptist. Guerrilla resistance simmers; the Zealots, including Saul (Harry Dean Stanton), act as paramilitary enforcers, searching out traitors both religious and secular. Jesus has made himself a pariah by being the only carpenter willing to manufacture crosses for the Romans. He even participates in crucifying a seditious prophet, anticipating his own hideous fate. “God loves me…I want him to stop! … I make crosses so he’ll hate me. I want him to find somebody else!”
Jesus determines to pursue his fate, and leaves his home and mother (Verna Bloom). Walking the shores of Galilee, he senses himself being followed by an invisible thing that strikes him with pain before directing him to the house of Mary Magdalene (Hershey – Scorsese made her audition so she wouldn’t think he was just returning the favor of the loan of the book in casting her). He watches the degrading sensual spectacle of Mary with her clients for the day. At the crucifixion he helped perform, Mary, amongst the jeerers, had spat in his face. Jesus begs her forgiveness; they were childhood sweethearts, but Mary lost Jesus to his crisis, which caused him to reject the possibility of marrying her. Broken-hearted and out of suitors, taking up a whore’s life was her only option, and she taunts him sexually and emotionally with forlorn rage. And yet a powerful friendship still holds them together.
Jesus reaches a remote, rugged, desert monastery. He is greeted by the spirit of the recently deceased Abbot, who states that he knows who Jesus is. Jesus confesses his purposes and weaknesses to young monk Jerobeam (Barry Miller), who tries to advise him on the tasks that confront him. When two black cobras emerge from a hole in his cell and speak with Mary’s voice, Jerobeam recognizes it as a sign Jesus’ impurities have been cast out, and he can return to the world.
The film’s greatest twist on the traditional story is Judas, embodied with great force and emotional complexity by Harvey Keitel. Taking a cue from the Gnostic texts, Judas is Jesus’ angry doppelganger, another childhood friend who has become an agent of the Zealots. Jesus takes Judas’ knock for whatever it is that dogs him, and indeed, he is the incarnation of Jesus’ merciless responsibility. Judas kicks at Jesus’ tools and wood for the cross he’s building, and when Jesus plaintively explains, “I’m struggling,” Judas ripostes, “I struggle. You collaborate!” When Jesus returns from the desert, Judas holds a knife to his throat—the Zealots have ordered his assassination. Jesus accepts the knife if it’s what God wants for him, but, stirred by Judas’ hesitance, suggests, “Perhaps He didn’t send you here to kill me. Maybe He sent you to follow me.”
Judas walks with Jesus back to civilization, stating “If you stray this much from the path, I’ll kill you.” A righteous opportunity quickly presents itself; the pair comes upon Mary being stoned by a mob, scapegoat for festering frustration. Jesus intervenes, facing down the righteous hypocrites, accosting wealthy Zebadee (Irvin Kershner—yes, the one who directed The Empire Strikes Back) with a telling count of his sins: “He’s seen you cheat your workers! And what about that widow you visit, what’s her name?” Jesus leads them instead to deliver the Sermon on the Mount, except that both the crowd and the impact of his words aren’t what they’re cracked up to be. Jesus is too crippled by the conflict of his ideas and impulses to trust himself as a preacher: “God is so many miracles. What if I say the wrong thing? What if I say right thing?”
Jesus gives a parable of a farmer sewing wheat, some of which withers, some of which finds no soil, and some of which grows and feeds a nation, and then explains, when he’s met with stony looks, he’s the farmer. His parable proves immediately true; some declare him an idiot, some take him for a provocateur and bay for blood, and some, the most intellectually and spiritually curious, are intrigued. Jesus’ band of adherents swells. Taking a leaf from Roberto Rossellini’s The Flowers of St Francis, Scorsese uses the Apostles for gently, highly human, comic relief as they fight for sleeping space by the fire. Judas finds them silly and useless, whilst Jesus ponders the purpose-sapping contradictions of his efforts. His return to Nazareth is met by mockery and stones.
