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Showing posts with label The Last Temptation of Christ. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Last Temptation of Christ. Show all posts

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Sometimes, I feel like a motherless child

This is a review of The Gospel According to Matthew (Il vangelo secondo Matteo) (1964)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

31 May (updated, with Scorsese's comments, 1 June)

This is a review of The Gospel According to Matthew (Il vangelo secondo Matteo) (1964)

Faces (and what – whenever we look at a face¹ – we think / imagine about that person²) are central to this film, though we start, with nothing to tell us so beyond the narrative of Matthew’s gospel, with a medium shot of the pregnant Mary, a virgin whose husband then takes an angled path off into the distance, and at a pace from the humble dwelling where we see her. The contrast is with when we see faces of the disciples, and of Jesus and others, later on :

The casting has been said to have been, in many cases, from those whose families were rooted in Sicily, but the truth of that claim matters relatively little : the actors have been chosen with care, and Pasolini has the camera gaze on the variety of faces that we see. Yet not as if they were subjects for Renaissance portraits, but as the portraits themselves – in this film, which speaks in the language of bearing, attitude, and gesture, as well as with the intensity of the repeated challenge to ‘normality’ of Jesus’ words on the lips of Enrique Irazoqui (who plays him³), the striking feature is the vividness of human expression :

Indeed, we may have the impression that Jesus’ mother Mary must have spoken, but we probably only hear her crying at the foot of the cross, for that opening interaction with Joseph was wordless, as it is when Jesus is told that his mother and brothers have come, and it is in her presence and pose that she is fluent. (For the novice, a book such as Baxendall’s Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy⁴ is an invaluable starting-point.)

By contrast with Mary, at times the film seems like a torrent of teaching from Jesus, with the familiarly gentle Sermon on the Mount (as it has come to be known) at a pace that challenges us to keep up with it, and thereby provokes us to see the innovation of this catalogue of assertions. Pasolini famously came at making this film not from the position of a believer, but supposedly having been struck by the story when he read Matthew’s gospel in a copy of the New Testament (i.e. the first gospel that he would have come to) , when waiting in his hotel for someone delayed by the attendant traffic of a Papal visit :

It is actually irrelevant how Pasolini came to the text, but crucial that he seeks to tell the gospel as it is written, and so effectively leaves us to determine – as we might with the credibility of many a film – what we believe, for, by showing it, he is really not slanting one way or the other whether this happened or who this Jesus was. (That said, IMDb makes this wayward suggestion to the contrary (as if Pasolini could / should have used the whole text) : Pasolini shows Christ as a marxist avant-la-lettre and therefore uses half of the text of Matthew.)

Saying that, his choice of music for the soundtrack is telling, because he builds on some cornerstones of Western tradition (as well as giving a spirit of otherness, in veneration, with the Gloria of the Congolese Missa Luba) with works such as Bach’s St Matthew Passion (BWV 244) and Mass in B Minor (BWV 232), in particular the Donna nobis pacem, as well as Mozart’s famous final Requiem in D Minor (K. 626) and – apparently when Jesus heals the two demon-possessed men (Matthew 8 : 28–34, but with no evil spirits entering into the pigs, perhaps for obvious practical reasons) in – Anton Webern’s Fuga (Ricercata) a 6 voci for orchestra (from Bach's Musikalisches Opfer (BWV 1079)).

Pasolini takes the grand sweep of the gospel, and gives it to us in a run-time of two hours and seventeen minutes. As observed above, when this film was clearly not attempting, ahead of its time, to be Powell in Jesus of Nazareth (from 1977), he inevitably omits things, but it is far harder than, for example, with some aspects of the relationship between Judas and Jesus in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), to say that there is a (potentially) revolutionary Jesus here – if so, the earthquake and darkening of the sun that Pasolini faithfully gives us are suddenly on a symbolic level, and represent the unstoppable force of history (as seen from the Marxist perspective)…

What, it is to be suggested, is that Pasolini makes a further gesture (to that mentioned above with The Sermon on the Mount) in the direction of challenging us with Jesus, and who he is and what he said, by making a remorseless montage : with tight editing, it has Irazoqui delivering saying hard on the heels of saying, not a few of them those that Jesus’ disciples might have called ‘a hard saying’ (John 6 : 60). Using different dress for Jesus, and immensely varying both the lighting (on Jesus and his background) and the scene, Pasolini might be hinting at the duration, over space and time, of Jesus’ ministry, as well as his claims that his kingdom is not of this world (reported in John 18 : 36), an evanescence of the world that we know in the monochrome juxtapositions of dark and light.

