Picks and Pans Review: The Last Temptation of Christ

updated 08/22/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/22/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In this fictional retelling of the greatest story ever told, Jesus Christ fantasizes about climbing down from the cross and rejoining the world of man as a husband and father. Religious leaders rage. The media rants. And somehow the astounding movie that Martin Scorsese has made of Nikos (Zorba the Greek) Kazantzakis' acclaimed 1955 novel is clouded by the crossfire. In 1971 there was much ado about the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar with Mary Magdalen mooning over a Jesus (she sings, "I don't know how to love him") uncertain if he wants to die to redeem mankind (he sings, "Bleed me beat me kill me take me now—before I change my mind"). Now high schools mount Superstar productions. It's doubtful that Scorsese's film, with its violent, sexual Jesus (a towering performance by Platoon's Willem Dafoe) will ever enter the mainstream. But there is much more to this fervent, questing film than a controversial fantasy sequence in which Jesus dreams of wedding and bedding Mary Magdalen, strongly played by Barbara (A World Apart) Hershey. Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader use the duality of Christ, his humanity and divinity, to explore the eternal struggle of spirit and flesh. Having shot in Morocco on a spare $6.5 million budget, Scorsese divested his film of Hollywood epic trappings. His intent is to provoke thought, not to titillate or blaspheme. Is the film perfect? Not by a long shot. In addition to its punishing near-three-hour length and abundant gore—in one scene, Jesus tears the heart from his chest—the film is marred by clashing acting styles and stilted language. Harvey Keitel's Brooklynese Judas and David Bowie's clipped Brit of a Pontius Pilate are just two that jar the ear. But if Scorsese sometimes stumbles on his unorthodox journey through the Gospels, he has nonetheless made a film of prodigious power and feeling. How many directors take on so great a challenge or meet it with such probing intelligence and passionate heart? (R)

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