The Last Temptation of Christ | Critical Essay by David Thompson and Ian Christie

This literature criticism consists of approximately 14 pages of analysis & critique of The Last Temptation of Christ.
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Critical Essay by David Thompson and Ian Christie

SOURCE: "Living Cinema—The Passion of Martin Scorsese," in Scorsese on Scorsese, edited by David Thompson and Ian Christie, Faber and Faber, 1989, pp. xix-xxviii.

In the following essay—their introduction to Scorsese on Scorsese—Thompson and Christie examine Scorsese's career in relation to the themes, style, and controversy of The Last Temptation of Christ.

Two snapshots, separated by twenty years. A round-up of the New York 'Independent Cinema' by Andrew Sarris in late 1966 mentions Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising, Warhol's Life of Juanita Castro and, amid such 'underground' company, notes prophetically: 'Martin Scorsese's short films reveal a wit capable of talking features.' Flash forward to Edinburgh, January 1987: Scorsese is touring, ostensibly to promote The Color of Money, starring Paul Newman and Tom Cruise, but also to discuss his whole career. 'Has the director of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull sold out to Hollywood?' ask true believers.

On the contrary, argues Scorsese, The Color of Money rehabilitated him with the men who controlled film-making in America. Like 'Fast' Eddie in the film, he has come back from exile—from the attempt to crush his spirit that the débâcle of The Last Temptation of Christ represented—and has yet again proved himself a player, if not exactly a winner. But is he not really a sophisticated East Coast film-maker, doomed to humiliation or compromise among the fleshpots of Hollywood? Back comes the emphatic answer: 'I am an American director, which means I am a Hollywood director.'

The fascination of Scorsese's career, as well as his films, is that of a parable of cinema itself after the Golden Age. Scorsese emerged too late to belong to the great post-war European movements of Italian Neo-Realism or the French New Wave, much less the Hollywood studio system which had nurtured his home-grown heroes. But he was fortunate to find himself part of the first American generation of film-school students who were inspired equally by what they studied and by what was happening around them in the early sixties.

He witnessed American daily life etched for the first time on American screens in unsanitized, ethnically diverse images by the New American Cinema documentarists. He experienced the excitement of the European 'art cinema' explosion—Fellini, Antonioni, Visconti, Resnais, Godard, Truffaut, Bergman—as it burst on to no-nonsense American screens. And he belonged, briefly, to the resulting vanguard: to the radical Newsreel movement, and to the international independent cinema, winning a prize at one of its most eclectic festivals, Knokke. It was a baptism which now seems as remarkable as anything in the cinema's legendary past; and it left a permanent trace on his ambition.

As the example of John Cassavetes had shown him, and in particular the extraordinary impact of Shadows in 1960, film-making must be personal, and this most of all when it commands the greatest technical and industrial resources. Only with this insistence on coherent authorship will it be authentic, demanding that the film-maker test every gesture and line-reading against personal experience and emotion. Its techniques must be, above all, expressive, bending the spectator's eye and emotion to the film-maker's vision, however bizarre or removed from normal experience. And the resulting beauty will follow the Surrealist André Breton's definition: it will be convulsive, or it will not be.

But, unlike his European contemporaries—and heroes, like the Bertolucci of Before the Revolution—for him, there was also Hollywood. Not merely as a nostalgic mythology, or a source of eclectic influences, but as a living, bustling reality—the 'Mecca of cinema', as the French poet Blaise Cendrars called it. Mecca, Babylon, Burbank, the Dream Factory—whichever frame of reference, it drew the young Scorsese towards his destiny: to be a Hollywood film-maker. He would enter it through the last available apprenticeship scheme, making exploitation movies for Roger Corman, and would find in this latter-day atelier the freedom to test his radical, aesthetic ambitions against the discipline of genre imperatives and audience reaction.

And throughout the first triumphant decade of his career, spanning the seventies, he succeeded better than any other American director of his generation in combining the personal and the mythic, the visceral and the classic. The great trajectory that runs from Who's That Knocking at My Door? to Raging Bull is simultaneously a journey through the Italian-American psyche, through the founding myths of America, and through the previous forty years of cinema. The cost, in personal and professional terms, was enormous; and there were many inclined to regard Scorsese as a spent or compromised force in the aftermath of the early eighties.