Sourced from Scorsese on Scorsese³ since writing the above :

[...] The biblical film that made the biggest impact on me, when I was at film school, was Pasolini's The Gospel According to St Matthew, which in Italy was just called The Gospel According to Matthew.


Pasolini's use of faces was marvellous. It reminds me of Renaissance art even though it's in black and white, and I love the music - the Missa Luba and Bach. Just compare his Christ with Jeffrey Hunter[⁵]. He doesn't act walking, he is walking; it's not self-conscious and yet it's very determined.


This European style [of early Rossellini], in its simplicity, gave me the key to be able to make
The Last Temptation of Christ. The images have to resonate and be very, very strong.


The strength of Matthew's language comes out very clearly, and it's purer because it doesn't try to make it a straight story from beginning to end. There are no transitions between scenes, characters come and disappear, then reappear in no dramatic way.


He's a very strong Christ, you're either for Him or against Him, and some of the sermons do give you the sense of being yelled at and beaten down. [...]

[p. 136]

Much of what Scorsese makes explicit in these quotations (last read in January, in the chapter on The Last Temptation of Christ) is alluded to in the response to viewing the film above (or in the notes below).

In conclusion, these are the principal way-marks from the silent opening (with Jesus yet in the womb), to the other side of death, tasking his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28 : 18–20, usually known as The Great Commission) :

* Joseph leaves the pregnant Mary and goes into town, where he encounters a group of boys, and, dreaming, sees the angel

* Later, after the unfussy visit of The Magi (alongside the spiritual Sometimes, I feel like a motherless child), the angel appears again, telling Joseph and Mary to go into Egypt

* Then, in a landscape like that of china clay mining, the angel returns, saying that the man who wanted Jesus killed is dead, and that it is safe to go back

* Roaming over the faces of the disciples

* Through to Jesus’ ministry – baptism

* Returning, again and again, to John the Baptist in prison

* The Sermon on the Mount

* The leprous man’s face is suddenly healed – the fig tree that Jesus curses is shown withering straightaway – a lead into the saying about the mustard-seed / mountain

* Crippled man also told not to tell anyone

* The demon-possessed men (Webern’s music)

* Montage of teaching

* Palm Sunday (Missa Luba)

* Before the Chief Priest in the courtyard – the mood is edgy at that hearing, and before Pilate, with the camera back and forth behind the heads

* More emotion on Judas’ sense of betrayal than that of Peter ?

* Focus on the (wordless) grief of the older Mary, falling over, being helped up - her face – leading the way to the tomb – the stone falls over and the grave-clothes are there, then the angel appears

* The angel – timeless – curls - vaguely masculine, though feminine ?

* During the blackout, our eyes and ears are on alert

* The Great Commission


¹ As we do all the time, but seldom as unfleetingly as in the fourth Godfrey Reggio / Philip Glass collaboration, Visitors (2013).

² As Kit Downes says, Cats are persons

³ According to Martin Scorsese, in Scorsese on Scorsese (one in Faber & Faber's excellent series, where directors have conversations that have been edited to be by film (or group of films)), Irazoqui was a Spanish law student (ed. Thompson, David and Christie, Ian, Faber & Faber, London, 1989, p. 136).

⁴ Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1974.

⁵ In King of Kings (1961) (briefly discussed by Scorsese, loc. cit., p. 131).

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

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)

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Time-travel and temptation

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

25 January (Burns' Night)

* Contains spoilers *

Following on from Stale old arguments about Scorsese, here is the main act...

The Dean and Chapter of Wells Cathedral may have had screenings in the nave before, but, if so, never like that of The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). For one, one's admission is not usually greeted by someone, without explanation offered, handing out what appeared to be a blank slip of paper (usually, the giving or showing is the other way around). It was later found to be a piece of folded A5, but, when asked, the giver said that it was 'an alternative view' (and appeared to be a reprint of a 2* review for the film, as if its existence proved something). For another, the quality of the projection, brought from Festival Central :

There were three introductions to the film, by The Dean, by Scorsese's editor Thelma Schoonmaker (who is also Michael Powell's widow), and (on film) from Scorsese himself for this 25th-anniversary screening, from which we gathered that he had started training for the priesthood, but had not got the necessary grades (and dyslexia was mentioned). The impact of Nikos Kazantzakis' novel on Scorsese became clear, and also the fact that the novel, and the film based on it, is not meant to be a direct Gospel-based account of Jesus' life, but a work of fiction that asks questions. We, too, were invited to ask questions.

