Part 3 – Aesthetic of the Cross
This is Part 3 of a three-part dialogue between Paul Deines and Christian writer Evan Hernandez about Martin Scorsese’s biblical epic, The Last Temptation of Christ. You can read this series from the beginning here.
Paul Deines: I’d like to speak about what Scorsese was going for with The Last Temptation of Christ and to what extent he succeeded. I’ve seen it probably five times now, and I’m always wowed by it. But this is the first time I’ve notices some ragged edges.
Evan Hernandez: I’m starting to realize as we talk, I tend to like movies about heroes. This movie is not that. Understanding that helps me understand why I did not enjoy it. And I hate sections like Jesus eating the bloody apple in the desert and then chopping down the tree it come from with an axe the dead John the Baptist magically gives him. Those are just so off-the-rails nuts that I can’t even be offended by them. I don’t get why it’s there, and it doesn’t seem to lead to anything.
PD: I don’t mind the magical realism, but what seems weird to me is, he has this vision in the desert the axe and the tree; so he comes back to the apostles with the axe and pulls out his own heart.
PD: But between the desert vision and this call to war, there’s a scene where he meets Mary and Martha and has supper with them, and it’s really sweet.
EH: The order of things is screwy, I think, throughout the movie. And that whole desert sequence was ridiculous to the point of comical. I will give the film credit for taking a novel-esque approach to the narrative.
PD: It’s a pretty ponderous film. It plays like a novel, with the intense focus on Jesus’ interior life. At a certain point, though, you realize maybe the viewer doesn’t need that level of interiority in a movie.
EH: I firmly believe that Martin Scorsese is a better director of moments than of movies. He has created some of my all time favorite scenes. Gangs of New York, for example, is not even close to one of my favorite films, but I own it and I regularly go back to moments. Scorsese allows his actors the freedom to do things that are a little crazy. Raw emotional moments, like in The Departed where he just lets Jack Nicholson do his rat tooth cheese thing.
EH: The character goes off the rails for a second, and most directors would never let an actor do that. It would terrify them. They wouldn’t know how to elicit that, or if they gave the actor enough leash to do it they’d still cut it out in editing.
PD: He’s had the same editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, for 25 years, and she has this uncanny ability to marry his two inclinations as a filmmaker. On the one hand, he’s a consummate photographer and borrower of film styles. On the other, he loves letting the camera roll while his actors improv, and I think the best example of the marriage may be Raging Bull. That film has the Robinson/Lamotta title fight that is a perfectly story-boarded pastiche of Hitchcock’s shower scene.
PD: It also has the famous “you fuck my wife?” sequence that is mostly ad-libbed in a couple of medium shots.
EH: Same thing with the famous monologue from Taxi Driver. In the script, it just says he looks in the mirror.
PD: And consider: that monologue is part of an extended scene of Travis Bickle preparing his weapons and training, scored to Bernard Herrmann, looping in a voiceover, and featuring multiple setups. But it's framed with an improvised soliloquy.
PD: And my favorite part is right after the “you talking to me?” section: the voiceover entry in Bickle’s diary, read by DeNiro like a manifesto. And he gets about ten words in and stammers. So, he stops and goes back, and the montage repeats itself. That’s a perfect encapsulation of how Scorsese combines the natural cadence of human interaction with a totally assured visual composition. Okay, let’s talk performances. First off, my favorite performance in the movie (though many people hate it): David Bowie as Pontius Pilate.
EH: It helps that I didn’t know it was David Bowie. It was an interesting performance. That whole take on Rome in the Pilate scene – before that your only experience Rome as a statue of Caesar in some scenes. I think Bowie does a good job. It’s appropriately surreal, this moment of extreme wealth, great control, gravitas, and a little bit of “why does this matter?” from Pilate.
PD: Why are you bothering me at this time of the night?
EH: Exactly. All of that meets this carpenter from nowhere who is somehow a political figure.