But he fought back, remaining true to first principles. And now it's clear how important The Last Temptation of Christ was to that survival. Not only did the Gospel story evoke some of his most potent childhood experiences, oscillating between the magical poles of church and cinema, but it represented a challenge: to his own imagination and resource, and to the industry which wanted to tame him. The story of his long struggle to make the film is as dramatic and revealing as its eventual reception was explosive.

The controversy that raged around The Last Temptation of Christ began with the first attempts to make the film with Paramount in 1983…. But the concerted campaign to stop the film took wing again five years later, when it was being produced jointly by Universal Pictures and Cineplex Odeon. Fundamentalists were armed with two early versions of the script by Paul Schrader—obtained, Scorsese suspects, from actors who had access to copies for auditions in 1983. This screenplay was of course some way removed from the final version by Scorsese and Jay Cocks, and notorious lines such as Jesus saying to Mary Magdalene, 'God sleeps between your legs', had been taken out at an early stage. But the fundamentalists objected to the portrayal of Jesus as a weak and indecisive man, and in particular to the scene in the 'last temptation' dream sequence, in which Jesus makes love to Mary while being watched by an angel.

In January 1988, Universal, wary of the problems encountered by Paramount, had appointed Tim Penland, born-again Christian and head of a marketing company specializing in fundamentalist interests, to be a consultant on the film. But in June he resigned, complaining that Universal had reneged on their promise to screen an early cut of the film to fundamentalists by this time. Universal countered that Scorsese was simply behind schedule, and that they themselves expected to see the film in July.

By mid-July, Christian groups had decided to go to the top, and attacked Lew Wasserman, the chairman of MCA (Universal's parent company), for discrediting the Jewish faith by supporting the film. On 15 July, evangelist Bill Bright offered to reimburse the cost of the film if the studio would hand it over for destruction. Although both Scorsese and Schrader, with Universal's support, had preferred to remain silent up to this point, Scorsese now released a statement:

My film was made with deep religious feeling. I have been working on this film for fifteen years; it is more than just another film project for me. I believe it is a religious film about suffering and the struggle to find God. It was made with conviction and love and so I believe it is an affirmation of faith, not a denial. Further, I feel strongly that people everywhere will be able to identify with the human side of Jesus as well as his divine side.

Universal issued a supportive statement, to the effect that 'Universal Pictures and Cineplex Odeon Films stand behind the principle of freedom of expression and hope that the American public will give the film and the film-maker a fair chance.'

On 16 July, nearly 200 members of the Fundamentalist Baptist Tabernacle of Los Angeles, led by Reverend R. L. Hymers, picketed Universal Studios, carrying banners saying, 'Universal Are Like Judas Iscariot', 'The Greatest Story Ever Distorted', and 'Wasserman Endangers Israel', as well as staging a mock crucifixion. Protests were also made outside Wasserman's Beverly Hills home, and in the sky a plane circled trailing a banner saying, 'Wasserman fans Jewish hatred with Last Temptation.' On a wider scale, the American Family Association (who had engineered much of the campaign against the film in 1983) were contacting some 170,000 pastors throughout the USA in their bid to stop the film [from] being released.

At this stage, the planned release date was 23 September. Although considered for the opening night film of the New York Film Festival, it was now hoped that it would play somewhere else in the programme. Inevitably, comparisons were drawn with the showing in the 1985 festival of Jean-Luc Godard's Je Vous Salue, Marie (Hail, Mary), which had been the occasion of disruptive protests. Indeed, the antagonism towards Godard's film among hardline Catholics in France was one of the contributory factors in the collapse of a possible French production of The Last Temptation of Christ.

