Follow by e-mail

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Scorsese’s hesitation about Kazantzakis

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

8 February

This posting relates to a special screening at Wells Cathedral on 25 January

The last temptation is for Christ to get down off the cross and live the rest of His life as a normal human being
(Scorsese on Scorsese*, p. 124)

In his chapter in about The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) in this book, Scorsese talks about his collaboration with Paul Schrader, and how the latter produced a ninety-page script in four months (p. 117). Having been introduced to the original novel by Kazantzakis by Barbara Hershey and David Carradine in 1972 (p. 116), Scorsese says that this is what interested him about making a film of it :

I found the representation of Christ, stressing the human side of His nature without denying that He is God, the most accessible to me. His divine side doesn’t fully comprehend what the human side has to do; how He has to transform Himself and eventually become the sacrifice on the cross – Christ the man only learns about this a little at a time. In the whole first section of the book, He is acting purely on human emotions and human psychology, so He becomes confused and troubled. […]
(p. 116)

Talking about his own belief in relation to portraying Jesus in the film, Scorsese writes :

I believe that Jesus is fully divine, but the teaching at Catholic schools [Scorsese says that he has drifted away from the Church over the years, and is no longer a practising Catholic] placed such an emphasis on the divine side that if Jesus walked into a room, you’d know he was God because He glowed in the dark, instead of just being another person. But if He was like that, we always thought, then when the temptations came to Him, surely it was easy to resist them because He was God. He could reject the temptation of power in the desert; He could reject especially the temptation of sex; and He could undergo the suffering on the cross, because He knew what was going to happen, what death is all about.
(p. 124)

About involving Schrader by asking him to write a script, he comments :

Knowing that Paul Schrader and I have close affinities, I thought it would be interesting to see what a Calvinist approach to the book would be. It’s a very long book and I wanted a normal-length film, not a six-hour mini-series, so I thought Paul would be able to strip away all the unnecessary elements. The whole relationship between Mary Magdalene and the Apostles and how they were fighting with each other, all that was fascinating, but couldn’t be put in the film. […]
(p. 117)

Schrader and he discussed the treatment of the miracles (and the importance of the supernatural existing alongside the natural), and depicting Jesus terrified by them, not smiling (p. 118), as he gradually realizes that they lead to the cross (p. 120). For Scorsese, the key scene, when Jesus knows that He is God, is the raising of Lazarus, where Jesus is momentarily pulled into the tomb (the symbolism is clear), before leading Lazarus out (p. 143).

Scorsese acknowledges that some people have said that the book is more Kazantzakis than Jesus (p. 143), but he did go to the trouble of meeting the writer’s widow, and of exploring his life from staying in a monastery on Mount Athos to the books that he wrote in the last ten years of his life (p. 145).

Those who want to say that the film is blasphemous (see below), because it shows Jesus having sex with Mary Magdalene, seem not to bear in mind that neither Kazantzakis, nor Scorsese, is subscribing to the theory that Jesus actually did have a family with her – this is the content of the temptation, the ‘last’ of the title, that both book and film are about, but it is not saying that it happened, but what if Jesus were tempted on the cross to believe that he did not have to die there to fulfil his purpose ?

These are very different ascriptions to Kazantzakis and Scorsese, but those levelling the criticism seem slow to understand the difference. Regarding the relationship that the book puts at the centre of that last temptation, Scorsese has written :

One problem I have with the book is the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. If there had to be sexual temptation, it could be another woman; for it to be Mary seemed kind of obvious. And the fact that she became a whore specifically because he rejected her is almost as bad as the Hitchcock movie I Confess, where Montgomery Clift becomes a priest basically because he was jilted by Anne Baxter. As the young priest whom I adored when I was young said, that doesn’t happen, because you have to have a vocation otherwise you’d only last a week in the seminary ! I Confess is an interesting movie nevertheless, but I found a similar difficulty with Kazantzakis.
(p. 143)

Yet Scorsese seems not to have been put off, and writes about what he hoped for from the film :

[...] I found this an interesting idea, that the human nature of Jesus was fighting Him being God. I thought this would be great drama and force people to take Jesus seriously – at least to re-evaluate His teachings. […] So through the Kazantzakis novel I wanted to make the life of Jesus immediate and accessible to people who haven’t really thought about God in a long time. I certainly didn’t think the film would destroy the faith of those who believe strongly [Editor’s emphasis].
(p. 124)

The cynical may doubt Scorsese’s sincerity in the passages quoted above : of course, his motives and beliefs may be questioned, if one thinks that making the film is itself blasphemy. Here are two letter-writers points of comparson (they are said to have appeared in the Wells Journal on 23 January 2013 [sic]) :

One does not have to consider a crucifix immersed in a jar of urine as worthy of contemplation, despite any dubious claims to artistic merit either.
Paul Arblaster

The film’s photography and musical score are of good quality. The 1936 Olympic games stadium in Berlin was of good quality too. This is hardly the point.
Fr Ewan, Po Wo and Donna-Marie MacPherson

So Nazis, and a deliberate act of provocation, are the chosen points of reference ?


* Faber & Faber, London, 1996, p. 124.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

No comments: