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The Last Temptation of Christ (July 14/02)

Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ seems to have been made with a very specific audience in mind. To put it bluntly, this is a film directed towards people with a fair knowledge of the legend of Jesus. For those of us who know about the basic elements of the Christ story (such as myself), the film is never concerned with ensuring that we have an understanding of what's occurring. Still, in the hands of a master like Scorsese, the movie is mostly entertaining - though far too long and (not surprisingly) somewhat confusing.

As the film opens, Jesus is conflicted over the voices he appears to be hearing. Unsure if it is indeed God who is talking to him, he tries busying himself by making crosses to be used for crucifixtions. It's no use, as he finally comes to terms with the fact that he is, in fact, the messiah and has been chosen specifically by God. After a jaunt to the desert to test himself (where Satan tries to tempt him, Star Wars style, into the two of them ruling the world), he returns to town ready to lead. He picks up several disciples, most notably his friend Judas (Harvey Keitel) and prostitute Mary (Barbara Hershey). But he encounters plenty of resistence, as people are unwilling to accept his claims of being the messiah. Not surprisingly, he winds up crucified and just before he dies, he is offered a glimpse into what his life would have been like had he not sacrificed himself for God.

Truth be told, I'm not a terribly religious person. Meaning, I know next to nothing about the whole Jesus story except for a few obvious details. So, sitting down to watch The Last Temptation of Christ, I knew that there would likely be several chunks of the film that would just fly right over my head. But though I was confused by the majority of what was happening on screen, the movie does manage to entertain due to Scorsese's creative direction and an utterly amazing performance by Willem Dafoe as Christ. However, had the film not excluded those without knowledge of Christ's life, it would have been far more effective and compelling.

Having said that, there is certainly a lot to recommend about the movie. Dafoe easily gives the best performance of his career as Jesus, a man unsure of which path to take. It's not much of a shock to learn that Jesus was a highly conflicted person, initially doubting that it was indeed God speaking to him. It's not until he begins to see some tangible proof (ie the appearance of Satan disguised as fire) that he accepts his fate. And as embodied by Dafoe, Jesus becomes someone that we can relate to (well, sort of; it's impossible to completely relate to someone that has the ability to pull his own heart out of his chest) and root for. If we hadn't received concrete evidence that he was indeed the son of God, though, he would have just appeared to be another nut roaming the countryside. But his disciples see something in him (what, I'm not sure), and pledge allegiance to his cause of spreading the love. He eventually gives them a darn good reason for their devotion, when he starts performing miracles (restoring sight to blind men, turning water into wine, etc) and resurrecting the dead.

The film was shot entirely in Morocco, and it certainly looks authentic. Though the actors look far cleaner than they probably should, the movie has an air of realism about it that's absent from the majority of biblical epics. Scorsese applies his usual flair to the proceedings, but takes things over-the-top on a few occasions. Disorienting jump cuts are ever-present, particularly during the various dream sequences that play out. This makes the already-confusing film even more difficult to follow, while the lack of any kind of an introduction to the characters prevents bible newbies like myself from ever really getting into the movie. The film essentially just starts, and Jesus is already having massive God-influenced headaches (which in itself doesn't make much sense, since couldn't God find a better way to communicate rather than inflicting pain?).

The point of this rambling review is basically this: If you've got a good understanding of Christian history, you'll probably dig this flick. But if you're as in the dark as I am, you'll be able to enjoy the performances and even learn a thing or two about Jesus - but that's it. Though I was only 11 when the film first came out, I seem to recall a huge furor over the content of the movie. It doesn't say a single negative thing about Christ, so I don't understand why anyone would be offended.

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