On 12 July, the same day as an early cut of Scorsese's film was shown to invited religious leaders in New York, on the West Coast Penland held a press conference with four Californian fundamentalists, attacking the film and rejecting any need actually to see it for themselves. Among the film's sympathetic viewers was Reverend William Fore of the National Council of Churches, who said on television that The Last Temptation of Christ was 'just an idea which should be debated openly'. But while the Episcopal Bishop of New York, Paul Moore, said after the screening that he saw 'nothing blasphemous about it', his counterpart in Los Angeles, Archbishop Roger M. Mahony, said that from what he understood about the film he would probably rate it as 'morally offensive' and recommend it be avoided.

On 25 July, Scorsese finally appeared on national television to say he would not make any changes to The Last Temptation of Christ, and stressed that it was a work of fiction, not a version of the Gospels. But two days later, on a discussion programme about the film, Mother Angelica, head of The Eternal Word TV Network, described it as 'the most satanic movie ever made' and declared that it 'will destroy Christianity'. In response to this Jack Valenti, president of the MPAA (the US movie ratings board), wondered how a single film could wreck someone's faith.

The controversy spread to Europe when Guglielmo Biraghi, director of the Venice Film Festival, said he would screen The Last Temptation of Christ out of competition, describing it as 'a very Catholic film'. Franco Zeffirelli, whose new film, Young Toscanini, was also to be shown in the festival, joined the campaign of many Catholics to bar the film, and was quoted as making anti-Semitic remarks, which he later denied in a full-page letter printed in Variety. In Britain, seasoned campaigner Mary Whitehouse expressed her concern to the British Board of Film Classification, threatening to invoke the law of blasphemy if necessary (she had previously brought a successful prosecution against Gay News in 1977 for publishing a poem that gave a homosexual interpretation to the crucifixion). Cardinal Basil Hume, on the advice of others, announced that the Catholic community should not see the film, because parts of it would shock and outrage believers.

Then Universal made the sudden decision to release the film on 12 August. Tom Pollock, chairman of MCA's motion picture group, issued a statement that 'the best thing that can be done for The Last Temptation of Christ is to make it available to the American people and allow them to draw their own conclusions based on fact, not fallacy.' Universal and Cineplex Odeon said they would both 'support Martin Scorsese's right to express his personal, artistic and religious visions, and the right of individuals to decide what they will see and think'. In response to this, the Reverend R. L. Hymers repeated that Universal should expect violent forms of protest if the film were to be released with the much talked-about sex scene. Further cries of damnation came from evangelists Bill Bright, Jerry Fallwell and Donald Wildman, who even called for a boycott on voting for the Democrats on the grounds that the party had connections with MCA! The US Catholic Conference further declared that its 40 million followers should not see the film. On 11 August, some 25,000 protesters marched before Universal Studios in a last vain hope of stopping the film.

With this deluge of free publicity, The Last Temptation of Christ opened on nine screens in the USA on 12 August, accompanied by strong words of support from film-makers (Clint Eastwood—'Freedom of expression is the American way') and a pledge of solidarity from the Directors' Guild of America. In New York, The Last Temptation of Christ was shown at the Cineplex Odeon Ziegfeld Theater (1,141 seats), with extra security and 100 policemen in attendance. Nearly 1,000 protesters assembled outside, the area was closed to traffic, and members of the audience had their bags searched after threats were issued to slash or spray-paint screens. Similar scenes of protest, accompanied by sell-out houses, occurred in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, Chicago, Seattle and Toronto. In three days, the film had taken $400,000. But four major circuits in the USA, amounting to some 2,000 screens, were promising not to show it. On 26 August, a screen was slashed and a print of the film stolen from the Cineplex Odeon Theater in Salt Lake City, and 1,000 people turned out in Atlanta to protest at its opening.

With the film finally released, Scorsese spoke out more in its defence, explaining how the Schrader script had been substantially altered. He emphasized again how the 'last temptation is not for Christ to have sex, but to get married, make love to his wife and have children like an ordinary man'. He also said that he had shown his film to his mother before its release, and 'she thought it was fine'.

