By John H. Foote
Released in late summer 1988 after screenings in New York and Rome caused an explosion of controversy, the film was supposed to play the Toronto International Film Festival, still known in 1988 as The Festival of Festivals. However, when word leaked out of the screenings that director Martin Scorsese had created something confounding, complex and controversial, the studio decided to rush it into release, the adage being there is no bad publicity at work. The film was explored on late night news and in prime-time Scorsese was interviewed by major news anchors. Cover stories appeared on Time Magazine and Newsweek, and everywhere you looked the film was being discussed. You cannot blame the producers for striking when the iron was hot, when the film was the talk of the business, because it never lasts long.
To be clear, I struggle mightily with religion, a very dangerous politic throughout human history. I do not, again, I DO NOT believe in one almighty God or heaven, but I do believe a man named Jesus Christ walked the earth, and though I do not believe he was the son of God, any God, he was a most extraordinary man, and I believe in his teachings. For his legacy to last more than 2,000 years is a testament to just how remarkable a man he was. He spoke of love, of being kind to one another at a time when nobody was pleasant with each other, except those in the immediate family. He spoke out against Rome, which drew the attention of the local government, and he spoke out against the elders of the Hebrew church, which earned him their wrath. In the end he was crucified, a terrible way to die, on Golgotha between two thieves, his death supported, condoned, by the Hebrew elders.
Christ has often been portrayed on film, but never like this. Cecil B. DeMille seemed to create a template for the manner in which Jesus would be portrayed on film with his silent masterpiece The King of Kings (1927). Gentle, beatific, kind, with an out of worldly presence, Jesus is not quite of this world, something that was created from film to film, no matter who was playing him. H.B. Warner was 50-years old when he portrayed Christ for DeMille and bore a striking resemblance to the paintings of the masters, though we know by now Christ was doubtfully white and blue eyed. Come on people, he was born in the Middle East! Let us at least be honest.
In the years to follow Jeffrey Hunter portrayed Jesus in a remake of The King of Kings (1961), nicknamed I was a Teenage Jesus, while Max Von Sydow took the role in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) which sadly, simply was not. Ted Neely, a very fine singer, has spent his entire career portraying Jesus in various productions of the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar and played him in the film, directed by Norman Jewison in 1973. In the beautifully made television miniseries Jesus of Nazareth (1978), British actor Robert Powell was an extraordinary Christ, intense, shining with some inner light that blazed right out of the TV screen. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli, with an all-star cast, Powell was the centerpiece of the film and gave a simply luminous performance.
Willem Dafoe is the most human of all Christs, tormented by voices telling him what he must do, building crosses for the Romans (he was after all a carpenter) and terrified of what the voices are telling him is his destiny. That Christ existed cannot be disputed, but with that, he was flesh and blood, that cannot be questioned. The son of God? Sorry, that I do not buy. This is the first time a director has attempted to deal with the flesh and the spiritual, finding the proper way to merge who and what Christ might have been with who he truly was.
As Jesus, Willem Dafoe is quite extraordinary, his wiry body and taut build making him smaller it seems, until he begins accepting who he is, and he begins to grow in stature. His eyes blaze with purpose, his courage grows, men follow him and when he speaks people stop to listen. In this dusty, dirty, often violent world, Christ must have seemed very strange indeed. I love that Dafoe chose to portray him as just a man, and that Scorsese built a profoundly moving film around that performance.
There was very little money to make a Biblical film, just $6,000,000, a pittance, yet the director went to Morocco and made a film masterpiece, a sparse, lean film, that is intensely personal, powerful and deeply spiritual. Scorsese had been trying to make the film for 15 years, since reading the Nikos Kazantakis novel given to him as a gift by actress Barbra Hershey, cast here as Mary Magdalene. Twice he was set to make the film, once with Robert De Niro as Jesus, which I think would have been grotesque, the second time with Aidan Quinn, the funding pulled a week before shooting was to begin. Finally given a green light, with the help of Mike Ovitz, the budget put up by Canadian arts maven Garth Drabinski, his cast and crew working for scale, Scorsese deferring his salary, they headed to Morocco to make the film.
And what a film.