The concern about showing a Scorsese film here might have been justified, if it had been Taxi Driver (1976), or even the very immediate Life of Belfont in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) - that would have been inappropriate (sacrilege ?), but there is no way on Earth that this film is blasphemous. It simply asks the question, based on Jesus being fully Man and fully God, what if temptation did not end with the forty days in the wilderness, but extended to the cross :

In essence, what if this Jesus of the film were tempted to believe that there is a parallel with Abraham not being required, having shown himself willing, to sacrifice Isaac, and that he, having abandoned wanting the comforts of a life with wife and children and been crucified, has done all that is needed of him, need not actually undergo death this way after all to save Man ? Scorsese imagines this temptation, which has been mentioned earlier, and shows us Satan peddle Jesus his lies that he is like Isaac, and another way has been found.

Theologically, we are thrown back on that moment on the Mount of Olives when Jesus asks Peter, James and John to mount watch and pray whilst he goes off a little way to pray alone (which happens twice in gospel accounts, but once here) : he prays that the cup that he is offered may be taken from him, if it is possible, i.e. that he need not undergo crucifixion. (He has already broken bread and shared a cup of wine with his disciples, saying that they are his body and his blood). The film shows Peter, although Peter is asleep with the other two, present the cup to Jesus for him to drink from (echoing the earlier scene, and invoking transubstantiation), which Jesus takes as his answer that there is no other way.

In the Miltonic vision of the early Books of Paradise Lost, between the Fall of Lucifer / Satan and the Fall of Man, a council in heaven has Jesus volunteer to redeem mankind from the consequences of his as-yet unperformed disobedience - being omniscient, God knows beforehand what will happen, whereas, in John's Gospel, we have 'The Word' being God and with God before the creation of the world (1 : 1), and God sending his only son to give eternal life to believers (3 : 16). Scorsese / Kazantzakis gives us a picture of a Jesus whose certainty as to his mission and messiahship is not constant, who has had Judas close to him before and in his ministry (suggesting that Judas (Harvey Keitel, with orange hair), not John, is 'the disciple whom Jesus loved' ?) and hired by the zealots to kill him, and who has asked Judas to betray him to the officers of the High Priest, which turns out to be just after that moment of prayer*.

The Jesus of this film already knows Mary Magdalene and has called his disciples before he goes into the wilderness, and, as carpenter, has provided the Romans with crosses for crucifixions - all of these things stress that this is not the exact Jesus of the Gospels, as well as the fact that Peter seems to have no very special role (unlike that of Judas), and that we are shown Mary both as an active prostitute, and as 'the woman caught in adultery', with no invitation 'to cast the first stone', because stones have already been cast. All of this alienates us from mistaking Willem Dafoe for the Biblical Jesus, as does our familiarity with the actor - he is not another Robert Powell, this is not Pasolini.

It is a subtle effect, for we have the necessary distance on Jesus come the purging of The Temple, the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, and the further defiance to how The Temple is being run with the claim to rebuild 'this temple' (traditionally, following Paul ?, taken to mean Jesus' own body) in three days. We have seen the raising of Lazarus as a real and frightening struggle with the forces of death, not a casual opening of the tomb (despite the warnings that a body has been in there three days, which becomes a stark reality in this film) and calling to Lazarus to come out.

On the Mount of Olives, then brought before Pilate (David Bowie, before whose scene there is none with Caiaphas or the like), this is a Jesus who has not found it easy to discern his mission, and whom Bowie dismisses as just another to add to the 3,000 skulls on Golgotha. There, Jesus who provided the means to crucify others (and with distorted motives), is nailed up in just the same way, but beforehand, with the way of the cross, Peter Gabriel's soundtrack breaks through into its own, evoking the hubbub, mockery and jeers that we see on the screen - it is almost deafening, and there is a long moment when time stands still and Jesus is forever carrying the cross, being jolted and mocked, and it almost does not let up until Jesus is presented with the title's last temptation.

