peteg's blog - noise - movies - 2023 09 06 TheLastTemptationOfChrist

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

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Continuing the accidental mini-Scorcese rewatch. Over two nights as it's just so long, heavy and humourless.

I didn't know what to make of it back in 2004 and I don't know what to make of it now. On the plus side the cracker soundtrack by Peter Gabriel continues to enthral. But this is not great cinema: scene follows scene with clunky framing and editing so far from the fluency of Scorcese's long-take classics (Casino, Goodfellas — which spend most of their time indoors) and often I had no idea where we were or why. (I think Paul Schrader's screenplay, based on Nikos Kazantzakis's source material, generally leant too heavily on the audience's priors. The weaselly disclaimer that it is not based on the Gospels does not help.) The dialogue is too often incoherent: Willem Dafoe's Jesus tells the temple patriarchs that he's there to extend the old law but under mild probing he owns to being the end of it. The first two-thirds mostly just sets up the provocative finale, which drags out the premise of the title by showing us an agonised Jesus on the cross tempted by normalcy: a harem of ladies, a mob of children, food in return for honest toil. And then back to the cross for a quick "It is Accomplished" retconned terminus.

These flaws are exacerbated by the film being shot so obviously in Morocco: the aesthetic is more obviously Muslim than pre-Christian Jewish. The acting is a mixed bag despite the strength of the cast. There's Victor Argo (King of New York, Bad Lieutenant), as a wooden Peter. Harvey Keitel, an especially clunky (Gnostic) Judas. Andre Gregory (My Dinner with Andre) makes for an edgy John the Baptist; if only they'd found room for Salomé. Harry Dean Stanton brought his best Dennis Hopper impersonation as Zealot Saul/convert Paul. David Bowie as Pontius Pilate puts in the worst acting effort of his career. Barbara Hershey, Mary Magdalene.

Roger Ebert: four stars at the time (mostly about the story) and another four stars in 2008 as a "great movie" (mostly colour). Janet Maslin: Scorcese was overwhelmed by his source material. "The promise held forth by the film's beginning, a promise to use drastic and unexpected ideas as a means of understanding Jesus' inner life, gradually gives way to something less focused." The miracle-after-miracle middle is less emotionally compelling than the interiority of the first movement.