“If I were fire, I would burn; if I were a woodcutter, I would strike. But I am a heart, and I love.” ― Nikos Kazantzakis / The Last Temptation Of Christ
In a humid month of August 1988, a storm of a different shape took hold on this nation with emotional tirades of self-righteous indignation for a film that precious few actually watched, much less had authority to banish from the movie screens. The spearhead of this movement was Rev Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association against Martin Scorsese and Universal Pictures. The judgement calls of obscenity, blasphemous content, and outright satanic behavior was shocking to see when juxtaposed with a film that, if anything, actually celebrates the divine complexity of a central figure which is still a hot topic of discussion with millions of people around the world.
I was privy to an actual screening of this film at the now demolished Avalon Theater here in St. Louis. Throngs of angry protesting individuals pushed leaflets and shouted to me why I must not see this film. They demanded an answer if I knew this was a fictional account of the Gospels? That if I knew this was not the Truth?! I returned their demands with the question, what is truth? And added that I am here to actually see this film and decide for myself. There were some police keeping back the protesters and the scene gave the experience a surreal “you-are-in-the-moment” feel to it all. I was later to discover that most, if not all, of the protesters did not even bother seeing the film they were vehemently against in local newscast interviews all that week. It left a sour taste in my mouth which made my resolve all the more stronger to support this film and its filmmakers to the detractors that approached me in the days following.
The lights dimmed and Peter Gabriel’s pulsing music rose to a sold out audience in the dark. The Avalon Theater was in a declining slope which was evident in the slightly fuzzy projection and the sub par sound system. However, I do applaud them for their bravery in choosing to screen this film (the only theater in St Louis to do so). As the film progressed, the minor annoyances of the theater dissipated as I watched director Martin Scorsese pour his soul onto the screen. He challenged you, cajoled you, and made you question your perceptions of all you may have been taught as a child or an adult. The astonishing decision to do away with the Kazantzakis’ poetic delivery in the novel, and replace it with street-like common language, was jarring at first. Where was the Shakespeare-like delivery that was staple in every religious themed film? Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader (such an interesting filmmaker in his own right) wanted a different feel for this film, one that spoke directly to the people and not from some lofty summit. A daring choice and it plays off beautifully upon repeated viewings. The recently departed Michael Ballhaus’ cinematography is inventive, bold, and holds true to the material as Scorsese envisioned. The scene where the followers grow in numbers is striking and brings up questions on cult-like mentalities. Working within a small budget (many of the Roman soldiers are the same small handful of stuntmen shot from different camera angles), the technical brilliance displayed is a result of a group of filmmakers lovingly devoted to their material and to an idea; to challenge thought and make one seek out their own answers. Isn’t that what great art is supposed to do?
So, that leaves the question, that was shouted to me in protest, of whether this is a true depiction of the Gospels? In actuality, the question should be, does this film instill the desire in you to seek out a truth for yourself? The answer to that lies within each of us and I can never propose to suggest otherwise. Director Scorsese spent nearly a lifetime bringing this story to the screen. His vision of man/God wrestling for the good of all mankind is arresting in its presentation. It was never meant to be the one singular Truth. The story takes the concept of the original novel to make us think and reason and most of all, feel. I can laugh at the inherent corniness of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 “The Ten Commandents” (most pointedly the line, “Moses, oh Moses, you splendid adorable fool”). I watch “The Last Temptation Of Christ” and I begin to wonder what my place is in the world, my moral center, or even how past civilizations began and evolved. It is a credit to Scorsese that he brings his personal love of cinema/history/human/religious subjects to the forefront for all to see and examine as adults. This is not pandering to one ideology or agenda. This is a subject for grown-ups to endlessly discuss.
When the film ended, an applause rose thunderously. When exiting the theater, the only evidence of the earlier protesters were discarded leaflets, some signs, and the police barricade still standing for tomorrow evening’s showing. Not one person stuck around outside to ask how the film was, or demand an explanation of why I enjoyed it. Now that would have been an interesting discussion! In the years since its release, the outraged noise has turned down into a deafening silence. Art is resilient and hopefully perhaps, many of those that protested, actually viewed the film years later and saw what the film was trying to achieve. Let it be said, anything that challenges us to question what we have been conditioned to hold dear in this world…is something to be treasured for it makes us grow as individuals. Happy Easter, Mr. Scorsese, and many thanks.
[pictured on set Willem Dafoe & Martin Scorsese (r)]
“The Last Temptation Of Christ” 1988 2hrs 44min (directed by Martin Scorsese, written by Paul Schrader, director of photography Michael Ballhaus, music by Peter Gabriel, editor Thelma Schoonmaker)