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Shelf Life: “The Last Temptation of Christ”

Willem Dafoe in "The Last Temptation of Christ"

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Religion is something I no longer give much consideration to, but the idea of faith, and spirituality, is something still find to be profound, important, and for those who possess either (or both), valuable. That may seem contradictory, but the point is that devotion to some greater force or power, assuming that commitment is in the service of positivity, empowerment and hope, is something to be supported and celebrated, whether or not it’s something you believe in. And it’s precisely because of this odd juxtaposition of faith, hope and responsibility that I’m able to find films like Robert Duvall’s “The Apostle” so profound and moving.

Within the last few weeks, the wonderful people at Criterion released a Blu-ray for Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” not only one of the most unique religious films ever made, but certainly one of the most controversial. There are still countries in which it is banned, and there are still people who consider it to be nothing less than absolute blasphemy. But how do people consider it as a work of art? Moreover, is it possible to do so? Concurrent with Criterion’s stellar new release, this week’s “Shelf Life” looks at the film to see what resonance it has today – as an entry in Scorsese’s filmography, an examination of faith, and just as a piece of cinema.


The Facts

Released on August 12, 1988, “The Last Temptation of Christ” only came to the screen after some major shake-ups in its casting, and significant problems during its production. Scorsese first decided to undertake the project in 1983, but protests from religious groups led its then-distributor, Paramount Pictures, to bail out. In 1986, Universal Pictures picked it up, and after several roles were recast (Willem Dafoe took the place of Aidan Quinn, David Bowie replaced Sting, etc.) Scorsese was finally able to make the film, albeit with a budget of $7 million, which was literally half of what Paramount originally offered.

The film went on to earn $8.4 million during its theatrical run, and Scorsese netted a Best Director nomination for his work behind the camera. As Mary Magdalene, Barbara Hershey received a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Golden Globes, and Peter Gabriel earned a Best Original Score nomination for his work on the soundtrack. The film also maintains an 83-percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.


What Still Works

What works about “Last Temptation” is what was meant to – an in-depth, humanistic portrait of what religious devotion means, as filtered through a fictionalized version of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The film very specifically announces that its story does not come from the gospels, which should have alleviated critics’ concerns that it portrayed Jesus in a way that was unflattering or contrary to the way he was depicted (or I suppose his behavior was documented) in the Bible. All this really means is that the film gets underneath Jesus as a legendary religious figure who sacrificed himself for humankind’s sins, and show that he had the same hopes, desires and vulnerabilities that the rest of humankind does. (Although more importantly, who cares? If you know who the person is that you worship, who he or she is and what he or she stands for, then it’s irrelevant what a film or any other art form says about them.)

Narratively speaking, what the film does so wonderfully is it shows the mortal side of a man who recognizes – even if he resists – the calling of a higher power. He wants to toil in obscurity and live a normal life without incident, but the calling he receives – which admittedly could be perceived as mental illness – is something he cannot deny, and which is only exorcised when he speaks on behalf of God. The way the film portrays his sermons is utterly believable: although he speaks in recognizable parables, they don’t come out as pure, effortless poetry, but endure a birthing process that arrives at a greater truth rather than simply starting out there. And even when he speaks, he’s not entirely sure what he’s saying is right, and changes directions in his crusade several times until he realizes exactly what he has to do. There’s a remarkable humanity to his doubts and insecurities, his rage and self-acknowledgement of his other shortcomings, and it actually gives his transformation that much more power.

Cinematically, Scorsese had to make the film on a tight budget, but one never feels it. Although there are no traditional “ancient locations” as a backdrop for Jesus’ story, no colonnades or Roman ruins for him and his disciples to walk through, he creates a palpable sense of time and place, even if specific locations are treated more impressionistically than geographically. Dafoe’s performance as Jesus is revelatory: he seems so possessed of the character’s dimensions – his strengths and weaknesses – that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. And Peter Gabriel’s score rightfully introduced the entire world to the “world music” genre; his score is so captivating and evocative that it’s inextricably linked to the imagery on screen as both a seemingly accurate musical backdrop for the time and place, but also an undercurrent of almost primal feeling that embodies and articulates the feelings that are welling up in the characters.


What Doesn’t Work

It’s really subjective whether or not this works for you, but it’s completely understandable if Scorsese’s decision to allow his actors to use contemporary regional accents turns some viewers off. Keitel’s Brooklyn swagger is absolutely un-ignorable, but the other actors retain their very recognizable accents and Dafoe’s uninflected, contemporary delivery seems conspicuously at odds with what one expects from a period film, much less one that purports to be reverential about the life of Jesus Christ. Mind you, I don’t think it doesn’t work, but I understand how some might not like that choice.

Otherwise Jesus’ seeming direction changes through the film seem to make his journey slightly scattershot and unpredictable, but that also feeds directly into the idea that Jesus was allowing himself to be open and susceptible to the word of God, and therefore following whatever instruction or inspiration he received.


The Verdict

“The Last Temptation of Christ” is a beautiful film – a really powerful depiction of one man’s struggle with his faith in God. Even if you’re not a Christian or religious at all, there’s much to appreciate in its portrayal of a character who desperately wants to believe in something greater than himself, but finds himself challenged by what that faith requires him to do. Not only does it hold up, but it’s a film that everyone should see, not to refute the decades of controversy or simply celebrate its artistic merits, but because it both challenges and reassures notions of faith and devotion that, if one looks at it with the right eyes, apply to everyone, regardless of their religious disposition.

Leave your own impressions of “The Last Temptation of Christ” in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter.

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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.