In London, the British Board of Film Classification granted The Last Temptation of Christ an '18' certificate (adults only), quoting legal opinion that no British jury would find the film blasphemous. Mary Whitehouse, evidently aggrieved by this decision, said she would campaign for local councils to ban the film. In Venice, a local judge viewed the film before its screening on 7 September could go ahead, an event still strongly opposed by the Christian Democrat faction. Two days later it opened in London, with minor protests outside cinemas, and a ban on the poster by London Transport. Scorsese gave a press conference which was, in the main, greeted with respect.

When I read Kazantzakis's book [The Last Temptation of Christ, upon which the film is based], I didn't have the feeling that it would be deeply offensive to anyone, especially because I knew my own intent. But by 1987 I was well aware that there would be controversy on its release. One of the reasons it was made so cheaply in the end was the risk that we might not be able to release it. Among the boys who I knew when I was in the seminary, one is now the head of an order in Chicago called the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, and happens to be a great fan of Kazantzakis's book. And I know that the book is used in seminaries as a parable to make the Gospel story fresh and alive, a subject to argue about and discuss. This is how I hoped the film would be received. I must say it's the only one of my films that I like to watch.

My feeling is that if you were to take yourself to the point where there are no churches, just you alone with God, that's the plane on which I wanted to make the film. To get down to what the message of Jesus really is. Not just a plastic model on a car dashboard, but someone who gave us the most important message for us to survive as a species on Earth. In Mean Streets, the main character Charlie tries to live a Christian life; he goes to church, does confession, listens to all the philosophy within the edifice of the church. But outside in the street, life is ruled by the gun. So how does one live a good Christian life in a world of this kind? All these themes have been churning inside me for years, and have finally reached a special combination in The Last Temptation of Christ.

When I was a child, I remember the church had on display lists of films, in categories A, B and C. C meant it was condemned by the Legion of Decency—if you walked into a theatre showing that film and had a heart attack, you're in Hell! If you went to see a Max Ophuls film, you were finished. When I was about eighteen or nineteen, I saw The Seventh Seal, which was a wonderful religious experience for me. But when I wanted to see it again, it was playing with Smiles of a Summer Night—a condemned film! So I went immediately to confession, and said to my parish priest, a sweet man who's now dead, that because I was studying film at New York University I had to see Smiles of a Summer Night. I explained that I hadn't really understood the sexual aspects anyway. He replied that I could see the film for my work, but that they had to keep these things from the masses. I think there is that double standard, but I wouldn't want a twelve-year-old going to see The Last Temptation of Christ and thinking it was an accurate life of Jesus.

A black minister wrote a letter to the New York Daily News, saying he loved the film, was going to use it as a study guide in discussion groups, and that he felt most of the people talking about the film had not seen it. He said they adhered very much to the word of the Gospel, but not to the spirit. Certainly in the middle part of America a lot of people have hard lives; there's drink, drugs, prostitution, wife-beating and murder. Then some guy comes on television, and through him this sinner, so to speak, embraces Jesus. I think that's a pretty good thing if someone then decides to give life a value. And I think they have a great fear of anything that threatens their idea of Jesus, because deep down they feel very frightened they might revert to their original behaviour. So I would say to them, if they really feel they might be offended, stay away, but please allow others to see the film. Some fundamentalist ministers felt they had done themselves a disservice in the end by raising the box-office of the picture, because people who wouldn't normally go to see my films went to see this one. They polled audiences coming out of the theatre, and in the first week 85-90 per cent of them liked the film and said they would tell their friends to go and see it.

Outside the USA and Britain, The Last Temptation of Christ did not always find such an apparently reasonable response. On 28 September, the film opened in Paris to violent demonstrations—there was a riot in the foyer of the UGC Odéon, Molotov cocktails where thrown, and thirteen policemen were injured. Tear gas was sprayed at another cinema. Similar incidents were to occur in Avignon, Besançon and Marseilles. On 22 October, fire gutted the Cinéma St Michel, injuring thirteen people. This violence was condemned publicly by Jack Lang, Minister of Culture, and the Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Lustiger, but it effectively meant distribution of the film in France was rapidly curtailed.

