Seeing it here (probably for the 5th time) for the first time in the immediate wake of Scorsese’s previous oeuvre is to see the connective tissue between with the Catholic guilt that pervades so much of Scorsese’s work- here mainly in the look at the duality of man—like Keitel’s Charlie from Mean Streets, Willem Dafoe’s Christ is overcome with doubt, contradictions, temptation, sin and inner conflict. Keitel here (as Judas) even says “Every day you have a different plan”. He is a very real and complex character.
A debt surely owed to Bresson’s confessional Diary of a Country Priest (1951) more so than the bigger bloated Hollywood epics of the 1950’s and 60’s like The Robe, The Bible, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Ten Commandments
Adapted by Paul Schrader (Reformed background and a Bressonian student)
Prologue from Nikos Kazantzakis author
Shot in Morocco, small cast/budget for an epic and it shows in some scenes
It does feel a little bit overly burdened by the dense screenplay and dialogue but it is always thought-provoking and intelligent. Dialectics here—spirited argument and discussion on heavy topics with Keitel’s Judas, John the Baptist (Andre Gregory who is good here), Barbara Hershey (as Mary Magdalene) and, Dafoe as Christ, with himself in voice-over inner struggle.
Ambitious in ideas—not always matched in Scorsese’s direction which is odd- again it’s hard to know if he felt like he had to defer to the content or quiet his visual style in lieu of the weighty material (something he would not do at all in his follow-up Goodfellas in 1990). That said- there are flourishes like the impressive camera movement in on Dafoe sitting down around drawing the circle around himself in the desert—there are others like the tracking shot left to right across the frame behind Jesus with the crowd shouting at him, the continual use of overhead shots, the crucifixion is powerful filmmaking with the camera mounted to the rising cross- but at 164 minutes there are many periods of long dialogue like My Dinner with Andre (though frankly not written on that level)
Strong unique score from Peter Gabriel
Hugely controversial here as it’s not inspired by the Bible, imperfections and sin in Christ (even if it’s in a surrealism scene that is withdrawn in the climax), women at the last supper, the portrayal of sex, marriage, the presupposition of Judas’ role
The use of the same shot twice packs a formal wallop—at 124 minutes we track in on Jesus/Dafoe on the Cross— then we go into the surrealism— and at 158 minutes we come whipping back out of the dream— powerful, then we get the color rush and camera whiteout (Scorsese claims it wasn’t intentional, but it surely works) bells ending – very strong
I found both Dafoe and Keitel to give remarkable committed performances
Apparently Universal only agreed to do it if Scorsese agreed to do a more commercial film (talk about the old John Ford “one for them, one for me” thing and this was Cape Fear in 1991