PD: Last Temptation was made on slightly more than a shoestring, and some scenes look a little unfinished, but the Pontius Pilate scene perfectly captures the power of Rome through sparseness. It’s one Roman bureaucrat who hates that he’s been sent to the middle of nowhere to oversee a bunch of unruly Jews, and he’s been pulled out of bed for a trial in the middle of the night. And he figures, if I’m going to have to do this trial, I’m going to groom my horse in the process. I love how Bowie the performance is. Utterly detached and bored.
EH: It kind of feels like a scene out of Dr. Who. That’s not necessarily a criticism; it still works.
PD: Yeah, it works because of the final moment when Pilate just summarily condemns Jesus to death, like there was never any chance of a different outcome. And he tosses off his true feeling about the Jews in two sentences, about how they need to count the skulls on Golgotha to figure out their chances of beating Rome. Then as he’s sauntering off he says they probably wouldn’t learn anything.
EH: And the portent for history; only a few decades later the Romans raze Jerusalem to the ground. Stone by stone.
PD: Moving on, what about Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene?
EH: I can’t get over how totally unattractive they make her. Part of it’s purposeful …
PD: Henna is kind of her only makeup in this.
EH: Really, she seems too old for the part. Obviously in the last temptation section, she is supposed to age, but even in the very beginning she seems old and used up.
PD: Well, everyone other than Dafoe looks a little too old for this movie. I mean, Judas Iscariot is, like, 45 in this movie. Which makes exactly no sense. While we’re there – besides the ridiculous red wig – what do we think about Harvey Keitel as Judas?
EH: I think, overall, it’s mostly unfortunate that it’s Harvey Keitel. When the movie came out it was a whole different ball game. Now, I know Keitel from Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.
PD: Yeah, and in 1988 he was only a few years removed from being a matinee idol. He’d played the pimp in Taxi Driver, yes, but he’d also played romantic leads.
EH: And so for me it seems less like an aging actor taking on an interesting role and more like a gangster trying to play Judas. Which is unfair.
PD: And the other apostles have a wonderful schlubby anonymity, but Judas … the problem is that Keitel’s worst scene is his first scene. He has to play political ideologue and distinctly Jewish, and that is not his wheelhouse.
EH: He’s spitting and jumping on a cross.
PD: And it’s all done in this unfortunate wide shot that makes him look like an angry kid.
EH: It doesn’t even look effective.
EH: It’s unfortunate that there’s so much modern baggage – it’s not even bad baggage – with Keitel, because honestly it’s not a bad performance. The fact that he brings New York to it helps draw the story into a more modern context. He’s sort of a bad ass.
PD: Some people are annoyed by all the New York accents in Last Temptation, but I don’t see a problem.
EH: It emphasizes that they’re working class guys. It’s not a bad way to express this.
PD: Well, we discussed Harry Dean Stanton and Andre Gregory earlier. What about Willem Dafoe as Jesus?
EH: Again, his recent filmography totally pollutes what I think of him here. One of my favorite performances from him is in Boondock Saints –
PD: Go fuck yourself. That’s a terrible movie!
EH: I know; I’ve given the DVD away. But that is still one of the most intense associations I have with him. It’s not a good thing. This is a confession.
PD: I can’t talk about Boondock Saints. Not now. But when The Last Temptation was being made, most people knew Dafoe from Platoon. Where he played kind of a messianic figure.
EH: He’s amazing in Platoon.
PD: Boondock Saints! I feel like my life is demonstrably worse for having seen Boondock Saints.
EH: I dated a girl who loved that movie, so that is my association with Dafoe.
PD: I guess my strongest Dafoe association is this movie. It’s not easy to play Jesus, is it?
