MARTIN SCORSESE FOR THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988)
The competition (Cliff: 4 for 5)
Barry Levinson for Rain Man
Charles Crichton for A Fish Called Wanda
Mike Nichols for Working Girl
Alan Parker for Mississippi Burning
These days, Martin Scorsese is the safest Oscar blue chip around. Five of his last six films have returned 42 Academy Award nominations and 14 statuettes, including five Best Director nominations and a win for The Departed. While I’ve neither exalted nor condemned these recent works, for me nothing compares to the unbounded creative force he wielded in the decade between Raging Bull and Goodfellas. However, even trusting the protean genius behind those films as well as The King of Comedy and After Hours, I approached The Last Temptation of Christ with trepidation. I am far from an observant Christian, but the film was coupled in my mind first and foremost with its polarizing theatrical release, and I had a hard time picturing Christian iconography and Scorsese’s iconoclasm mixing well. Even the movie’s title (not to mention the cover of the Criterion Collection DVD) threatened to careen either into indulgent chaos or grueling treatise. These days, how could any filmmaker strike at the central narrative of Western civilization and yield an artistic triumph?
I don’t know how Scorsese did it, but the movie I watched was among the greatest religious films and directorial achievements I have ever enjoyed. Only The Passion of Joan of Arc and The Gospel According to Matthew, the latter with many obvious points of correspondence with this film, rival the strength of its religious message. As for the directing, Scorsese surpasses everything I’ve seen thus far in the last leg of my Best Director Quest, for my money ranking among the worthiest nominations in the category. While he bore the brunt of outrage for it, Scorsese chose a narrative in which faith emerges not from divine ordinance but from a lonely, tenacious questioning. This is the kind of gospel that I can get behind—one that portrays Jesus as one who trembles both at the notion that he is the Son of God, and that he is not. Schrader’s adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel brings the hallowed traditions of the Sermon on the Mount and the resurrection back into the context of a bewildering reality, in which Jesus’ true nature is still a compelling mystery. Whether pulling his heart from his robe or summoning Lazarus from his crypt, Christ performs no miracles that defy explanation. Instead, it is the accumulating strength of his faith (even as it is tested on an increasingly biblical scale) that transforms his acts into a divine ministry.
Christ’s spiritual struggles are the motivating force behind the film’s style. Scorsese strives to craft a relatable tale: while the production design is meticulously evocative of the ancient world, Willem Dafoe et al deliver Schrader’s dialogue with plain American diction, granting the story a recognizable vernacular tone, pointedly avoiding the elevated and archaic language of the Bible and its usual adaptations. Scorsese’s lens teems with energy, ready to erupt at any moment: when Jesus, perched at the edge of a canyon, talks of God wanting to throw him over the edge, the camera suddenly whips to the left and cuts to a lurching pan over the sheer side of the cliff. Scorsese’s tricks, while inexhaustible, aren’t used haphazardly: all indicate the raging battles in Jesus’ mind. The sequence that depicts his temptation in the desert is a masterful cadenza of elemental cinema à la Méliès: practical effects erupting out of the dark sands, simple cuts serving as portals for new apparitions of the Devil. Tellingly, the Devil appears entirely through earthly manifestations mingled with voices from Christ’s life, representing the notion that he is only an embodiment of the material world, given voice through Christ’s doubts. There is no onscreen evidence of magic; he must face these figments, possibly of his own imagination, solely with the resolve he continues to fashion for himself. Everything, though, is a prelude to that titular last temptation: a staggeringly unorthodox narrative fugue that prepares him for his final leap of faith, and for once illustrated to me the magnitude of that sacrifice. Only a filmmaker as iconoclastic as Scorsese could pull off such a departure with such confidence and invested grace.
What does a director actually do? It’s a good question, considering that the Best Director category has pitted Peter Jackson against David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick against Federico Fellini, Howard Hawks against Orson Welles. Simply put, a director is supposed to imbue a film with a vision that makes it more the sum of its parts. So many parts of The Last Temptation of Christ deserve profligate awards: Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, and Andre Gregory’s performances (not to mention David Bowie as the sublimely effete Pontius Pilate), the craft of Peter Gabriel, Michael Ballhaus, Thelma Schoonmaker, and a host of others. And yet, Scorsese alone received an Academy award nomination for this monumental work. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s exceedingly rare for a director’s work to shine so brightly as to earn a sole nomination for the Best Director—only 11 times out of 426 to date. Scorsese’s accomplishment was undeniable, though, and despite the controversy surrounding the film, the Directors Branch rewarded him with only his second career nomination. It ought to be clear by now that Scorsese is the prohibitive favorite for my vote, even over Charles Crichton’s inspired comedic sensibility (standing in for his partnership with John Cleese), and certainly over Barry Levinson and Mike Nichols’ somewhat lackluster efforts. Before my final say, Scorsese must still hold off a challenge from Alan Parker’s second nomination. Parker has a tall order, though, if he wants to unseat the best work I’ve seen thus far in this project.