February 27, 2003

Under The Radar

Print More

True innovation lies not in telling new stories, but in looking at the old ones with new eyes. Likewise, the biggest threat to dogmas of every type are not new ideas, but a reexamination of old ones. The truth of both statements can be found in Martin Scorcese’s monumental The Last Temptation of Christ and the public outcry against it. The film was based on the equally controversial book by Nikos Katsenzakis

Both the book and the film look at the life of Christ as it is commonly presented, examining it critically but not clinically. They remove the story from its gilded seat in history and religion and put it back in the real world. They blow the mothballs off the language and transform the archetypes back into characters. All the familiar events of the story proceed apace, but some are so changed that you might not recognize them. The sermon on the mount, for example, becomes a far less polished speech made to a handful of people, complete with hecklers. Mary, instead of a sanctified virgin, is a very worried mother. The apostles are not saints, but fishermen and shepherds who are only half-aware of the importance of their actions. After the imaginative, hallucinatory detour which forms the titular last temptation, the film ends as everyone knew it must: on the cross. By turning the story inside out, Scorcese comes to the same end, even with the same meaning. But it is a meaning which has been deepened, a redemption which has been earned.

The two supporting characters who benefit most from this method (or perhaps from the actors playing them) are Pontius Pilate (David Bowie) and Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey). Magdalene bucks Scorcese’s trend of making women into symbols and springs to life as a frustrated, scarred, compassionate woman. Pilate is neither an ineffectual puppet nor a villain. He is a competent, jaded politician who gets to explain one of the film’s central tenents: it is ideas which change the world.

Jesus (Willem Dafoe) fights his destiny throughout the film. He tells us that he is afraid of everything, that he is a coward. It is not quite the truth. Dafoe plays Jesus as a man who is utterly fearless of the outside world. Death holds no terror for him. What he is terrified of is himself — his own nature, not just as the son of god, but as god himself, humanity’s savior. In the scene where he raises Lazarus, Dafoe’s face is practically a mask of horror at his own power. He can’t deny to himself what he is, but he tries to behave in such a way that god will find him unworthy and find someone else. Finally unable to deny his fate, he fulfills it as best he can, changing his message and methods in accordance with god’s instructions. He is finally told that he must be crucified to save the world. He is. He despairs, and cries out: “My god, why have you forsaken me?” Just before he dies, he says: “it is accomplished.” Katzenzakis perceived that the gulf between those two statements was as wide as a lifetime, and created one. Jesus is tempted by Satan with the one thing he wants: a normal life. He is taken off the cross, marries, and has children. He perceives that he is literally living a lie and begs to fulfill his destiny.

If Jesus has the unenviable task of saving the world, then Judas (Harvey Keitel) has the impossible one of saving Jesus. This, by the way, is the film’s real heresy (and I think its real innovation). It makes Judas as much a hero as Jesus. No one, of course, noticed, because that would have required seeing the film. Judas is a member of a rebel group who is ordered to kill Jesus because of the latter’s collaborationist activities (as the film opens, he’s making crosses for the Romans in an effort to sin enough for God to deem him unworthy and leave him alone). Keitel plays his confrontation with Jesus perfectly: he’s the epitome of an older sibling just itching to violently correct a kid brother, but equally as committed to protecting him from everyone else. Judas is the sheepdog to Jesus in his roles as shepherd and lamb. He is the only character who interacts with Jesus as an equal. He does not dismiss him in his apparent madness nor fear him in his power. The openness of their relationship and the wonderful chemistry of the actors allow the screenwriter, Paul Schrader, to take several pivotal scenes in unexpected directions. Judas never conceals his orders from Jesus, and vice versa. So the tension between them never arises from the expectation of secrets revealed, but of how to deal with them. Judas treats each ensuing supernatural manifestation with perfect rationality, a steadying presence as Jesus wrestles with the ever-changing truth. And then Jesus asks, begs Judas to betray him. Both Keitel and Dafoe are unbelievable in this scene. Keitel should have won an Oscar for the moment when he finally breaks under the strain and turns away before willing himself not to cry. The treachery in the garden becomes instead, the paradigm of fidelity. It is the memory of that fidelity which allows Jesus to escape the devil’s trap and to remember his true purpose.

Both the tale and the film depend on Judas. Without him, the proper end cannot be reached. While Dafoe elicits great sympathy from the audience, by his character’s very nature, he cannot gain our empathy. Judas, however, can. He is the audience surrogate. He is faced with problems of faith and love with which we can identify. Judas is a conduit through which the audience is able to connect with Jesus. Judas functions as everyman, which elucidates one of the film’s buried meanings: Jesus must find the god within himself to save humanity, but it is Judas’s humanity which allows him to save god.

Archived article by Erica Stein