For Martin Scorsese, cinema and the church were always connected.
The link goes back to when, as an 11-year-old altar boy, he was taken to see 1953 biblical epic The Robe, where he marvelled at “the magic” of the CinemaScope screen and the way the stereophonic sound seemed to echo the Gregorian Chant for the Mass Of The Dead. “The whole film became a holy experience,” he said.
Thirty years on, he cemented the cinema/spirituality link when, after two decades of taking Catholic angst to street movies, he began in earnest to try and adapt Greek thinker Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel about Jesus Christ’s crises of torn identity.
Scorsese was always going to understand the push-pull of the earthly and the divine. But you couldn’t have told that to religious groups at the time, whose un-Christian quickness to judge extended to lobbing firebombs into cinemas.
His critics numbered director Franco Zeffirelli, who damned Temptation sight unseen as “truly horrible and completely deranged”, a rum claim coming from the man who made wartime whimsy Tea With Mussolini.
Not since Monty Python and the cheesemakers had a religious film caused such a kerfuffle. The outrage still astonishes because Scorsese’s film is so sober, sincere and – in its opening on-screen admission – honest about its speculative qualities.
After all, Scorsese recognised the need to appease doubters. Barbara Hershey gave him Kazantzakis’ book in 1972, while they were making Boxcar Bertha. He planned to adapt it with Paramount in 1983 for $12-16m, until the project fell to fierce protest campaigns.
But Scorsese stuck to his passion during the ‘difficult’ years between The King Of Comedy’s flop and the career revival of GoodFellas, eventually drawing Universal’s backing when After Hours and The Color Of Money scored him small successes.
True, the budget was halved. Time delays cost him both key locations and his star, Aidan Quinn. But the losses focus the film’s game: the lavish excesses of most religious epics give way to an up-close character study.
And losing Quinn meant that Scorsese found the man to carry that in Willem Dafoe, who exudes the quiet authority and contained volatility required to crack open Christ’s contradictions.
Scorsese’s approach gives us plenty of those. This Jesus is lashed with self-induced scars on the outside and, for helping to crucify a Jew, guilt inside. He’s haunted, not elevated by his identity (“All my life I’ve been followed...”). He preaches forgiveness but wants to kill the men who stone Mary Magdalene; he’s gentle but radical.
“Every day you have a different plan,” sighs Harvey Keitel’s exasperated Judas, not unreasonably: “First it’s love, then it’s the axe.” Temptationdoesn’t flinch from violence, including stabbings, stonings and, Tarantino-style, a man losing his ear.
Yet Scorsese emphasises the meditative over, say, the medieval-on-your-ass assault of Mel Gibson’s more problematic (but, worryingly, less controversial) The Passion Of The Christ.
With judicious amounts of blood served, Christ’s pains gain a physical immediacy that moves rather than bludgeons. Moulding his voice to the narrative’s demands, Scorsese never relies on the “Scorsese-esque”.
Kinetic editing is clipped in favour of episodic plotting, which plods as Christ performs miracles but sticks to a stringent, character-based path. Flourishes include talking flames and bleeding apples, but Scorsese spurns what he called the “pageantry” of biblical epics in favour of a more thoughtful, sensitive sparseness.
If our faith sometimes drops, it’s because Temptation looks better than it sounds. Paul Schrader had his own struggles with Calvinism to draw on, but his script often confuses stodgy for simple.
Peter Gabriel’s score is also a mixed blessing: sometimes sublime, sometimes overwrought, it features one burst of fist-pumping bluster that makes you wonder – perhaps sacrilegiously – if you’re watching The Breakfast Club in Bible drag.
The bigger controversy surrounding the film involved a scene where Christ imagines living as a man and gets sexy with Hershey’s Mary Magdalene. But the controversy was cooked-up: the sequence is clearly framed as a hallucinatory ‘last temptation’ by a disguised Satan, which critics might have realised had they watched the film or noted its title.
More genuine problems include crude treatment of women – whores, mothers – though Hershey’s intensity burns through such gender clichés. Scorsese’s understanding of the bonds between men, meanwhile, lends resonance to Jesus’ relationship with Judas, which gets a persuasive twist: Keitel’s Judas betrays Jesus on the latter’s instigation, in order that Christ might fulfil his martyrdom.
Even for non-believers, the result fulfils Scorsese’s aim to create “great drama” that would “force people to take Jesus seriously”, largely because its questioning spirit makes faith seem alive rather than dryly assumed.
Despite a climax of ecstatic emotional power, atheists may not emerge believing in God. But Scorsese’s sincerity offers filmmaking to believe in.