EH: Especially in this movie. In many Gospel movies, you can just play him one-note. You’ve got blessing pose and crucifixion pose. But in a movie like this, it’s a nearly impossible role. You’re being asked to play a man who goes through many stages in extreme conditions. And I’m sure it wasn’t shot in order. So he spends a lot of time looking crazy. That’s probably my biggest complaint: it’s one thing for a sane person to hear a supernatural voice and worry he’s going crazy. It’s something that almost no one will ever experience: A sane human being who is experiencing something out of all sane possibility. There are countless effective movies made about this idea. But all too often, I feel like Dafoe is playing crazy, rather than sane-but-afflicted or even sane-but-brilliant. Another alternative is to play Jesus as something of a tortured genius.
PD: A good portion of what he does in the gospel is spar with religious leaders on the fine points of Moses’ Law.
EH: But the craziness is not really Dafoe’s fault. That’s how it was written and definitely how he was directed. But it’s what makes the movie not work for me generally. I can’t connect to this character.
PD: It’s mostly in the first half though, right? It’s that period where he’s searching, and the more times I watch this film the more I like those passages. They’re important, because he cannot figure out what he’s supposed to be. On the one hand, the movie posits that anyone proclaiming to be the son of God will not sound sane. On the other hand, they do cast Dafoe, who never looks entirely sane. But that’s how it goes for Jesus on film. Either you cast an unknown or you cast someone with a wild stare. Even a saccharine picture like The Greatest Story Ever Told had Max Von Sydow, who was best known for Bergman films like The Seventh Seal. But he knew the movie he was making. He knew the Centurion would be played by John Wayne.
PD: I want to go back to what you were saying about a Scorsese film being better in parts than as a whole. I think that might be true of even his best movies. Even Goodfellas, though, which is pretty much a masterpiece – when you think about Goodfellas, you tend to think more about individual scenes than the film as a whole.
EH: And there’s that major tonal, and fashion, shift between the early scenes in the Sinatra era through the seventies and the later scenes in the eighties. You really feel by the end that everything has run its course and everyone is done for. You want it to be over.
PD: Mean Streets, too, is one of my favorites, an astonishing piece of work. But if you ask me the story of it, I don’t know that I can tell you. I can tell you how it begins and how it ends, and a lot of great scenes in the middle. But I don’t know if I could explain the narrative arc. His films are just so big and so wild. Even though they’re assuredly made, they don’t always cohere.
PD: This one though, The Last Temptation of Christ, is about one guy, but it still doesn’t hang together. I really think that might be a budgetary thing, though. I think they made this ramshackle with what they could manage on any given day, and that means it doesn’t always play together. And with that in mind, I ask, why do we tell this story? Do you think this movie has a message to impart that is useful to people?
EH: No. And the reason I have to say that is they had to change Jesus’ basic character so intensely. The biggest issue really is that Jesus in the Gospels consistently explains himself only to those who are closest to him or in as a matter of last resort. He would not go in front of a crowd and say, “I need to be crucified to save the world,” but he did say that to those close to him. And he did this by asking the disciples, “Who do you think I am?” and they tell him he is the Messiah. He did not say to Pilate or the Jewish elders, “I am the King of the Jews.” Pilate kept asking Jesus who he was and eventually volunteered that he might be King of the Jews. Then Jesus said, “You have said it.” He doesn’t even really confirm it. This is the biggest difference between a manipulative religious leader who wants to control people and a genius who understands megalomania and the curiosity that comes from knowing you are the fulfillment. He heals someone and tells him not to tell anyone. That’s a level of self-awareness and understanding that is missing from this movie. In this movie he is so frantic to understand himself that he pays less attention to understanding other people. Willem Dafoe playing Jesus and the Jesus I find in the Bible – that difference ruins the movie for me. As a Christian.
PD: The movie is almost, I don’t know, Freudian in that regard. What’s the difference between this Jesus trying to find himself and Tony Soprano, or any person trying to become psychologically whole? Is this a story of just self-actualization? The fact that he is Jesus and his objective is the salvation of humanity makes this struggle more important than a regular psychodrama.
EH: It is very much about this one guy trying to settle his relationship with the truth. “What is the truth about who I am?”
