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.=imew Martin Scorsese’s `Last Temptation’ BY MICHAEL KING THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST Written by Paul Schrader Directed by Martin Scorsese Based upon the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis What branches grow out of this stony rubbish? T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land IT REQUIRES BRAVERY and foolhardiness in equal proportions to attempt to retell, which is to say reinterpret, the life of Christ. Everybody thinks they’ve been there, and they know what really happened, no matter how you tell it. The usual Hollywood solution is to tell what everyone knows, only louder and with more extras. A host of wonderfully bad movies has been made upon this simple principle, resulting in little permanent disruption to Western Civilization other than boring television at Christmas and Easter. This seems a small price to pay for insuring the future health and well-being of the descendants of Tyrone Power. Between them, Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader possess enough self-conscious cojones to take on any formidable project and turn it into compelling cinema. Both see the world as an arena of combat, in which men battle enemies seen and unseen and impossible odds to achieve manhood, the love of each other, and the adulation of women. Schrader is deadly serious about these rather adolescent notions, and his screenplays are grim with fatalistic bravado and frankly macho homoeroticism. Scorsese has more grace and a lighter touch, and in The King of Comedy and After Hours was able to mock, to a degree, his ingrained male paranoia. Combine these two children of Hemingway with the yearning allegory of Nikos Kazantzakis, and the result is a film of overwrought emotion, top-heavy symbolism, and undeniable power. The Last Temptation of Christ is an amalgam of pop anthropology, reconstructed history, Michael King, who lives in Houston, writes frequently for the Observer on books and the arts. existential revival, and religious romanticism. When it works, which is most of the time, the film is a convincing, dramatic, and contemporary revision of the central Western myth. Although the opening credits dutifully disclaim adherence to the Gospels, acknowledging Kazantzakis instead, most of the film tells the Jesus-tale as we know it, altering only the emphasis of certain details, imagining the implications of the original texts. Thus the Romans require a carpenter to hone crosses for the execution of Jewish troublemakers; Jesus of Nazareth is the ready hand, choosing to degrade himself in the hopes that God will let him be. His collaboration yet are drawn to his spiritual struggle. Judas is a revolutionary Zealot who believes that despite his cowardice and mystical idealism Jesus might be browbeaten into becoming a millennial Messiah. Magdalene is almost a lover, who calls into question Jesus’ piety and who comes to represent a feminine opposite to . Christ’s unforgivingly masculine spiritualism. This triangle is played out in the context of an impoverished and primitive nation under brutal Roman occupation; and like the novel, the film has a historical resonance that carries it out of the pure realm of theology into the grainy world of politics. The Jewish yearning for a military savior from Rome is a constant undercurrent, and though Jesus finally does not attempt to lead his followers into battle, it is clear that his choice of martyrdom has at least an aspect of sacrifice for a revolutionary future. Judas certainly reads the choice only as that; he accepts from Christ the mission of betrayal because he believes it an act of greater loyalty to his teacher and to his people. SCORSESE’S ANCIENT ISRAEL is an impossibly stony and arid landscape, with scarcely a grapevine to cast a shadow, and the colors are mostly washed-out sepias caught in a withering glare: a world of mystic philosophy rather than men and women. When, on occasion, a miraculous apple tree appears, it violates the ground, and its fruit yields not nourishment but blood. For the most part, blood-red is the only color allowed into this otherwise monochrome world of good . and evil; when pastoral greens and blues suddenly appear, it isn’t difficult to surmise that. it’s the work of the devil. Indeed, for these filmmakers, Jesus of Nazareth is an Old Testament deity in New Testament clothing. Life and death are hard, but God is harder, and anyone who thinks differently is likely to be a woman or a fool, or both. Rome has Israel under her heel, so God the world, and when the would-be Messiah suggests “Love” as a panacea, he can scarcely utter the word let alone convince anyone to believe him. He can hardly believe it himself, and Temptation becomes to a degree a battle between the old and new dispensations, with the outcome very much in doubt. In Willem Dafoe, Scorsese chose the perfect actor to embody his Christ of torment and uncertainty, who accepts his divinity only with great reluctance. Dafoe retains just enough of the conventional saintly look to call up the memory, but his broad and uneven features also suggest doubt and even a certain brutality, and he is a brilliant actor who can move convincingly from ambivalence to conviction in a moment. The script calls for him to vacillate from revolutionary to mystic to martyr without hesitation, and he effectively internalizes the dramatic aridity of the landscape and the text. The war for the world’s salvation is visibly waged within his soul. Much publicity has been made of Christ’s tentative relationship with Mary Magdalene, but the film’s emotional and theological center is the struggle between Jesus and Judas, which alternates in tone and idea between Hegel vs. Marx, and Don Quixote vs. Sancho Panza. It’s worth remembering that all of Scorsese’s films, beginning with Mean Streets, have been male-centered and dominated, even phallic \(most comically and parodistically in And though the Christ of Temptation is drawn to Mary Magdalene \(and the last “temptation” itself it is Judas Iscariot who is Christ’s ideological opposite, who counters Christ’s THE TEXAS OBSERVER 17