“You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it on the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.”
– Martin Scorsese (voice-over), Mean Streets
At first glance, The Last Temptation of Christ seems a strange choice for the man behind films like Mean Streets, Raging Bull, and later, Goodfellas. The king of films about the not-so-grand side of the Mafia doing a so-called “blasphemous” take on the life of Jesus Christ? Improbable, yes. Inconceivable, no. Because when you take a good hard look at the Scorsese oeuvre, the framing for this work is already in place, the foundation already poured. It’s been ten years since the release of Temptation and twenty-five since Mean Streets. Perhaps in five years we’ll get another version of Jesus, but the man with that name in Temptation is a variation on a theme. And with each new iteration, the depiction of the struggle between man and God/morality gets more layered, more engrossing, and more complete.
I see a sort of holy triumvirate here, with Scorsese and the fictional Charlie of Mean Streets and Jesus. Scorsese set off to become a priest and went to seminary before he discovered that his religion lay in celluloid; Charlie spends his time in Mean Streets waging a holy battle within himself, torn between his deeply religious yearnings toward the Church and its tenets and the ways of the street, suspended somewhere between the corruption and strong-arming that he doesn’t necessarily believe in and praying on his knees for strength, for a test, which he gets in the form of the irredeemable Johnny Boy. We don’t know what choice he makes at the close of the film – will that final car crash be a wake-up call to get out of The Life, or will it drive him deeper into his uncle’s “business”?
And then there is Jesus. Temptation opens with an autobiographical written prologue from the Kazantzakis novel that states, “My principle anguish and source of all my joys and sorrows from my youth onward has been the incessant, merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh...and my soul is the arena where these two armies have clashed and met,” and the first half and last segment of the film are devoted to the portrayal of that struggle within Jesus. The conflict is apparent in all that Jesus does early on – he hears God talking to him and writhes on the ground begging him to go away; he makes crosses for the Romans to make God hate him; he has fits of self-doubt, fearing that he’ll say the wrong thing, make the wrong move, lose (if he ever had it) the ability to discern God from Satan. He fears death, claims he is nothing more than a scaredy-cat and a hypocrite and a liar. But in the end, he chooses death on the cross after a well-conceived and executed detour in which he imagines (or perhaps actually is) being tempted by Satan in angel’s clothing and succumbing to that temptation, rising above his fear and self-doubt to change from a simple “man” to the “son of Man.”
Is this where Charlie might have gone if, say, he was offered directorship of his uncle’s gang in Little Italy? Is this where Scorsese might have gone had he remained at seminary? Maybe. But that’s not the issue here – the issue is that there are many paths that Scorsese gives us to follow in his films, and the life of Jesus, fictional or otherwise, is no different than his detailed studies of the dark alleys and darker clubs of Mean Streets or the paranoid one-goes-alone mentality of Taxi Driver. Scorsese returns to these torn-between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place themes again and again, and each time refines his vision to a brilliant, ethereal point of light. Temptation edges ever closer to the source.
i would have made this longer, but prof set a size limit. then he promptly gave me a lower grade because i could have gone further, although upon questioning he admitted that i would have also been penalized had i gone long. catch-22.
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