PD: But his truth is, as it turns out, the only real truth.
EH: A truly humble and love-filled Christ, though, is not this Christ. It is one who is focused not on self but on the needs of others, who hurts for those who are in pain. He’s taken out of himself with his love for the world. The real tragedy of Jesus’ life is that everyone he loves is hurting. And this movie doesn’t address that in a serious way. The day-to-day reality of Jesus is he is in pain because the world is in pain. Not because he’s scared or because he doesn’t know the truth, but because everyone he knows is farther from God than they should be. And it kills him.
PD: Hmm, well I disagree with you there, because I think the Dafoe character is clearly in agony throughout, and the root of this agony is the degradation of man. This manifests itself in a lot kvetching and whining and some ranting, but I do think that pain is very real. And maybe the fault of the movie, for you, is that the movie takes a very human view of Jesus. And the world of Last Temptation is so unrelentingly bleak that that externalizes that distance from God. Anyway, I don’t find this film to be a failure. It deals exclusively with the struggle of a human man contending with the fact that he is the world’s sacrifice and the world’s salvation.
EH: If you want to know if this film has value, I want to come back to what I said at the beginning. When I separate this movie from the Jesus that I care about and worship on a daily basis… When I look at this as an allegorical story, I’m left to contend with this question – “how can I access everything God has for me without losing my mind?” Sometimes it feels impossible. It’s an impossible task to save the world, and sometimes that’s what we’re called to do, as Christians and as people. To care about not only myself, my parents, my friends, my neighbors, my city, country, but people across the world. I’m called to care about what happens in Syria, to feel something when I find people are dying without cause. On that level, The Last Temptation of Christ has value. It dramatizes the struggle not to go crazy trying to feel everything. Where is the grace? Where am I allowed to be happy and enjoy my life? As opposed to giving everything I have to try and save something I cannot save. It’s the interesting thing about this movie. Jesus discovers in the end he does save everyone with his death. I have no problem with that; it’s good.
PD: What makes it unpalatable – even a bit to me – is that the searcher in this is Jesus. No one would have been offended and no one would have seen it if it weren’t Jesus.
EH: If it was St. Gregory or Mother Teresa, no one would have cared. But Jesus is supposed to be perfect so …
PD: The more time I spend with this movie, the more I’m aware of its shortcomings and the less they seem to matter.
EH: If this movie had been a huge cultural phenomenon – if this was universally loved – I’d be more bothered by that. That people come back to it and contemplate it, I think that’s a healthy thing.
PD: Yeah, two years after Last Temptation comes out, Scorsese makes a little movie called Goodfellas. The Last Temptation of Christ will never be what he’s known for.
EH: But if it makes people consider what they believe about Jesus, that’s value to the world, I guess.
 PD: Note to non-Christians or those that just forgot this: Jesus had a lot of Maries in his life. There was his mother, Mary, who was married to Joseph. He befriended Mary Magdalene, who may have been a prostitute but was definitely one of his closest followers (though not, technically, an apostle). There were also two sisters, Mary and Martha, who hosted him and listened to his parables.
 PD: As a side note, you should definitely check out – if you haven’t already – Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar. She talks about the rebellion of Simon Bar Kochba, which precipitated the Roman sacking of Jerusalem. Hadrian, at least in this book, is dedicating his kingship to limiting Rome’s power, and to quell this rebellion he smashes the Temple to the ground and exiles the Jews, allowing them to return one day a year to weep before the ruins. It’s seems to say: having an empire ain’t great; most of the time you’re just destroying people.
 PD: Budget was a slight $7 million. It grossed $8.3 million domestically. So, I guess, controversy pays.
Evan Hernandez is a writer and producer based in New York City. His play, A Great Light embarked on its first tour this past holiday season and his debut novel, Breaking the Skies, is was published this year. For more information, visit www.BreakingTheSkies.com and find him on Twitter, @totallyberserk.