When this Jesus believes that there is another way, filmically and theologically, several things happen at once : we know that the Gospel accounts and the Christian churches say that Jesus died on the cross, we know that this sweet girl who claims to be his guardian angel must be lying (and that this is the temptation), and we will Jesus to wake up from the deception, which means that we are asking him to die for us, to be The Crucified Saviour, we ask him to give up for us the things in life that are shown desirable to him.

How curious is that, that we should want him to defeat this temptation and die ! A Jesus who even confronts Paul (whom we saw earlier as Saul (Harry Dean Stanton), and whose account of the blinding on the road to Damascus we hear), telling him that he did not die and that Paul's and the other apostles' testimony is false - neither believes the other. If the comparison is not trite, we have a celestial Doctor Who story, certainly a dream sequence, where the deceived Doctor / dreamer cannot spot the clues that he has been tricked, that he did have to die on the cross, that he cannot have what this temptation offered him.

Inevitably, we are thrown back to the temptations manifested as cobra, lion and fire that Jesus experienced in his Richard-Long-like dust-circle in the wilderness, to the doubts and hesitations to which we elsewhere see Jesus subject. Through Scorsese's film, Kazantzakis poses to us the possibility that Jesus could have been tempted on the cross, and the moment is placed when Jesus cries out (in English) words from The Book of Isaiah, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?. Some theologies want to say that, at this moment, Jesus is cut off from contact with God, and that it is in this aweful separation that the act of saviourhood consists. This film places the moment when Jesus is most human, when he most wants and is offered what everyone else expects in life, at this time.

As a theological argument about what that postulated separation means, if one accords meaning to Jesus as fully God and Man, this would not make a film**. However, led into the place of temptation by Gabriel's sweetest music, and in purely cinematic terms, seeing Jesus live our life, meet and reject Paul, and be tempted as we are is compelling film-making. This is not blasphemy or a source of challenge to Christian believers, but a heartfelt and carefully thought-through meditation, as a film, on what can otherwise seem the sometimes tired and unconsidered question of what it cost Jesus to go to his death. At the very end, as we looked up above the screen, a faint light was on The Crucifixion, Jesus on the cross and those at the foot.

All at the Cathedral and Bath Film Festival are to be commended for their determination to show this film, despite objection

More here on what Scorsese has written about the film (in Scorsese on Scorsese)...


* The accounts about Judas throwing the thirty coins of silver back at the officers of the High Priest, The Potter's Field being bought, or of Judas hanging himself have no place here.

** Surely, at its heart is Paul's Letter to the Hebrews (4 : 15), which says For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. The protesters (Wells Journal, 23 January) assert - baselessly, as far as I can see - that the film propounds that Jesus did marry Mary Magadelene (by citing The Christ Files), and seek to disprove the claim.

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

Friday, 10 January 2014

Stale old arguments about Scorsese

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

10 January

The Times (in an article entitled Cathedral defends showing ‘debauched film of Christ’s life’) reports as follows regarding Bath Film Festival's (@BathFilm's) screening of director Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), based on the book by Nikos Kazantzakis (and with score by Peter Gabriel) :

Members of the congregation have protested that the 12th-century Gothic Cathedral is to be used for an “appalling film” that “tackles the theme of debauchery”

Are they thinking, maybe, of another Scorsese film, Taxi Driver, which certainly does 'tackle' that theme, and appals in its literal sense (from Old French appalir to turn pale) ? Have they seen it, or are they like the protesters (placards saying 'Down with this sort of thing') penned by Arthur Matthews and Graham Linehan in Father Ted, who made more popular, through interest and intrigue, a film that they had not watched, The Passion of St Tibulus from 1995 ?

The appendix of the 1996 edition of Scorsese on Scorsese* (one in a Faber & Faber series to which The Agent is addicted) is devoted to the film. Here are some quotations from a statement that Scorsese made at a press conference :

When I read Kazantzakis's book, I didn't have the feeling that it would be deeply offensive to anyone, especially because I know of my own intent.


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 argue about and discuss. This is how I hoped the film would be received.


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.

After the event, read more here about it and the film, if you wish...


* Faber & Faber, London, 1996.

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