Judas suggests they go to see John the Baptist (Andre Gregory), who condenses the spirit of the Old Testament in his scrawny, wild-haired body. He rants prophesies of judgment, brimstone, godly wrath. “Now he sounds like the Messiah!” Judas croaks. They have come upon The Baptist at a ceremony, surrounding by religious ecstatics; women dance naked, drums bang, chants sound. As Jesus comes toward John from behind, John turns abruptly, just as Jesus had with his own unseen pursuer, and demands, “Who are you?” The noise of the ceremony dies, leaving only the sound of rippling river water, and does not return until John anoints Jesus’ head.
This is a scene that captures Scorsese’s jarring approach at its finest. Scorsese achieves a vivid sense of the past by spurning pure historical detail; he emphasizes the raw remoteness of time and place by mixing Judaic scenery with multicultural tropes. Roman soldiers are dressed in stylized garb that might have come from a punk staging of Jesus Christ Superstar. Isaiah visits Jesus in a bleached Darth Vader costume. With dashes of ’80s New Wave and punk aesthetic, right down to Peter Gabriel’s gorgeously weird score and casting alterna-music figures like David Bowie and John Lurie, Scorsese reinvents history with a melding of modernist dance, art, and film styles. Partly enforced by the low budget, there is a complete rejection of epic plush; this is a desert world.
“The God of Israel is a God of the desert,” John the Baptist tells Jesus, and that is where he must now go for his first confrontation with Satan, a pillar of flame with an elegantly mocking English accent (voiced by Leo Marks, writer of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom). The miracles, visions, and apparitions are starkly simple, in contrast with Mel Gibson’s setting in the The Passion of the Christ, where the only angels one could sense Gibson’s God trying to hold back were ten-thousand CGI artists (one could write another essay comparing these two films).
Facing down Satan’s taunts finally gives Jesus the warlike purpose he lacked; he returns with an axe he finds in the sand, ready for revolution, and pulls his heart from his body to display his newly granted capacity for miracles and to awe his followers. He passes through the landscape determined to heal and cast out demons; madmen and cripples slither out of crevices like he’s dragging the disease out of the flesh of the earth. Lobbied to raise Lazarus (Tomas Arana), brother of Mary (Randy Danson) and Martha (Peggy Gormley), who sheltered Jesus when he returned from fasting, Jesus bids the stone on his tomb rolled away, at which point everyone covers their face from the stench. Yet Lazarus still claws his way out of his tomb, numbed and covered in green rot.
Jesus enters Jerusalem and throws out the moneylenders from the Temple in fiery indignation in a scene met with the shock and anger of a rabbi (veteran character actor Nehemiah Persoff), who perceives himself as stalwart defender of Judaic tradition in a time of assault by foreign mores and Gods. Saul and the Zealots, seeing Jesus’ influence and that Judas has joined him, visit Lazarus and murder him, eliminating the proof of Jesus’ greatest miracle. When Jesus leads a mob to assault the Temple again, he is stricken by stigmata; God telling him he will not die a quick, heroic death, but with the ignominious cruelty of crucifixion, and there’s no way out of it. Jesus collapses and is helped away by Judas as Roman soldiers slaughter the mob.
Jesus already expects his end, told to him by a visitation of Isaiah. He tells a grief-stricken, conflicted Judas that he needs him to give him up. When Judas asks if he could give up a man he loves to such an end, Jesus replies, “No. That’s why God gave me the easier job.” In short time, Jesus writhes in doubt at Gethsemane before being dragged off to see Pontius Pilate (David Bowie), a calmly intellectual appraiser (“You’re just another Jewish politician.”) who swiftly diagnoses Jesus as being more dangerous to the Zealots. “It’s one thing to change the way people live, but you want to change the way they think, the way they feel,” Pilate explicates, as embodiment of Pax Romana logic. “It simply doesn’t matter how you want to change things. We don’t want them changed.” Jesus is beaten, crowned with thorns, and led to his bloody consummation on Golgotha. Jesus screams forlornly as a grimly apocalyptic dust-wind rises.
