Sometime during the middle section of Martin Scorsese’s ambitious The Last Temptation of Christ, a massacre breaks out, one of many led by Jesus (Willem Dafoe) in his quest for salvation. As battle begins, there’s a shot of a statue with its eyes closed, not wanting to see the inevitable carnage. The shot is particularly striking because it sums up everything that’s right about the film, allowing the visuals and score to say more than words can possible achieve. Unfortunately, Scorsese fails to realize that the movie’s power greatly diminishes whenever the characters open their mouths to speak. It’s difficult to fully lay the blame on Scorsese’s shoulders here—in many ways, the topic matter may simply be too large to do justice. Nonetheless, most of the scenes that revolve around Jesus preaching to a small village or bellowing about his status as a martyr come across as forced and unconvincing. Dafoe turns in a fiery performance, but it’s not enough to fully overcome a shaky script. Compounding the problem is Scorsese’s errant choices in casting the supporting roles. Particularly dreadful is Harvey Keitel as Judas. I suppose Scorsese felt loyalty towards Keitel, so outstanding in Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, but there isn’t a worse choice for Judas alive. Every time his New York accent spits out a biblical reference is cringeworthy.
Ah, but the visuals are a completely different ballgame. The long shots of Jesus, the camerawork, the choices of nature…all are perfect. The final 30 minutes of The Last Temptation of Christ relax and allow the atmosphere to take over, instead of attempting to jam the themes down our throats with questionable dialogue, and the film takes off like a rocket from that point on. The ending, which concerns his final temptation, is exquisitely designed and hits home furiously. It’s definitely possible that my personal religious beliefs prevented me from being deeply moved by the film (as some have been), but the finale struck a chord nonetheless.
Strangely, The Last Temptation of Christ might have worked better as a silent film. Part of why Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is so great is that the dialogue is delivered in intertitles, allowing the cast, particularly Maria Falconetti as Joan, to focus on their expressions and body language. Like the ending of Chaplin’s City Lights, words would have ruined much of The Passion of Joan of Arc. Unfortunately, they do negatively affect The Last Temptation of Christ, but the aesthetics allow it to retain a certain semblance of the power that Scorsese intended. One thing that he can’t be called is cowardly, for the film is as gutsy as anything to come out of the 80′s. It’s just not fully successful.