The Last Temptation of Christ was banned in Israel—the country that had once welcomed Scorsese to use its landscapes as locations for the film—because of its being 'offensive to Christians'. The film opened in Greece (where the Orthodox Church had placed Kazantzakis's novel on its index of forbidden books in 1955), but was banned a month later. The opening in Brazil met with more violence. On the other hand, in West Germany the film was given an 'especially outstanding' category by the classification board, and it was passed in Ireland for over-eighteens, provided that no one be admitted after the film had begun, so as not to miss the opening statement that it was based on a work of fiction, and not the Gospels.

By the end of October, Universal had grossed about $8 million in the USA, and felt they were likely to make a modest profit on the film. However, fundamentalists proceeded to proclaim their victory over Scorsese and his backers, though a move to boycott sales of MCA's video release of E.T. clearly foundered completely. In May 1989, MCA announced a low-key video release of The Last Temptation of Christ, which provoked further threats of retaliation.

Controversy has flared up frequently in Scorsese's career. One instance was of his own making: in 1981 he led a campaign to awaken an uncaring industry to the problem of fading colour film, an act of aggression that led to Eastman Kodak eventually producing a more permanent film stock, as well as raising the whole question of methods of preservation. But in the same year, one John Hinckley Jr claimed that seeing Taxi Driver fifteen times had been the source of his obsession with Jodie Foster, and the inspiration behind his attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan. In the trial, the film was shown to the jury, who subsequently acquitted Hinckley on the grounds of insanity.

The extreme 'realism' that some critics had reacted against in Scorsese's films had apparently come full circle. Scorsese's answer, conscious or not, came in the supremely satirical The King of Comedy, in which the world of obsessive fans crossed over into the protected unreality of superstardom, and both were found wanting. But Scorsese's is a thoroughly modern conception of 'realism', one that combines total authenticity and expressivity. The visual and aural realization of this deeper authenticity encompasses an eclecticism that is rarely self-advertising, but applied with a singular passion. Michael Powell once said in an interview with Bertrand Tavernier, 'I am not a film director with a personal style, I am cinema.' What was true for Powell seems also to be true of Scorsese….

The life of a Scorsese protagonist is essentially expressed through emotion, be it the experience of growing up in a Mafia-dominated society (Mean Streets), the psychosis induced by urban loneliness (Taxi Driver), the despair of a man who lives only through violence (Raging Bull), or the confusion of one who feels a special calling (The Last Temptation of Christ). Frequently Scorsese deals with people in severe crisis, men and women in the grip of ambition, and his portraits of human relationships only occasionally suggest that fulfilment also brings happiness. More likely, his characters will emerge, as they say, sadder but wiser—an everyday redemption. Scorsese's own life has known its share of vicissitudes (more than one critic has sought to interpret his films through the maker's turbulent career), and the autobiographical element in the early features came back into focus when he finally realized his youthful ambition to film a life of Christ. One journalist at the London press conference for The Last Temptation of Christ was even so bold as to suggest that Scorsese himself would have been best suited to the lead role!

The narratives in Scorsese's films have rarely satisfied the Hollywood norm—a musical that was more film noir than MGM gloss, a life in boxing without a grand climactic bout—because he has held on to the inspiration of those formative years of the sixties, when dreams of a personal cinema could come true. The struggle is now with an industry wary of the large budgets and long schedules possible in the seventies. But whether it be a major, spiritually and physically demanding undertaking like shooting The Last Temptation of Christ in Morocco, or the movie-in-miniature of an Armani commercial shot in an Italian studio, everything Scorsese creates still comes from a strong sense of individual motivation. The paradoxical fusion of the entirely personal with a wide range of aesthetic references is what makes Scorsese in many ways the most daring and international of contemporary American directors. There could be no greater testament to this than The Last Temptation of Christ, with its combination of naturalistic American acting and dialogue, a European liberty in the filming style, authentic locations little changed since biblical times, and a conscious but assimilated reference to centuries of religious art—not to mention a subject which most present-day directors would fight shy of.

None of this would have ever happened, of course, without those first steps taken into the pleasure dome.

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