Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The Last Temptation of Christ's Compelling Humanity Makes It One of the Best Scorsese Movies

Martin Scorsese is known for his gangster movies and for good reason, he's made one of the all-time great gangster movies with Goodfellas. But that's not all he's delivered as a filmmaker, in fact, looking over his filmography, one is impressed with the variety of genres and aesthetics he's explored. The dude's dabbled in musicals, screwball comedies, family movies, Scorsese's love for cinema has been translated into him trying his hand at so many different avenues of creative cinematic expression. Such exploration has also led him to make religious-minded affair like Silence or The Last Temptation of Christ that stand out to me, as a Christian, as actually thoughtful Christan-based cinema, a perfect counter to all of that dreadful PureFlix drivel.

The kind of audience members who flock to that PureFlix schlock were also the ones protesting The Last Temptation of Christ in its initial theatrical release. Now that all that pointless outrage has faded into the background, we can all appreciate The Last Temptation of Christ as one of Scorsese's best movie and a thoroughly contemplative piece of cinema. None other than Jesus Christ (Willem Dafoe) is the lead character of this project and we get to follow Christ through a more introspective lens than we usually see in cinematic depictions of this figure. Typically, Jesus Christ is shown as more of a symbol than as a man, he's a figure of pure goodness that man should aspire to emulate rather than somebody we can actually see ourselves in.

That couldn't be further from the more introspective, flawed and vulnerable approach writer Paul Schrader and director Martin Scorsese (working from a 1955 novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis that also filtered Jesus Christ through this lens) have decided to use for the figure of Jesus Christ. We now get extensive voice-over dialogue from Jesus Christ that allows us insight into him feeling weary and insecure of what he's doing and what kind of path God has set out for him. He's a Messiah figure people look to for answers, yet The Last Temptation of Christ makes it abundantly clear that Jesus Christ is full of questions himself. Many have portrayed Jesus Christ in film as an untouchable savior, few have portrayed him as this human. 

Though it'd undeniably be ideal if they got an actor to play Jesus Christ who as an appropriate ethnicity for someone born and raised in the Middle East (the fact that people of color are limited to antagonistic extras while all the lead roles go to white people only reinforces this issue), under the circumstances, Willem Dafoe does feel like a perfect choice to play a version of Jesus Christ that places an emphasis on the vulnerabilities of this figure. Throughout his career, Dafoe has shown a remarkable level of versatility. He can play the one recognizably human figure in sea of madness in something like American Psycho on Tuesday and then revel in a scenery-chewing baddie in the first Spider-Man movie on Thursday, he's that kind of gifted actor.

But something he's especially good at is expressing vulnerability in figures frequently shown to be powerful. He's demonstrated this quality in a whole variety of fare, from his voicework in Fantastic Mr. Fox to his Oscar-nominated turn in At Eternity's Gate to even The Fault In Our Stars. Even some of his most humorous moments in The Lighthouse saw Dafoe cracking open his sea captain characters' hardened exterior to show terror over matters like the quality of his cooking being questioned. Dafoe has the ability to lend believability to a commanding aura that makes you buy a character as a towering figure and then not even miss a beat in organically conveying the more vulnerable qualities of those same figures. Such talent is put to fantastic use all throughout The Last Temptation of Christ.

Dafoe's performance communicates such authentic humanity throughout The Last Temptation of Christ, especially in that extended ending where we get to see a version of his life where Jesus steps down off the cross to live a normal life. Here, we get to see Jesus divorced from the context of his sacrifice on the cross and Dafoe uses very inch of that opportunity to render Jesus as just another man.  By contrast, Dafoe lends equal levels of quality to his acting in scenes where Jesus Christ has to act like a figure who could inspire the masses. A scene where Dafoe portrays Jesus doing the famous "Cast the first stone!" speech especially impressed me in how much it captured the sense of majesty and wisdom I've always associated with the figure of Jesus Christ. Dafoe's ability to unearth vulnerability in larger-than-life figures is an especially key reason why a character study like The Last Temptation of Christ works as well as it does. However, his ability to lend such a convincing quality to moments where Jesus Christ must be a figure that stirs up the masses is equally valuable.

Dafoe's performance balancing two seemingly disparate elements pairs well with Paul Schrader's introspective script, which also pulls off its own unique balancing act. In the case of the screenplay, Schrader manages to make The Last Temptation of Christ something that uses a speaking style specifically rooted in an ancient time period without sacrificing discernable humanity in the process. Though their arcane syntax is certainly not the norm in 2019, Schrader creates compelling character dynamics and recognizably human personalities within the famous figures ripped straight from the pages of the Bible. This is especially true of the friendship between Jesus and Judas (Harvey Keitel), which is riddled with as much strife between the duo as there is clear affection for one another.

Their complexly rendered friendship is another aspect of The Last Temptation of Christ that stands out as unearthing engrossing humanity into figures whose stories are frequently boiled down to thinly-sketched bullet points. Martin Scorsese's direction is just as impressive as Schrader's writing and it's especially noteworthy how well Scorsese equips himself to execute the sometimes unorthodox imagery the script calls for. Most Scorsese movies are rooted firmly in reality, extremely over-the-top things can occur, but they rarely get into the fantastical. Yet when called upon in The Last Temptation of Christ to bring to life scenes of Jesus Christ talking to a seductive snake or the recurring visual stand-in for Satan, Scorsese is more than up to the task. Now that all the nonsensical protests and controversy has died down, we can all turn our attention to Scorsese's filmmaking chops in The Last Temptation of Christ, one of the absolute best movies he's ever helmed.

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