Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay By: Paul Schrader
Release Date: September 22nd, 1988
Run Time: 164 Minuets
Last week I took a look at “Mean Street”. A good movie that had little plot and was therefor kind of hard to talk about. If nothing else, at least I can’t say the same for this film. And if this had been just another Jesus movie, that would have brought up it’s own set of challenges. The story of Jesus is so well know that any kind of plot summery or analysis would just be a rehash of nearly every biblical conversation you’ve ever heard. But thankfully, when Scorsese choose to make his Jesus film, he didn’t look to the bible. Instead, he looked to the Fictional take given in the book “The Last Temptation of Christ”. In doing so, he made the best Jesus movie you will ever see. But I want to stress the fact that this is not a strait adaptation of the gospels. This is something stressed at the beginning of the film and it is part of what makes the film so good to begin with. I also want to ask that if you are the kind of believer who will (as many have before) get angry over that fact to either stop reading this review or to try and keep you comments civil.
For those who don’t know the story of Jesus, a short summery: Jehovah, the Judeo-Christian god, spent too much time with Zeus and pick up the bad habit of shagging the first woman he see. This woman happened to be named Marry. She ended up giving birth to Jehovah’s child and instead of paying child support he tells the kid he can inherit the kingdom of Heaven…if he dies for mankind sins…Yeah, no one elected this guy for “father of the year” for a reason. Anyways, Jesus then goes around doing miracles until his death. And now you know everything about Jesus…kinda….maybe…you really shouldn’t listen to me about this kind of thing…
The film opens with Jesus already grown and doing his work as a carpenter. Something I don’t remember for the bible is that by “ carpenter”, they meant he was making crosses the roman empire used to kill his fellow Jews. He’s also having debilitating headaches that seem to be god talking too him. From here we go on a journey with Jesus as he tries to understand what god wants from him. He is told that the Jewish god is the god of the desert, so that is where he is goes. Once he gains clarity he goes to leave, Judas comes to him. In this interpretation Judas was sent to kill him, but doesn’t as Judas has his own question about religion and gods plain. So, together they take off an for most of the movie we go through the standard Jesus narrative. Gaining his disciples turning water into wine, bringing the dead back to life and giving sight back to the blind.
So what makes this the best Jesus movie? It’s how Jesus is characterized. Movie movie play his divinity strait. He is the son of god, there for he has all the answers. Here, Jesus is scared and angry and not really all that “godly”. He’s portrayed less like the son of man and more just A man. This makes Jesus the one thing he’s never been: sympathetic. He is just as lost as most everyone on earth. He is looking to understand his place in the universe, like nearly everyone else. This creates an interesting character. And whether or not you believe in Jesus as the lord and savior of man kind, you can’t argue that he has never been a great character.
The other character who becomes more interesting by ignoring the biblical canon is Judas. One of the most interesting changes is that here he is Jesus most devout disciple. He doesn’t betray Jesus, he does as he was asked. He talks and debates with Jesus. He is Jesus’ friend. So much so that some scenes come off as homoerotic. I’m not sure if that is what the intention was, but that’s what I got out of it and I have to say: that is an interesting direction to take the characters.
The plot picks up again with Jesus’ Crucifixion. Normally that is where these movies come to an end, but here this is the beginning of the most interesting part of the film. As Jesus s hanging, dying slowly, a young child comes to him. The child tells him that he is a guardian angel, sent by god to save Jesus. He says that, like Abraham who was spared having to kill his son, God wants Jesus to live. So, for nearly the last half hour of the film we watch Jesus living the life of a normal man, getting married and having kids. That is, until his disciples come back again. They expose the fact that his “guardian angel” was actually Satan. By having Jesus die as a man instead of on the cross, that stops him from being the Messiah. Jesus then goes and begs God to take him back, witch he does. However, it is left somewhat unclear if god took him back or if his “life” was simply in his mind as he tried to escape the pain of the Crucifixion until he finally accepted his place as the sacrificial lamb.
This movie was great. Literally everything does with the characters served to make the story of Jesus interesting, something i’ve never experienced before. However, there is one negative thing I have to bring up: whitewashing. Yes, the movie was made in the 80’s, but having the entire cast be white is still something that rubbed me the wrong way and is likely to bother some others as well. And Willem Dafoe is Jesus. He did fine in the role, but who’s idea was that? Who looks at Willem Dafoe and says “this guy needs to play the savior of the human race”? It’s a casting choice that still makes me giggle. But I do want to reinforce that the actors they have all do fantastic. But, as the people they are portraying are from the middle east, it would have been great to see that represented in the cast.
Looking at Martin Scorsese as a director, there is one noticeable change in his directing here that shows growth as an artist: the music. I forgot to mention it last review, but there were a lot of odd music choices throughout “Mean Streets”. None of the songs were bad, but they never quite fit the mood. Here, not only are the songs more fitting, but they have a strong middle eastern vibe to them. Again, while it would have been great to see the middle eastern nature of the characters portrayed in the actors themselves, this was still nice to see. I’m sure it would have been an oblivious choice for most directors, so I can’t praise it too much, but I liked seeing it. And I liked seeing Scorsese better pick his music.
So if you haven’t seen this, I say give it a watch. It will show you a portrait of Christ you may not agree with but it’s one you wont forget. Like I said, this s the best Jesus movie i’ve ever seen. I hope you enjoyed my review. Join me next time as I tackle what many consider to be Scorsese’s greatest accomplishment: “Goodfellas”