Personal Jesus

On Film / Essays — May 9, 2012

The paradox of the biopic is that the need to give fictional characters the kind of messy, defining behavior that makes them ring true—makes them, in the vocabulary of development, “relatable”—is usually overlooked when an actual life is condensed into drama. Though rare exceptions exist (Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy, Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh), for the most part, historical characters arrive on-screen courtesy of back-story flashbacks, clumsily referenced motivating smoking guns, and dollops of dialogue plumped with historical context.

This truth about dramatized screen bios has, alas, generally extended to the movie life of Christ. Most film versions of the Gospels give us a connect-the-dots series of nuance-free incidents, inevitably leading to the foregone conclusion of crucifixion, resurrection, and the advent of Christianity, as if Christ’s life were a formulaic triumph over formative trauma, a road of trials leading to fame and fortune just like Johnny Cash’s or Mark Zuckerberg’s. It seems that what we know about the events of Christ’s history is far easier to depict than a believable character who embodies the enigmatic behavior, contradictory choices, and reversals of judgment also described in the Gospels.

In my youth, the idea that Jesus was supposed to mean something to me personally, to have some relevance to my everyday life, was part of my environment—impressed upon me by my parents and my compulsory religious education via Catholic “Wednesday school,” as well as by popular culture. But those lessons didn’t clue me in as to how I was supposed to draw this personal bead on him. And the movies, so useful in other respects, were no help in figuring out what personally drove Jesus to Calvary and beyond, what ground we might share, or how best to follow in his footsteps. Jeffrey Hunter’s portrayal of Christ as android in Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings, sleepwalking Messiah Max von Sydow in George Stevens’s The Greatest Story Ever Told, and Robert Powell lying down like a human doormat at the threshold of the Christian age in Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, all left me in the dark.

Because those movies were the extent of my filmic experience of the life of Christ, the last thing I expected when I saw Martin Scorsese’s 1988 adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ, a week or two into its run, was an epiphany. But Scorsese’s sublime, radically character-driven film fearlessly and organically overpowered my lifelong confusion about Jesus’ message and mission. Not even Pasolini’s anti-epic The Gospel According to St. Matthew imbues Jesus with the life and feeling he possesses in The Last Temptation of Christ. “Every day you have a different plan,” Harvey Keitel’s Judas tells Jesus upon hearing what their final steps together must be. “First it’s love, then it’s the ax, and now you have to die! What good could that do?” “I can’t help it,” Willem Dafoe’s Jesus replies, looking baffled. “God only talks to me a little at a time. He only tells me what I need to know.”

What Scorsese discovered via Kazantzakis and Dafoe embodies with valiant, frail honesty in the film is what’s missing in every other screen Jesus. To refuse to whitewash those changes of heart and that confusion, to gloss over the agonizing doubt accompanying them, is to retain the aspects of Christ’s character with which we can empathize.

Nowhere is that clearer than in the film’s final quarter hour, when Dafoe’s Jesus experiences a vision of a life that could be his if he doesn’t choose the path of martyrdom. I wasn’t invested in the Scriptures the way the film’s most inflexible critics were when I first saw it, but I nevertheless found the sequence magnificently blasphemous, radical, glorious, and magical. To hold it up against two of the more spiritually affecting films of my life to that point, it was as if Keir Dullea’s David Bowman, the last astronaut standing in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, had halted his transformation into a star child and gone back to the Discovery, or Sean Connery’s Zed, at the close of John Boorman’s Zardoz, had had the power to ban Beethoven from the soundtrack and abandon Charlotte Rampling and their solemn mutual lap dissolve to eternity.

In The Last Temptation, even the most otherworldly and literally miraculous moments are gracefully situated in the quotidian. This is perhaps truest during Lazarus’s rise from the dead. As the scene builds, Jesus’ anxiety about the enormity of the task before him is framed within a series of increasingly wide shots of him at the tomb in the moment before its stone is rolled back. A few shots later and Christ, seen from inside the open tomb, makes an arcane gesture, thrusting his arms out from his chest in slow motion. Only then does he call Lazarus back to the here and now, and the camera zooms in warily over Jesus’ shoulder to discover what he is increasingly sure he has accomplished. “I forget who taught Willem to do that thing with his arms,” Scorsese’s longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, told me recently. Shortly thereafter, I asked Dafoe about it. “It’s a gesture from an old kata I stole from a karate class,” he told me. “I knew that we needed some movement that had an intention to it and a feeling dealing with energy. I thought, Well, that’s a good one—nobody knows that out of context.”

Within the context of the scene, however, the gesture, given gravity by an overcranked camera and its place within an intricately constructed series of shots, is the turning point both for the task at hand—raising a dead man to life—and for Jesus’ acceptance of his divinity and his fate. “I loved that Marty incorporated that magical movement that was not purely holy,” Schoonmaker said. “The more that he feels the power working through him, the closer he is to death. The look on Willem’s face just before he raises Lazarus is about that. I don’t know how many people get it. But that’s what Marty was trying to show. And what a beautiful idea that is.”

And like all the beautiful ideas in this film, it is sympathetically photographed. It’s easy to imagine a contemporary, new millennial filmmaker seeking to inform a filmed version of the last act of Christ’s life with immediacy and intimacy by adopting a loose, long-take, handheld camera style. But Scorsese and his cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus, didn’t conjure facile movie realism by relying on a faux-documentary look. The assured, often sudden push-ins, zooms, dolly moves, and economically elaborate camera coverage, found throughout Scorsese’s films, take on a particular emotional eloquence and subtlety when applied to the gospel.

“I felt like one of my acting partners was Michael Ballhaus,” Dafoe remembered. “The scene where I’m walking along a lake and I’m attacked? I have a vision and it ends up that I’m hearing voices steps behind me? That’s not done with any wizardry. It’s been worked out that I take three steps forward and the camera passes me and goes to another angle, and once it arrives at a spot I turn back and then walk back two steps, the camera swings right . . . I danced with the camera a lot in that movie.”

“He wants to push me over!” Jesus tells Barry Miller’s Jeroboam, speaking of God, as they sit together on the edge of a cliff later in the film. The stage direction from Paul Schrader’s 1983 script draft describes the camera beat that follows: “Jesus’ hand sweeps out. We follow.” As the film was staged, performed, shot, and edited in 1988, the camera whip-pans with Dafoe’s extending arm, then match-cuts to a different vertigo-inducing right-to-left pan across the cliff edge. Every time I see The Last Temptation of Christ, I experience that moment as as simple and stunning as anything I can recall from the movies. It’s just one of many small cinematic epiphanies contributing to a film that, though now nearly a quarter century old, still plays like it was made last week, and succeeds in breathing life into this most enigmatic of biopic subjects.