As it had with The Baptist, the clamor of the scene dies, and a golden-haired girl (Juliet Caton) approaches through the crowd. Tugging the nails from his feet and hands, she tells Jesus she is his Guardian Angel, and that God has granted a reprieve—he’s not the Messiah, and he can lead the rest of his life in simple ease. Led into a newly verdant Israel, Jesus is married to Mary and living in sublime peace with her before God appears to her and kills her. Jesus is enraged, but the Angel assures him, with her honey-toned, oddly psychopathic rhetoric, it was simply her time, that all women are the same. She encourages him to take a new wife, Lazarus’ sister Mary, and eventually also to bed her sister Martha. He fathers children and lives to a ripe old age, where he’s ashamed to think of his self-abnegating, egotistical, religious mission. He encounters Saul, now calling himself Paul, preaching in a public forum, of his conversion to Christ’s teachings and of the legend of his sacrifice. Jesus angrily declaims his death and mocks his own legend. Paul ripostes, “I’m glad I met you…my Jesus is far more powerful.” Paul is popularizing Jesus’ legend, arguing that humanity needs Jesus’ message of universal love and redemption.
Jesus is dying as Jerusalem is laid waste in the wake of rebellion, and his Apostles emerge from hiding to gather at his side. “Be careful, he’s still angry!” they warn of Judas, who enters, blood staining his hands from fighting the Romans. Judas erupts, accusing Jesus for not following his path, then lifting the veil on the Angel as Satan; this has been his most powerful, bewitching assault on God’s plan. Jesus, horrified and appropriately penitent, crawls out into the fire-stained, scream-riddled night and cries to return to the cross, which he promptly is, muttering “It is accomplished!” before dying. The movie literally dissolves, sprocket holes, scratches, and strips of film showing like the reel has broken.
The Last Temptation of Christ affirms Christ’s sacrifice; although Jesus wants earthly fulfillments—and those earthly fulfillments are twisted as Satan slyly draws away from the singular purity of his ardor for Mary Magdalene into a more ego-fulfilling threesome—he recognizes its insignificance before his great task, which is to reinvent the religion of his forefathers and humankind along with it. The film, scripted by Paul Schrader with contributions from Jay Cocks, is built around symbols, with sensitivity—as perhaps only a filmmaker can be sensitive to them—to the meaning that can charge images.
The film charts one of the Jesus myth’s strongest contributions to modern religious thought—the substitution of the physical for the symbolic. In the Last Supper sequence, Scorsese cuts betweens the rivers of blood spilt in Temple sacrifices—wasteful and grotesque in a starving country—and Jesus reinventing the idea in drinking “his blood.” “God is not an Israelite!” Jesus shouts on the Temple steps to an outraged crowd, losing their sympathy. His specific condemnation of nationalist self-love continues the film’s study of Jesus recreating the hard concepts of old Judaism into the symbolist thrust of Christianity—from real blood to transubstantiation, from Promised Land as a physical state to Promised Land as a spiritual promise. Stanton embodies Paul, the greatest convert to Jesus’ worldview, with whacko, shifty fervor; the symbolism is crucial. He doesn’t care whether Jesus really died on the cross or not for he recognizes the force of the idea and its appeal. The symbol is more powerful than the deed.
This leads to one of the film’s most forceful subtexts: the strong suggestion, dimly perceived by, and thus perhaps explaining, the rage of the film’s attackers, of a pointed rejection of the ’80s ethos of monumental greed (Scorsese stages the ejection of the moneylenders forcibly and repeatedly, making the film seem like an historical prequel to Wall Street) and the fatuous posturing of Moral Majority-era figures like Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, and Ronald Reagan. “God is not an American!” Jesus might as well be shouting. Simultaneously, by portraying the Zealots as religious terrorists as theoretically rebellious, but really tools for power, the film engages with the troubles that engulf present-day Israel and drive many of the contradictions of current terrorist movements. The film’s Jesus, pained, morally questioning, tempted, and dedicated to multitudinous truth, stands at a vast distance from absolutist hypocrites of all stripes. Scorsese and Schrader, essentially unbelieving men but obsessed with the religious grounding of their perspectives, attempt with the film to recreate Jesus for themselves.
Scorsese’s most stylistically rigorous film, Last Temptation evokes the spiritual terrors that chase Jesus with a hungrily mobile camera (Michael Ballhaus behind it again). Having a blonde little girl as the harbinger of Satan was a touch directly inspired by Mario Bava’s Operazione Paura, and cunningly, during the alternate reality of the last temptation, it’s the only time Scorsese recreates the sun-kissed, twee atmosphere of standard Jesus portrayals. Finally, Scorsese had confronted the root source of many of his fixations head-on. For his next feature, Scorsese headed home again.