Tracing the life of Christ, starting in the last year, he is making crosses for the Romans, betraying his people yet doing honest work. He makes these crosses knowing it is his people who will be tied or nailed to them. Voices torment him, headaches rack him, yet when he begins listening to the voices, the agony ceases. He gathers men around him, and they begin moving from town to town as he performs miracles that take a great deal out of him. Finally brought before Pilate (David Bowie) in a stable as he grooms a magnificent horse, he is told very calmly that he is to be crucified. Beaten in the cell, a crown of thorns cruelly forced onto his head, he carries the cross up the hill to Golgotha where nails are pounded into his flesh to hold him in place, and he is the hoisted onto the cross.
To him comes a beautiful child (an angel?) who offers him the chance to come off the cross and live the rest of his life in peace as just a man. She removes the long nails, kisses the wounds and takes him away from the hill, down to his life. He marries, his wife dies, and he marries again, fathers children as the years speed by until finally old and dying he realizes the child is not an angel at all but the devil, offering the last temptation. Crawling out of his hut, he holds his arms aloft and asks to be taken back to the cross to fulfill his destiny which is exactly where he goes, looking to the heavens before saying “It is accomplished”, and dies, ending his torment.
I first saw the film the second day it had opened at the Carlton cinema in Toronto, a long line snaked around the block, protesters angrily talking to us in line, trying to talk us out of going in. One guy was very vocal about the film being a horror show to anyone going in was near us and I asked him what he found so offensive. What scenes in particular?
“Are you kidding” he asked me surprised, “you think I have seen this piece of trash?”
“But how can you know it is a piece of trash if you have not seen it?” I asked, daring him to answer, challenging him to get more vocal. He did not, he walked towards the back of the line, pointing at us, Sherri and I, I suppose telling his cronies to stay clear of us, we were looking for an argument.
I was not. I merely wanted to know what had so upset them.
We saw the film and I emerged two and a half hours later galvanized, it was the most intense spiritual experience I had ever had in a film. Scorsese plunged his audiences back in time, viewing Christ as a man, a man of flesh and blood, not a being, not a thing. His eyes were wild, terrified of what he was hearing, but more by what they were saying, telling him what he must do and what his future would be. Yet, over time, he finds himself embracing his destiny, bit by bit, speaking, healing and finally walking up that hill to be nailed to a cross and endure the most horrific of deaths. That he does, is quite extraordinary, that sense of moving forward, always moving to that hill and what waited for him there. I suspect he always knew this was how it was to end. Can you imagine the staggering weight of that on a man’s mind?
I was convinced and remain so that Scorsese made a stunning work of art.
The fantasy sequence that so many religious groups railed against is a 20-minute sequence in which Christ comes off the cross and lives out his life, marrying, having sex (which must have driven fanatics crazier), fathering children and marrying a second time. Yet there is never any doubt by the end of the film it is a fantasy sequence!
And despite being offered life as just an ordinary man, he chooses the cross, he chooses to die. What a magnificent spiritual statement? To be offered life, a life we all take for granted and instead choose death? To fulfill the destiny!!
Dafoe is magnificent as the tortured Christ, slowly coming to terms with who he is and what he must do. After bursting into the forefront of American film in Platoon (1986), for which he was Oscar nominated, he more than proved himself as an artist with this profoundly moving performance. Very aware he was portraying a version of Jesus created by Kazantakis and Scorsese, he gave himself over to their vision and was thrilled to do so. Nothing in his being told him he was creating the definitive Jesus, who would be so arrogant to claim such?
Though Harvey Keitel never loses his Bronx accent, requiring a leap of faith from the audience, he is a compelling Judas, and Barbra Hershey is exotic and sexual as Mary Magdalene, defiant about her trade. Best of all was David Bowie as Pilate, almost matter of factly condemning Christ to death with a gentle smile and sneer. All electric energy was Michael Been as John the Baptist, wailing in the wilderness, covered in filth yet quietly thrilled when he sees Christ and baptizes him.
Scorsese’s filming of the crucifixion was profoundly powerful, realistic and intense, among the most violent depictions of the event ever put on film. In 2004, Mel Gibson surpassed the authenticity in The Passion of the Christ (2004), the foremost film about the death of Christ.
In a tribute to the director for the effort and sublime artistry he put into the film, Scorsese was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Director for the film, the lone nomination it received. Nominations should have come for Best Picture, Cinematography, Score and Editing, and I chose it as the year’s best in 1988.
I stand by that. It remains an edgy, spiky masterpiece that has the courage to challenge common, long held beliefs. Never does Scorsese scorn anyone for what they believe but instead suggests, “what if…?”
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.