Jesus in the Mean Streets

The Last Temptation of Christ

a film directed by Martin Scorsese, screenplay by Paul Schrader

Superlatively bad as Nikos Kazantzakis was in book after book, no work of his attains quite the bad eminence of The Last Temptation of Christ (1955). Secure of its position, the book seems to boast, “Bottom this, if you can!” Some have blamed the English translator (1960), who is, at the least, a coconspirator in the absurd: “Magdalene buried her head in her breast to protect it.” But P.A. Bien did not make up the “guardian angel” who takes Christ off the cross before his death—a furry big fellow who wraps the sleeping Jesus in his green wings. During the day, in the bourgeois life to which this angel leads the half-crucified Jesus, the angel turns into a “Negro boy” who serves as Jesus’ slave. It does not help Kazantzakis that he took the Negro boy from the Athanasian Life of St. Antony, the great fountain of temptation imagery, since that source is expressly racist (the negritude expressing the real nature of the “angel,” Vita Antonii, 6).

In his film of Kazantzakis’s book, Martin Scorsese keeps the (apparent) rescue from the cross, but turns the angel into a Florentine youth from a Renaissance painting, the angel of some Annunciation, with level golden eyebrows and ringleted hair. It is better to trust the visual narrative in this movie than the dialogue, since the visual scenes are so often taken from the rich iconography of Christ’s life as envisioned by artists who came to their task with skills greater than those of Kazantzakis. When Jesus bumps in slow motion through the streets of Jerusalem, carrying the crossbeam of his instrument of execution, with grotesque mockers crowding up to him, pointing and leering, Scorsese is paying an homage to Bosch’s Bearing of the Cross in Ghent, as clearly as he referred to Buster Keaton’s Cops at the beginning and end of After Hours. When Jesus is laid out dying, we see him from the soles of his feet in exactly the pose and lighting and cloths of Mantegna’s Dead Christ in Milan.

But the heaviest influence, as one would expect, is from Giotto’s Arena Chapel in Padua—which was itself the Technicolor Cinerama wraparound of its time, teeming with realistic figures from everyday life. The debt is most obvious in the Lazarus scene, where some disciples wrestle with the rock at the entrance to the tomb while others muffle their noses from the odor, and Lazarus stands still, with half-dead eyes, in the slim wrappings of a mummy. The sidesaddle ride on the donkey into Jerusalem resembles Giotto’s scene, too—but not as much as the scene of Jesus’ arrest in the garden, where Roman cressets throw light on the dark olives. Pasolini found in his Gospel According to St. Matthew that one cannot tell the story of Jesus in complete disregard of the most powerful visual narrative of it that exists.

Strangely enough, some Christians have objected to the film’s central …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.