Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #9

Re: The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

I know that your review of Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ is 7 years old, nonetheless I have one piece of what I hope is perceived as constructive criticism. This review is not a review of the film (i.e. screenplay, direction, actors portrayals, cinematography). It is, quite frankly, a review of Kazantzakis’ book. You have reviewed and critiqued the main plot points that were created by Kazantzakis almost 50 years ago. Reviewing a movie such as this is like walking a tight rope to insure that you don’t review the book. You never set foot on the tight rope, though, and instead fell to the ground, into the trap of a book review. What I was really hoping for was a film critique.

Thank you for listening. Please don’t take this personally. You seem to be an otherwise good reviewer as far as Christian Faith reviewers go.

I’ve always been amazed at how much attention my Last Temptation essay has garnered, considering I wrote it basically for myself, early in my career, as a test case of the kind of writing I wanted to do. I never thought the film and the essay would continue to attract so much attention.

FWIW, response to that essay has been more or less evenly split into the following types:

  1. Your review completely misses the point of the film. You’re totally off the mark.
  2. Your review says it perfectly. Thank you.
  3. I’ve never understood why Christians had a problem with this movie, but now it makes sense.

The first type of reaction I take to heart, because I want to try to understand any film the way its appreciators do, even if I ultimately wind up siding with the detractors. The second reaction is always nice, of course, but it’s the third that has always been the most gratifying to me, since it confirms that at least for some readers I’ve been able to make another point of view explicable to them, which is a big part of what reading and writing, as well as cinema, is all about.

Your reaction is intriguing, in part, because it doesn’t immediately seem to fit any of the types. It might turn out to be a type-1 response, but I don’t have enough information to conclude that just yet.

The hook, of course, is your distinction between reviewing a film and reviewing a book, and the barb on the hook is that I’m not sure exactly what sort of distinction you mean to draw. In a strictly literal sense, it can’t really be the case that my review is a response to the book more than the film, for the rather decisive reason that I wrote the essay without having read the book. I was thus in the (in one sense) privileged position of being able to respond to the film in itself, without bringing in comparisons or contrasts to the book.

To have read the source material is naturally a privilege of another sort — but with regard to the specific question of responding to the film qua film rather than to the book, there’s a certain clarity in being familiar only with the film and not with the book. Of course this clarity comes at the expense of being able to judge the filmmakers’ specific contributions, which would certainly be an issue for auteur criticism. But it’s no impediment at all in judging the finished work in itself.

Critically speaking, a film is the work that it is. How it has used or adapted its source material, and where it is or is not dependent on it, may have bearing on questions regarding the filmmakers’ judgment and the credit (or blame) due to them, but a brilliant plot is a brilliant plot wherever it came from, and the same goes for a problematic plot. Suppose it were discovered that Orson Welles had stolen the screenplay for Citizen Kane — whole scenes and conversations — from a twenty-year-old stage play. This discovery might considerably dent Welles’s legend and the high esteem accorded his personal achievement in the film, but it wouldn’t make the film itself any less spectacularly entertaining.

When and where the film version of Last Temptation relies on Kazantzakis, Kazantzakis becomes a collaborator in the film, and criticism of his contributions becomes as relevant as criticism of anyone else’s contributions to the film. The crucial relationship for the type of criticism I’m doing is the relationship to the Gospels and to Christian theology.

Perhaps one might argue, as you seem to, that my essay simply focuses too much on narrative, whereas cinema is a visual medium and so more attention ought to have been paid to images. While I do pay significant attention to at least one image (Jesus kissing Mary Magdalene), and have written elsewhere about others, it’s true that my essay is highly narrative-centric, but then it’s not intended as an exhaustive critical evaluation of the film as a work of cinematic art — in fact, I expressly disclaim that intention. Critics often pick out one highly relevant aspect of a film to focus on, and my essay is meant above all as a critical response to the theological and Christological implications of the film’s art — which means, above all, the art of the film’s narrative, whether at any particular point Schrader, Kazantzakis or someone else is responsible.

My whole brief is that, as presented in the film, the material itself overwhelms other cinematic considerations. A film as overwhelmingly and relentlessly misogynistic as this film is blasphemous would be unwatchable; it could only be endured. That’s how I see Last Temptation — or at least how I saw it seven years ago.

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