STARRING William Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, David Bowie
WRITTEN BY Paul Schrader
DIRECTED BY Martin Scorsese
** (out of ****)
I knew next to nothing about this movie with the exception of writer/director Kevin Smith referencing it when discussing Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ(2004). If memory serves me right, Smith brought this up in one of his Evening With DVDs, but I don’t recall what all was said. I did know that it was controversial because of the inclusion of Mary Magdalene and some of the assertions this movie supposedly made towards Jesus and her, and its viewpoint of Jesus of Nazareth as an unsure, doubting figure. And where there’s a controversial religious film, there’s me interested in seeing it. Such controversy is typically unwarranted (most recently, The Golden Compass and The Da Vinci Code come to mind), but I guess, out of all of them, this one deserves it. Last Temptation isn’t a great movie, really, but what saves this from being garbage is its interesting premise: one final temptation for Jesus to stray from his ‘path’ – and it’s enticing.
Based off the 1951 book of the same name, Jesus (Dafoe) is your everyday man - chilling with his mom and carving crosses. Except, Jesus also believes himself the Son of God. But yet Jesus doubts himself - how could he be the Messiah when he is so afraid of everything? How will he know what to say to the people, or to not say the wrong thing? To find out for sure is he is the Messiah prophesied, Jesus meets with John the Baptist, who initially doesn't recognize Him for who He is. Thus, John proposes that Jesus go out into the Desert and find the answers via a 'spirit walk' of sorts. There, secluded in a drawn circle, Jesus is confronted by temptations of the flesh and promises of grandeur, but he banishes them away. Jesus leaves the desert and finds his companions, now knowing his mission, and what he must to. He reveals to his best friend Judas (Keitel) that He must die, and that Judas must help him. And so the prophecy is in motion, although there is one last temptation that Jesus must resist - but can He? Is the proposition too seductive? Can Jesus thwart human temptation?
Does Last Temptation warrant controversy? For uptight religious folk: absolutely! Personally, I find storylines like this fascinating. Additionally, such a story - Christ being tempted whilst on the cross - is fairly powerful in my book, and only adds to the weight of the situation and his sacrificial selflessness. I think it's brilliant. Whether or not Jesus and Mary Magdalene were a item or not, it's interesting to see if Jesus would be tempted one last time to get off that cross by something he so desires it's near impossible to resist. Obviously, all ends well.
I love the notion of making Jesus of Nazareth - or Jesus Christ, if you prefer - more human; for me, it just makes everything more compelling and emotional, not to mention creates a bigger sense of 'Wow' when you consider what Jesus took upon himself for the sake of all humanity. Gibson's Passion is similar in this regard; there were flashbacks to relatively calm and peaceful moments in Jesus' life (such as building something for his mother), Plenty of Jesus flicks paint him as the Messiah right from the start - Godly in all ways: how he acts, how he speaks, what he thinks, etc., etc. By making him human and relatable - with faults and grievances - his plight is thus far more comprehensible and emotionally devastating. It just sucks that Dafoe doesn't play Jesus humanly - he comes across more as a whiney adult, really.
Now I'm giving kudos to the story, but the screenplay doesn't reach the calibar I thought it would gain. I was thinking something along the lines of brilliance, but the only time the script shows off intelligence is the last forty minutes. The dialogue alone seemed lazy, with crappy lines that not even George Lucas would write for Anakin in Episode II (2002). Luckily, the script gets it's act together in the third act, but by then, the damage is done, and my amount of respect towards the flick was pretty much near gone.
William Dafoe plays Jesus, and there's not a single moment where he was convincing or not whining. The entire time I was half anticipating Jesus to dig out his Green Goblin outfit and glide around the sky throwing pumpkin bombs at naysayers. Harvey Keitel's Judas fairs off only a little better, being a far more stronger character than Jesus surprisingly, and infusing him with more life then the thankless script grants him. But really, both of these actors have done better.
The best thing about Last Temptation, I think, is the score by Peter Gabriel. Take away Gabriel's music, and this movie gets boring really, really fast. The score always helps a movie, but for me, this flick lives and dies by the score. Since Dafoe wears the same set of expressions all the time, and Keitel is without any, the score is really our only guide to the movie's emotions. Honestly, this is beautiful, beautiful work.
I may not have been the movie's biggest fan, but I do appreciate what it was trying to accomplish. Last Temptation truly portrayed Jesus as a honest-to-God (pun sorta intended) human being who had to endure pretty much the unendurable, and that idea alone makes me recommend the flick. However, I do believe different casting decisions would have really helped improve the movie, but Gabriel's score more then helps these faults seem less severe. If you're to see one Jesus film in your lifetime, I still vote for Passion of the Christ, but this comes a close second.